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Chief Intelligence Officer Admits: We Don't Know Everything

Israel, Ma'ariv

By Amir Rapaport

The greater the challenge, the greater  the opportunity... 


Translated by Viktoria Lymar

Edited by Steven Stenzler


23 March 2013



Brigadier General Ariel Karo who retired this week, believes that technology is the great advantage of the military – however, it is also its weak point, and reveals close work with the Mossad and Shin Bet. A special interview with Ma'ariv.

The last week of Brigadier General Ariel Karo, in the position of the Chief Intelligence Officer, is characteristic of the recent period. Over the past week, Israeli intelligence was busy preparing instructive presentations with classified details on the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, according to the Israeli perception (it should be noted that there are no significant differences between the estimates of the Israeli intelligence regarding the pace of progress of the project, and the approach of the U.S. intelligence services; the differences are only in the interpretation as to the deadline when the project can be stopped, – the "red line," according to Obama's and Netanyahu's declarations).

In addition, the intelligence was dealing with a wave (a relatively small one) of terrorist attacks in the West Bank [Judea and Samaria], according to assessments – designed to heat up the ground in advance of the presidential visit. In parallel, the intelligence was required to furnish estimates with respect to the moves of the Palestinian Authority in meetings with the American President. 

In between, there arose the nagging question of whether Syria was using chemical weapons. Israel had an interest in fanning the reports that there indeed had been a use of such weapons, although it's still unclear whether this is about chemical weapons for real, "nerve gas" for that matter, or only tear gas. And then, on Thursday morning, the rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at [Israeli border city] Sderot, and this front awoke from its slumber, too.

"We need to provide intel within a constantly changing reality," comments Brig. Gen. Ariel Karo in a special interview to [Ma'ariv in-depth political analysis and commentary weekend supplement] Musafshabat on the eve of his retirement from the role. "When we say, for instance, that the Golan Heights is becoming a frontier region – that is, an uncontrollable area – this has huge significance in terms of intelligence and in terms of Israel." Karo addresses the fact that behind the border fence, there are based opposition forces affiliated with the global jihad. Distances are getting shorter. […]


A New Type of Challenge


Ariel Karo, who returned this week to civilian life at age 48, has experienced throughout his career the upheavals the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] went through – from an army based mainly on tanks, to an army that needs to train for countless combat scenarios – like today. 

Karo began his career in Armored Corps but transitioned to Intelligence after crushing his leg in training, and insisted on staying in the army despite the injury. He was an intelligence officer in all [military] sectors and a research officer in the research division of the Military Intelligence Directorate [Aman], and also headed the extraordinary Department for Campaign Design in the operational branch [Operations Directorate] within the General Staff during the second Lebanon War. This department was abolished after the war, following changes in military fashion. As Chief Intelligence Officer, Karo served as the head of the Intelligence Corps under the Directorate of Military Intelligence. He was not in charge of the National Intelligence Assessment (the role of Aman director) and focused on building the intelligence force. 

The IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate enjoys absolute priority in the allocation of resources and personnel by the General Staff. This is the only directorate whose needs are budgeted at a hundred percent. This priority is expected to grow in the coming years, in accordance with the outlook of the new Defense Minister, Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, who sees in intelligence a flexible and yielding investment in any combat scenario – on a far front against Iran and in the alleys of Gaza as well. 

Karo's tenure on the job has been featured by building new capabilities of the Intelligence Corps in urban combat environments on the ground, an intense preoccupation with a new conception for intelligence-based warfare (IBW), and the challenges of the new breed – cyber warfare, which is the responsibility of Aman's Unit 8200, and also an attempt to find quality pieces of intel in the ocean of the Internet's information.

His term began about four years ago. "My [professional] path is indeed unique since it embodies the path that I expect of those in intelligence," he says. "Intelligence Corps is very different from any other force. Conceptually, it views itself as a sort of military branch [in itself] because it is a corps characterized by a professional field of study [discipline], in which the perceptual distance is huge. In most countries in the world it is not built this way. It is true that it's built so in Israel because the compulsory [military] service enables navigation, to bring in the best of the youth and create a fusion between different disciplines. The ability to look at intelligence from end to end, analyze the challenge and then break it down just at the level of forces and missions to the total of the disciplines – this is a privilege you've got almost no place in the world." 

"When you are able to bring the best of the youth to the [conscript] service and in so doing – convince them to continue to serve [in the army], even though they have very high employment suitability – you are able to bring about unique products. My path has therefore been unfolding while the power has been in specialization in several disciplines and switching between them, and the ability to understand how you could combine them. That is truly a fusion of information. The collection technology and sources have changed dramatically, – some say you could find gold in YouTube. Whoever says that the OSINT (intelligence derived from open source information – A.R.) is 95 percent – he's not a professional. As of today, it is definitely possible to procure a great deal from the overtly available information, but we cannot build on it or on any other discipline." 

