Shin Bet chief implores ministers not to renew coronavirus surveillance

In leaked recordings, Netanyahu heard insisting to Nadav Argaman that the controversial program is needed to contain the virus

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat hold consultations on February 24, 2020. (Government Press Office)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat hold consultations on February 24, 2020. (Government Press Office)

The head of the Shin Bet security agency has opposed renewing and anchoring in law a controversial program that would allow the service to use sensitive personal data to track coronavirus carriers, according to leaks from the high-level cabinet forum dealing with the pandemic response.

As virus cases swell, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing for the reactivation of the shadowy program — employing procedures that are usually reserved for counterterrorism operations — over the objections of Nadav Argaman, recordings aired by Channel 12 Sunday showed.

Earlier this month, the Shin Bet program that used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them ended, nearly three months after it began.

The program had been subject to Knesset oversight but the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools, instead of a temporary emergency regulation.

Jerusalemites wearing face masks for fear of coronavirus walk on June 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ministers decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate. That decision came after Shin Bet chief Argaman reportedly expressed discomfort at continuing the effort, and as virus cases dropped considerably.

The government has since been looking for an alternative method that would be as capable at identifying potential carriers as the Shin Bet’s powerful digital tracking tools, but under the management of a civilian office, rather than a secret service.

But as the virus cases began to surge again this month, Israeli leaders began reconsidering their position.

“What I am asking is that the Shin Bet not be included in legislation,” Argaman could be heard saying during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet. “What is needed is training that the Shin Bet is willing to provide as a solution, in the event there is an outbreak… and to work tightly, and I mean tightly, with the project that can manage it, so there can be a civilian response for the State of Israel in the coming years.”

He said the civilian alternative could easily retrace the steps of several hundred patients a day to inform those around them of possible exposure to the virus.

Inspectors talk to a man not wearing a face mask in the northern city of Safed on June 15, 2020. (David Cohen/ Flash90)

“In the event there are very widespread infections and there will be no other solution, it would be the right move to send it to the [Shin Bet] service. I am asking very, very, very much not to start legislating the Shin Bet at this stage,” Argaman implored the ministers.

The television report said Argaman described the program’s functions when applied to counter-terrorism operations in his arguments against the legislation of the tool, details of which remain barred from publication under the Israeli military censorship rules.

The television report said Netanyahu banged his fists on the table and insisted the surveillance must be renewed.

“The ships are coming at us, one at a time, and we are refusing to believe it. And they say nothing will happen. Our responsibility is to stop this pandemic. The pandemic is coming back! Back! Now the question is, how much are we willing to do because of this thing [the virus], which is very quickly coming at us,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) attends a ceremony welcoming the new Health Ministry director general, in Jerusalem on June 18, 2020. (Health Ministry)

“There is no such thing as having infections that do not affect [the economy]. Urban legend. There are very serious people at this table, professionals who believe this. They are misleading the public. If we allow this to spread, you do the math. It won’t take very long. Within 30 days, 40 days, 60 days, 80 days. It doesn’t matter. The moment it starts racing, it races.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday night backed renewing the Shin Bet program via Knesset legislation.

“We are experiencing critical days, the tracking legislation is very important,” said Edelstein, adding that “it is preferable that the information remain in the hands of the Shin Bet rather than a private company, who only the devil knows what its interests are.”

The coronavirus cabinet will convene again on Monday to discuss reviving the surveillance.

During that meeting, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will update ministers on civilian alternatives to track virus carriers, according to the Walla news site.

A source in the Prime Minister’s Office told Haaretz on Saturday that “if illness rates continue to rise, the premier will ask to reevaluate the use of digital means.” The report came after Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, called earlier in the day for the swift passage of a law authorizing the tracking program.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in the city of Bnei Brak on June 16, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel has seen the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to climb by nearly 300 a day, leading the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

Diagnoses had been brought down to some 20 cases a day in May following two months of strict restrictions that shuttered business and schools and kept many from being able to travel more than a few hundred feet from home.

Netanyahu earlier on Sunday warned that Israel could be thrust into a new coronavirus lockdown, citing “grave predictions,” a day after a leaked report from a military task force predicted thousands of new cases and hundreds of deaths if authorities do not take immediate steps to slow the spread of the virus.

“If we don’t change our behavior on wearing masks and keeping distance, we will bring reimposed lockdowns on ourselves,” Netanyahu said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“All the predictions I have been shown are grave. We must flatten the curve now,” he said.

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