PM’s phone tapping request said part of effort to stop leaks in secret project

After allegations Netanyahu requested surveillance of head of Mossad, IDF, report says he did not specifically target the two, but wanted greater oversight of all involved

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo during a farewell ceremony in Tel Aviv on January 5, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo during a farewell ceremony in Tel Aviv on January 5, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked the head of the Shin Bet security service to step up oversight over a group of several hundred people privy to details on a top secret plan and did not specifically single out the heads of the Mossad and the IDF for surveillance, a TV report said Friday.

However, the report on Hadashot news noted that both then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Mossad head Tamir Pardo were among this group. Netanyahu reportedly made the request fearing leaks from the sensitive project.

According to the report, Netanyahu asked Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen to step up surveillance of those involved, including wire tapping. Cohen reportedly told Netanyahu that he shared his concerns, but refused to tap the phones of senior Mossad and IDF officials.

Cohen reportedly suggested that Netanyahu hand the oversight task to the Malmab unit in the Defense Ministry, which is responsible for information security in the ministry.

The Hadashot news details follow allegations made Thursday in a TV news program that Netanyahu asked the Shin Bet head to tap the phones of the heads of the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces in 2011.

This, the report said, explained a cryptic statement from Cohen, who released a rare official statement on Friday saying that he not been asked to “specifically” tap Gantz and Pardo.

“I usually don’t address in the media the professional discourse that takes place between the prime minister and the head of the Shin Bet,” Cohen said in a statement.

“However, the reports in the media about instructions the prime minister supposedly gave to me when I was serving as Shin Bet head — to specifically listen to the phones of Chief of Staff  Gantz and Mossad head Pardo — are not correct,” he said.

Earlier,  a Channel 10 news report quoted Cohen as telling confidants that he was “surprised” by the report and called it “nonsense.”

On Thursday night, the “Uvda” — or “Fact” — investigative television program ran a bombshell interview with Pardo focusing on his work as the head of the Mossad beginning in 2011 when Israel was seriously considering carrying out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

During the interview, Uvda host Ilana Dayan, citing sources familiar with the affair, alleged that Netanyahu had asked Cohen to tap the phones of Gantz and Pardo as a “preventive measure” out of unsubstantiated concerns that they might be leaking state secrets.

On Friday, Netanyahu flatly denied the report.

Israeli singer Arik Einstein. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

In an early morning tweet, Netanyahu wrote: “I never asked to listen to the chief of staff and the head of the Mossad. This is a total lie. There is no limit to the lies!”

Netanyahu said later that what he “really” listens to is Israeli music by the “The High Windows, The Yarkon Bridge Trio, Arik Einstein,” as well as “The Beatles — the first albums — Abba and also people from today.”

The report claimed Netanyahu asked Cohen to use his security service’s “special capabilities” to monitor the communications of a number of senior defense officials, including Gantz and Pardo.

According to the Uvda report, Cohen refused the prime minister’s request that he listen in on his colleagues’ phone calls, purportedly telling Netanyahu that “the Shin Bet is not supposed to use such drastic measures against the people leading the military and the Mossad.”

The report sent shock waves throughout Israel, with members of the opposition calling for a Knesset hearing on the issue.

The current heads of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo (right) and the Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
Tamir Pardo (right) with Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen in an undated photo. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“Information like this ought to have been presented in real time [in 2011] to the Intelligence Subcommittee” of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Labor MK Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition, told the Walla news site.

In the interview, Pardo said he did not know about the alleged request but was shocked by the allegation.

“I don’t want to believe that in the State of Israel, which is a democratic country, the prime minister would ask the head of the Shin Bet to listen in on the chief of staff or myself. If [Netanyahu] didn’t believe in us, he could have ended our tenures within 10 minutes,” Pardo said.

The former spymaster said Netanyahu’s purported request showed a “lack of faith.”

Former Mossad director Tamir Pardo participates in the Meir Dagan Conference for Strategy and Defense, at the Netanya College, on March 21, 2018. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

Pardo added that, had he known the prime minister had made the request at the time, “I would have had to stand up, walk out, and say, ‘This isn’t how I play.'”

The former Mossad chief said if he were head of the Shin Bet and had received such a request, he would have told the prime minister to “Go to hell,” which he said he believes “is what [Cohen] did.”

The report included a statement by Netanyahu’s office saying the allegation was “totally unfounded,” but the statement also appeared to acknowledge that at least some aspects of it were true.

“The claim that the prime minister asked the head of the Shin Bet to listen in on the chief of staff and head of the Mossad is totally unfounded. It is a total distortion of the system-wide efforts that are occasionally undertaken in order to protect sensitive information of the utmost importance to the security of Israel,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

“The decision about which measures to use — and against which individuals — is left up to the authorized officials,” Netanyahu’s office said.

Pardo’s term as chief of the Mossad ended in 2016, and Gantz’s tenure as IDF chief of staff ended in early 2015. He was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

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