TEL AVIV — Yair Klein, an anti-terrorist instructor whose students in Colombia have been linked to drug-related killings, concedes that most of what he knew about Colombia before going there last year he learned from high school textbooks.
And what he learned since then, he says in defense of himself, may not have been enough to ensure that his training was not used for criminal ends.
In an interview Thursday, Klein said there was no way to be sure that none of his students worked for drug lords or that none were involved in the assassination of a Colombian presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galan.
"It's possible someone in the course killed Galan," he said. "All the time, we were sure we were working with farmers, but if one or two worked with (drug lords), we couldn't know. If after we left they worked for them, we couldn't know."
Klein said he did not know the narcotics figures reported to have appeared in a videotape produced to promote Klein's services. But he recalled that anonymous "visitors" once toured the training site at the invitation of the cattlemen who he says employed him.
If something went wrong, he said, it was because he was an innocent abroad, adding: "Do you know any genuine fighters who are not naive? Yes, there was naivete in this."
Klein, 46, a retired Israeli army colonel, is at the center of a storm here and abroad over his military training operation in Colombia. In Colombia, police say he instructed hit squads at the service of major cocaine operators. Some of his graduates, Colombians charge, shot and killed Galan.
In Israel, Klein is the focus of a national debate over the role of retired soldiers in spreading weapons and military know-how abroad.
Israelis are wondering not only how such activity might have gone on under the noses of Defense Ministry officials, who are supposed to control exports of Israeli military hardware and know-how. They are also asking how former members of their armed forces could have become enmeshed in a sordid business in a far-off place.
Justice Minister Dan Meridor said: "There has been serious injury to Israel's image, to the image of the (Israel Defense Forces). It is important that it remains positive, of a patriotic army conducting a righteous war in a moral way."
Klein and four of his colleagues--Amazia Shauli, Yitzhak Shoshani, Dror Eyal and Teddy Melkin--have been questioned by police here. All are retired paratroopers. All worked in Klein's security firm, Hod Hahanit, which in Hebrew means Spearhead.
Defense Ministry officials said Hod Hahanit operated in Colombia without the permits needed to export military hardware and technology. The officials said they knew nothing of his activities.
But on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said it repeatedly reported on the activities of Israelis in Colombia, leaving open the possibility that the Defense Ministry was aware of Klein's work but did nothing about it.
Klein said he needed no permit because he was teaching civilians for a private company. He said he was working for ranchers, protecting them against leftist guerrillas, but he declined to name any of the people who hired him.
Israel has long sought to sell its surplus war materiel abroad, in places as distant as Singapore and Paraguay. Latin America became an important market for Israel in the late 1970s, when the United States cut off or curtailed military supplies to a number of governments accused of human rights violations.
The export of military technology is an open secret, one that has led to embarrassment on several occasions. Israeli trainers have been linked to armed movements led by Idi Amin in Uganda, to repressive measures taken in Guatemala in its war on guerrillas, and to security protection for Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the Panamanian strongman.
"What are our wonderful boys doing in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and not just those places?" the independent newspaper Hadashot asked in an editorial.
This week a parliamentary committee began studying new legal controls on military exports.
Klein is not apologetic about training others in warfare, saying he thinks he is defending free nations against an onslaught of terror.
"I am an expert in war against terrorists and an expert in war against guerrillas," he said. "I am brave and a little adventurous. Not many people have the character to go in to teach war in a place where the guerrillas are surrounding you."
Klein, with ice-blue eyes, close-cropped hair and military pedigree, almost fits the stereotype of the Israeli warrior. He was born on a kibbutz, the nurturing ground of numerous war heroes. Fresh out of technical school, he joined Company 890, Israel's first elite paratroop unit. He commanded helicopter troops, and he speaks in low tones of secret "anti-terrorist" operations he conducted.