media and society

Media Strategies of Intelligence Services in Israel – State Security vs. the Right to Know

Freedom of press is a valuable commodity in western societies. People want to know what is going on around them and want to have free access to information. Yet, when it comes to intelligence related issues, national and international intelligence agencies claim that a censorship of information is vital for the sake of state security.

Cases, in which leaking of classified information occured, became major issues and entailed public outcries for more transparency. The people responsible for the leaking of information usually get into serious trouble, like the case of Edward Snowden[1] shows:

Edward Snowden, a former employee of the National Security Agency of the United States leaked to a journalist of The Guardian some of the top secret surveillance programs of the U.S. government for gathering private information through Social Media channels. His leaks were published by The Guardian[2] and kindled a major public debate about state security agencies and data privacy protection. A criminal complaint was filed against him in the U.S. by federal prosecutors and he sought and was granted asylum in Russia for security reasons.

Justified by the „endangerment of state security“ the punishment towards people who leak classified information is generally of great severity, and with the same reason the quite questionable practices of intelligence services in gathering private information or withholding information from the public are justified. The therefore special relationship between intelligence agencies and the public media, whose aim it is to reveal and expose events to the public, as well as particular media strategies of intelligence services, Clila Magen has examined in the case of Israel in a very interesting study.[3]

As a main strategy of the Mossad as well as Israel’s ISA toward the media, the method of ambiguity was applied, and became an integral part of their communication culture over time.[4] To not make a particular statement about an intelligence-related event, to neither admit nor deny participation in an event and cover it with silence, served and still serves as the best method for secretive organizations to maintain their image of inscrutability – it is „apparent in many past and recent events attributed to the Mossad.“[5] Despite the silence and vagueness about security-related situations, connections to the media were present and meetings took place. Yet, these off-the-record briefings with directors were hidden and concealed from the public.[6]

Another strategy according to Magen is the complete withholding of information, and even distortion of facts through denials and cover-ups, when it comes to questionable and even un-ethical practices of the Israeli intelligence services. It is enacted by gag-orders and censorships justified by security reasons and can be viewed as an „agenda-silencing“ in contrast to the agenda-setting theory[7] and serves as an example of how media agents are subject to tacit power struggles: There is a „clear superiority [of intelligence services] in managing or manipulating information, with only limited methods available to journalists and the public to cross-check the official version of events and circumstances.“ [8] It goes hand-in-hand with another strategy applied, the exploitation of patriotism and the demand to not inform the public for the sake of national security[9]. It challenges the role of the supposedly independent reporter, who suddenly becomes an instrument of the intelligence agencies. The agencies play on the role of the reporter as a citizen, who should not endanger the security of his own country.

A fourth strategy is psychological warfare and is applied through deliberate leaks and disinformation in order to deter possible terrorists and hostile actors. Some of the clandestine activities are deliberately released in order to target potential terrorists. Intelligence services in Israel hope that they would reconsider their involvement in terror activities when learning about these secret operations, in the face of risks and consequences they would possibly have to face.[10]

The media strategies that Magen described evolve from the permanent clash of interests between the public’s right to know and the vital interest of intelligence agencies to keep the code of secrecy. These are two fundamental values that contradict each other and in whose field of tension journalists find themselves. There is not much possibility that this dilemma will ever be resolved completely, yet the relationship can become more healthy: Through a stricter legislation on the methods of oversight on intelligence services the temptation to abuse power under the veil of secrecy can be reduced. Through enforcing journalism standards the cultural and social norms of freedom of the press in Israel can be defined more clearly. And although secret services will always withhold information about the success or failure as well as the specific details of their operations, the public pressure to proof for justification of their activities is becoming stronger. When they recognize and internalize this public demand and react to it accordingly, more trust towards them can be developed and the society will live in a healthier relationship towards clandestine services.[11]



Herfroy-Mischler, Alexandra (2015): Silencing the agenda? Journalism practices and intelligence events: A case study. In: Media, Wars & Conflict, 2015: 8(2), p. 244-263.

Magen, Clila (2014): Media Strategies and Manipulations of Intelligence Services: The Case of Israel. In: The International Journal of Press/Politics, 2014: 20(2), p. 1-19.

Newton, Lee (2013): Facebook Nation: Total Information Awareness. New York: Springer.


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[1] see Newton (2013) p. 9 et seq.


[3] see Magen (2014)

[4] see Magen (2014) p. 5

[5] see Magen (2014) p. 6

[6] see Magen (2014) p. 6

[7] see Herfroy-Mischler (2015) p. 251

[8] see Magen (2014) p. 8

[9] see Magen (2014) p. 9

[10] see Magen (2014) p. 10

[11] see Magen (2014) p. 14