The classic mission of the intelligence is to provide a war warning, isn't it?

"In the Israeli security concept, the intelligence since 1973 made a place for itself in a very specific point – warning of a war. But the term "warning" has completely changed because there are different types of warnings, such as warnings of regime or government changes." 

"We need to also provide warning to the abrupt changes of our strategic reality that can occur, – for example, our quiet border is going to turn into a noisy area. Look at the Sinai [Peninsula] which stands in itself. That frontier region that has been created there deeply changes what the State of Israel must invest to maintain its security interest. The proof is the amount of money and manpower that should be invested over there. The same thing in the Golan Heights, too. 

"In the new reality, on the other hand, it is understood that the intelligence might allows the State of Israel and the IDF to levy a heavy toll. See the case of Ahmed al-Jabari [eliminated in his car in a targeted air strike in November 2012]. In the course of Operation Pillar of Defense, very deep damage was inflicted on Hamas' infrastructure. Not only on the Fajr missile array. All munitions applied had been [intended] against some specific component, out of a deep systemic understanding of why there and not elsewhere." 

You have also attacked the production system of unmanned aircraft in the Gaza Strip, right?

"This too  but also the array of long- and medium-range rockets, the weapons production infrastructure and the headquarters. Every munition had its address, and we had invested a supreme effort not to hurt innocent bystanders. That also required very precise intelligence." 

"Another thing that has changed in the present age is the issue of the decision," continues Karo. "To maximally optimize the IDF's power against the time of the campaign and the threat on the home front, you must act to target the maneuver and the fire capabilities of the IDF. Merely part of that was illustrated in Operation Pillar of Defense, because we didn't maneuver. We saw some part in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, and we keep evolving since so does our enemy and we need to innovate, learn and draw conclusions."

Is Iran an intelligence challenge of the order of magnitude we haven't got to know yet?

"The duty of intelligence is to dismantle very general statements into a picture as bright as possible. I argued that in all of the [military] sectors we're coping with people different from those we confronted in the past. Educated people who know how to transfer between them knowledge and equipment. For example, equipment developed in Iran will be found immediately in Syria, in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or in Hezbollah. Therefore, the intelligence task is to fathom the network between them, to pinpoint the weak points of the adversary, to indicate where his strengths lie so that we can understand where not to allow him to exercise them.
We treat with dignity everyone on the other side, invest a whole lot in the intelligence-operational discourse, and we do not get into phrases akin to 'unparalled'."

Yet the Iranian challenge is of another kind.

"This is the most profound challenge, but it also works in the first circle [of countries around Israel]. It has its arms around us and influence on terrorism abroad as well. You can see the Iranians' fingerprints everywhere, and there is a clash going on here. There is a junction against a country that is working to obtain a mass destruction capability. Iran sets in motion any radical move in the region, and it passes on the knowledge and resources between the various sectors. It is certainly a key threat with a very clear mission statement."

Why is the cyber domain different from the "ordinary" intelligence field?

"It is different because if we talk about the variability in this technological world – the pace is on an accelerated scale. And we said that we are obligated to be one step ahead of the changes here. The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity."

"It's impossible to be disconnected from technology unless you decide that you live in Tora Bora 
and even there, you need technology. From the moment you use technology, it constitutes an advantage – nonetheless, it is also your weak point. If our enemies decide that they do not use technology – we've gained. But if they decide yes – that would be a sin if we don't exploit our capabilities in this area. We utilize this dimension to the fullest because we realize that it is new, and are trying to develop capabilities that would allow an increase in Israel's relative advantage over its environment."

Are we talking a real brand new warfare dimension?

"This is an operational dimension with a potential for physical implications in the field. Everything is live there. Meaning that you'll be able to hit the enemy on the ground by pressing a key on the keyboard of the computer. Our professional duty is to utilize to the utmost the relative merits of the State of Israel and develop capabilities in these areas as well."

"Our power today is also in bringing in people autodidactic in part – and we have amazing youth. Sometimes we meet people who have more cells in their brain than we do in our whole body. Most creative ambitious people, who are aware of their value. Some of them are complex people – but what we provide is the ability to identify the potential and adjust their training in a very focused and brief way, because we are limited in the mandatory service. About fifty percent of our draftees are women whose short service requires us to lead to effective use of time. The best of them should be left in the [army] service, – although if released, they'll have an extra zero added to their salary [on the right side]. Sometimes they know how to give you the answer before you even asked the question – that is our strength."

