After 30 years at Defense News, it’s time to move on. Defense News Editor Jill Aitoro and my colleagues will officially retire me at the upcoming Defense News Conference in Washington, where I’ll compare and contrast my experiences covering political-military-industrial establishments in the U.S., where I started this gig in the closing months of the Reagan administration; and from Israel, where I’ve been a one-woman bureau since 1999.
In all those years of digging for stories, wrangling for context and delivering the news that Defense News readers have come to expect, I’ve been called a lot of things, but never “war industry stooge,” as a social media stalker recently labeled me. That poison-penned piece on how I “built up a career promoting an industry of death and destruction” got me thinking about the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen that have influenced my body of work at Defense News.
A few highlights come to mind, like the first flight of the B-2 bomber, the evolution of U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, particularly after the cancellation of Israel’s Lavi fighter; and my feature interview, one of the last, with nonagenarian Edward Teller on ways to “work around” Soviet objections to the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars. Or when I spent an afternoon with Ben Rich, shortly after his retirement, when he felt more at liberty to regale me with stories from the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Or the two-part investigation into the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program, which the Defense Security Cooperation Agency director at the time initially fought, but ended up crediting for helping to jump-start needed reforms.
To fuel my coverage of defense procurement matters, I remember spending countless hours on and around Capitol Hill with bulldog sleuths from John Dingell’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Then there was the time when, in exchange for pledges not to report on what was seen or heard, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command invited me, the only journalist, to be a “fly on the wall” for a two-day conference he hosted for the dozens of countries in his area of responsibility.
Those experiences, and so many more from interviews and on-site visits to military bases, government offices and corporate boardrooms across the U.S., in most countries of East Asia, and in the Middle East enriched my understanding not only of the issues, but of the nuances that are too often overlooked. If that makes me an industry stooge, or a shill for the military-industrial complex, fine by me.
In Israel, my home for the past 19 years, I reported on three wars in Gaza, one in Lebanon and multiple operations in that country’s so-called war-between-wars that could easily have spiraled into all-out confrontation. I spent dozens of hours with five consecutive Israeli Air Force commanders and key staffers reviewing imagery, listening to their lessons learned, and reporting on new operational concepts and capabilities that allow Israeli air power to claim the world’s shortest planning-to-execution cycles with the minimal amount of unintended civilian casualties. If that makes me an advocate for the war industry, fine by me.
Face time invested in Israeli brass, industry execs, Ministry of Defense bureaucrats and government watchdogs resulted in regular program, planning and budgeting updates from here, along with occasional scoops on tech transfer, export licensing and funding disputes with Israel’s patrons in Washington. Over my years in Israel, I’ve had my phones tapped; been summoned by the Shin Bet for a “conversation” about one of my Russian sources; and been blacklisted by the Defense Ministry’s Research and Development Authority. I survived numerous run-ins with Israel’s Military Censor; and the skin-crawling sensation of being targeted by Hamas.
That said, I’ve been privileged to have interviewed three prime ministers, six defense ministers and seven chiefs of staff with the Israel Defense Forces, four of whom — Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon — in multiple capacities in and out of office.
Two personal stories still bring a smile to my face after so many years. The first was a meeting with Rabin a few months before he was murdered, when the dual-hatted prime minister and defense minister was the object of vile and increasingly dangerous incitement. I was allotted 40 minutes for the interview, but Rabin kept going for nearly double that time, clearly content to smoke cigarettes and talk military strategy with a young American defense reporter with no agenda or political ax to grind.
The second was two years later, in the office of Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shakak, IDF chief of staff. I arrived promptly for our 7 a.m. interview flushed with excitement, not necessarily at the prospect of engaging Israel’s top officer, but from the fact that just hours earlier — in a romantic sunrise ceremony — my husband proposed marriage. Israel’s 15th chief of staff and his spokesman at the time were the first two people in the world with whom I shared news of my engagement and my sparkling new ring.
On a more serious note, I acknowledge that my coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Iranian conflicts has been heavily Israel-centric due to the location of our bureau, my Jewish-American identity, and the fact that my husband and two children enjoy dual American-Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, I’ve endeavored to seek out the other side as much as possible, and have always been rewarded for my efforts.
In Gaza, I was whisked from an Israeli crossing point by two AK-47-armed civilian-clothed guards for an interview with Palestine Liberation Organization strongman Mohammed Dahlan. It was just weeks before a bloody coup ushered in the era of Hamas, yet he refused to acknowledge the writing that was literally on the wall, in the form of English and Arabic graffiti, attesting to the growing rage at PLO rule.
In the West Bank, I was one of the few to ever interview Majid Faraj, the powerful head of the Mukhabarat, or General Intelligence Service. My report on security coordination between Ramallah and Jerusalem — and his claims to have prevented some 200 attacks on Israelis in the preceding three months — sparked outrage from Palestinian and Arab journalists, who branded him a collaborator.
So many stories over so many years, and now it’s time to move on. There will always be a special place in my heart for my editors and colleagues at Defense News, past and present; and to my longtime trusted sources and advisers, many of whom I count as dear friends. Over three decades, I’ve built a career covering the threats driving requirements, the budgets driving programs, the competition driving industry and the regulations driving us crazy. I’ve done my best to keep you informed and provide the details and context that you deserve. It’s been a terrific run for which I’m eternally grateful.
And if that makes me an industry stooge, I’m proud to claim: “Guilty as charged.”
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.