Newly declassified documents from the hearings of the Agranat Commission, which was formed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War to investigate Israel's lack of preparedness, were released on Wednesday, and show that it was then-Military Intelligence Director Eli Zeira who asked that Israel's sophisticated "special means," meant to provide Israel with early warning of any attack, remained switched off.
The documents show that Menachem Digli, then head of the Intelligence Corps Collection Department, repeatedly asked Zeira to approve the activation of the devices, only to be rebuffed each time. The exact nature and operating methods of the so-called "special means" (most likely listening devices developed by Israel's signal intelligence unit 8200) remain classified.
"All through the week leading up to the war ... I kept pressuring him to activate them," Digli told the commission. "There was mounting pressure to turn them on, but the answer was 'no.' This was on Oct. 2 [four days before the war].
"We knew Egypt was holding a massive military exercise, and we knew that the Syrian order of battle was at its highest since the Six-Day War; when I saw camouflage nets being removed [from tanks] I pressed the intercom and asked that the director of military intelligence open the [devices] because that may be related. His answer was to keep them off."
Digli testified that he had approached Zeira two or three times a day "from Sunday to Thursday," but only when he called him on Friday night (one day before the war) was he was given the go-ahead. "I had not the slightest doubt that turning them on was the right thing to do ... not because we were of the belief that war would break out, and not because we were all so smart, but if the intelligence analysts said that the Syrian order of battle was the largest since the Six-Day War ..."
He later faulted Zeira, saying, "Those who refused to turn them on ... were of the belief that things were not as bad as they were in May 1973 [when many in military intelligence thought war was likely]."
Then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told the commission that he had been absolutely certain that the special means had been activated. "This is the first time that I hear Digli say that the [devices] were not activated before the night between Oct. 5 and Oct. 6," Dayan said. He also said his assessment that Egypt could not plan a war without Israel knowing about it was "based, to a large extent, on the premise that the special devices had been activated."
Having heard Digli's testimony and Dayan's surprising comments, Zeira was asked again why he did not order the activation of the special means, to which he responded: "My criterion for turning them on was a situation of uncertainty."
According to Zeira, only twice before the war did he feel the situation to be that way, between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, after being privy to a specific piece of intelligence, and between Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, when he learned that Soviet advisers were leaving Egypt.
"In between those two periods I had no doubt about what was happening: [Egypt's maneuvers] looked like a military exercise," Zeira said. He explained that he was consistently against turning on the special devices because this entailed risks and he, as a commander, could not justify taking such measures. He stressed that when he finally heeded Digli's request, "the devices did not provide any indication on a looming war until it actually started on Saturday."
Asked why the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of general staff were kept in the dark on the state of the devices, Zeira answered: "I have a duty to report only to the chief of general staff [at the time David Elazar]; whether the prime minister or the defense minister know or don't know something was beyond the scope of my responsibility and authority."
Agranat Commission member Moshe Landau confronted Zeira with Dayan's testimony that Zeira, asked by Dayan about the special devices, had answered that "there is absolutely no chatter." Zeira's response remains classified. Zeira was then asked again if Dayan could have understood from his response that the devices had been activated, to which Zeira responded: "When he asked me, I answered; I did not refer to [the special devices]." Zeira was asked whether he should have clarified that these devices were not active at all. His answer was redacted, except for a section that says: "We would never discuss such particulars."
Zeira confirmed that he had rebuffed Digli's requests to activate the special means. When he was asked why he did not inform or consult with Elazar, he responded: "I usually don't pass the buck to the higher echelons." Committee member Yitzhak Ernst Nebenzahl was immediately jolted by this response, saying: "What is all this passing-the-buck stuff. This is not sport; this is a matter of life and death."
One of the still ongoing issues of the war involves then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan, who was allegedly working for Israel and who reportedly alerted the Mossad about Egypt's plans to start a war. Zeira told the panel that Marwan had turned out to be a double agent, while then-Mossad head Zvi Zamir (whose testimony was also released on Wednesday) said Marwan was a reliable intelligence asset.
Speaking of Marwan's intelligence dispatches, Zeira told the commission that "when I received the last piece of intelligence at 4 a.m. Saturday morning, I immediately called the defense minister, the chief of general staff and the deputy chief of general staff. ... My opinion was that this was to be considered highly valuable intelligence even though the agent involved was known for sending false alarms on impending wars that would never materialize."