What about their new definition as "cyber warriors"?

"They are not cyber warriors – it's a slang that has developed. A warrior is a person who operates in the face of the enemy in the face of mortal danger. Our people know that."

Does selecting recruits for cyber units have priority over combat ones, like as to flight course?

"We are given a very high priority in the IDF, but we behave responsibly. First, we'll exhaust the places where we find unique people. We are really making efforts to bring them to these places a very high priority."


Identifying Gifted Ultra-Orthodox


What about recruiting the ultra-Orthodox [haredim] to the Intelligence Corps so far? Has any lesson been learned toward the expected legislation [on the ultra-Orthodox draft]?

"My lesson is that once you show mutual tolerance and you know how to create a framework that allows to fully implement their lifestyle in a tolerant environment, you achieve a great success. We engage the ultra-Orthodox in the core professions here. In all our units, there are people from the 'Intelligence in Green' [Bina B'Yarok] army program. Part of them have no sufficient basic training – but due to our sophisticated recognition mechanism, we know how to detect them. In my eyes, this is truly a mission, because I approached it at first with a low effectiveness, but I knew I was building a bridge for a long time. I'm not trying to drive them to a bad culture as some of the rabbis think. On the other hand, [we] do not give in to them."

Are you concerned that the future cuts will hurt the plans?

"This is a capital-intensive process, and I can make out clouds threatening the pace of its progress. However, the Chief of General Staff put the intelligence in one of the first places in the power structure for he understands what we contribute to the IDF's decision capability."


The Mossad Friends


It is generally assumed that a there is a basic hostility between intelligence bodies.

"So I'm telling you – believe me with a complete faith – 'when writers vie wisdom mounts.' Our cooperation with colleagues, both at the management and most junior field levels, is really tight. We plan actions together, perform them together. Our unit finishes one stage, hands the information over to the Mossad, they finish it, and we again work on the info and then pass it to the Shin Bet [Shabak] and colleagues from other countries – there's no choice. Necessity is the mother of cooperation."

"Being challenged to this enormous extent – there's no intelligence organization that can alone withstand the challenges. We've learned from the Yom Kippur War what humility is. For a good reason I'm telling you that we know not everything."

The Arab rulers were not inclined to attach great importance to the public. So was the intelligence. What are the next revolutions going to be?

"The tools we are developing are partially at the stages of development, partially – operational. You get information on public not only in the Internet. The Internet is a tremendous repository, it's just that you can never know how much you can rely on it. When you see 300,000 'likes' for a demonstration in Ramallah – that doesn't mean that there will be 300,000 demonstrators. You need to meld with other disciplines in order to know how many there will be in truth."

Eventually, the intelligence gets surprised by dramatic developments. For example, the surprise of the revolution and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Can the fact that the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood shows pragmatism also be considered a surprise?

"We talk about it in different terms. Pragmatism does not necessarily indicate where you are located in the ideological spectrum. You can stand very much at the extreme, but be very pragmatic. If someone estimates that in realpolitik he can attain other things, he will turn to other directions, and change his approach, and therefore, if your fundamental approach goes in the direction that in itself is incompatible with the system of Israel's interests, it does not matter whether you're a pragmatist or not. In a place where there is a large gap between the ideology and common interests with Israel, the space will be more limited. This does not mean that it won't exist."

When we speak today, in the Egyptian context, of strategic warning on the western front, that is, a danger that the peace agreements will fade away within a few years, and Egypt will become the enemy again, what does an intelligence organization make of it?

"This means that we need to examine things in different spectacles, with different tools, and we primarily realize that we should describe an emerging reality and not an existing reality. To predict reality that is taking shape all the time is another kind of challenge. In regard to some stuff, we just tell the leaders that we don't know what the direction of developments will be, but instead set a number of options – which is very meaningful, from my point of view."


The words of Brig. Gen. Karo are relevant, by the way, also on the Syrian issue. The IDF's intelligence cannot foresee how the civil war is going to end. The two most prominent options are that there would be a landslide victory for the opposition, and a mainly Sunni-based central government will be established or that Syria is to be divided into districts, where the Assad family's Alawite community will make a stronghold in the north of the country, near Latakia, and will continue to wage war from there for a few more years. This option is also quite reasonable. 


Have you exhausted the means of [intelligence] collection?

"You'll never exhaust them. When you develop something, the enemy learns it, develops safeguards – and you develop the next thing. We're up against very sophisticated elements, including technologically – even if technology is still our greatest advantage."

Original Hebrew article:


Photo credit: the cover of Spies Against Armageddon            a book by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman;

Eric Sultan/Ma'ariv - Brigadier General Ariel Karo