Is Israel maintaining a hostile spy network in the United States? A long investigative report by the Associated Press certainly gives that impression. Senior Israeli sources insist, however, that since the arrest of Jonathan Pollard—an American in U.S. Navy intelligence, caught spying for Israel in Washington in 1985—no part of Israel’s espionage community has done anything like that.
A wave of claims and revelations came just hours after President Barack Obama signed a pledge, passed by Congress, to help Israel militarily, and at the same time that Republican candidate Mitt Romney was landing in Israel for a high-profile visit aimed at winning votes in the U.S. among Jews and evangelical Christians who care about Israel.
The first indication of a new leaks campaign was the AP story by investigative reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo. It said that Israeli security agencies routinely spy on CIA officers based at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, breaking into their secure equipment boxes and even one CIA man’s refrigerator.
On Saturday night, officials in the Jerusalem office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who was preparing to meet with his long-time acquaintance Romney on Sunday—denied the AP story about break-ins as “a lie.”
For many years, however, well-informed Israeli sources have told us that it is routine for an intelligence officer based in a foreign country—with the thin veil of diplomatic cover—to be watched and eavesdropped upon. It is no big deal, Israelis have said, and the Mossad representatives in Washington fully expect the FBI is doing it, too.
The AP report also suggests that Israeli espionage in the U.S. is considered “a genuine counterintelligence threat” and has continued even after Pollard was arrested in 1985 and imprisoned for life.
But our Israeli sources indicate that there is a vast difference between Israeli behavior now and during the pre-1985 period. Before Pollard was arrested, some of them admit, it was “the Wild West,” where Israeli diplomats, especially science attachés, felt that they could get away with almost anything in America. At worst, they thought, they would be ordered quietly to leave the country.
High-level Israeli officials insist emphatically that no part of Israel’s intelligence community is recruiting Americans or other people to be spies inside the United States. They are obeying, they say, what the AP article calls the “Friends on Friends” framework of their relationship with Washington: that “friends don’t spy on friends.”
Some of the specific incidents of Israeli spying in the article, now appearing in many of the world’s newspapers, have no dates attached to them. The case of Ben Kadish, a U.S. Army engineer who gave secrets to the same Israelis who handled Pollard as a spy, is presented in a way that might lead readers to think it is recent, as he was prosecuted and pleaded guilty only three years ago. He was 85 years old when punished in 2009 with a $50,000 fine, and he apologized for his actions from two decades before that.
The AP article also mentions a Defense Department analyst who pleaded guilty in 2005 and was sentenced to 12 years for providing classified information. Yet the prosecution of Lawrence Franklin stemmed from an FBI sting, not Israeli espionage activities in Washington. Because the bureau has always suspected that there is an intense and active Israeli spy ring in the United States, a false dossier was provided to Franklin so that surveillance would show what he did with it.
The file contained alarming indications of risks to Israeli agents in the Middle East, so it appears that Franklin sought out someone at Israel’s embassy he could tell, as well as two Americans working at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. Espionage charges against those two, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, were dropped in 2009.
As The New York Times put it: “While Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman trafficked in facts, ideas and rumor, they had done so with the full awareness of officials in the United States and Israel, who found they often helped lubricate the wheels of decision-making between two close, but sometimes quarrelsome, friends.”
Quarrels do indeed occur, and disagreements are usually best explained by the fact that the two allies are imbalanced—the United States a huge superpower, and Israel a tiny country that is powerful but always feels itself surrounded and outnumbered by enemies.
It is not shocking, then, that the two countries feel they have to keep an eye on each other. As the AP story notes, the U.S. does not want to be taken by surprise by Israeli actions—though it has happened time and again, with the invasion of Egypt in 1956, and the bold airstrike that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
In the world of espionage, curiosity tends to prompt action. Each side feels a duty to collect information along these lines: “I need to know what they know about what I know.” The best intelligence work often involves analyzing what you have gathered: assessing what the intentions and capabilities of the other side are.
In the view of some in the CIA and the FBI, according to the AP story, that makes Israel the top “threat” for the CIA’s Near East Division. Yet, as the new United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act underlines, Israel is also America’s top ally in the Middle East, especially after the downfall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.
Specifically in the confrontation with Iran’s nuclear program, our sources in both countries say that cooperation between U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities is, in fact, deeper and broader than it has ever been. They point, for instance, to joint development of Stuxnet and other computer viruses meant to delay Iran’s nuclear work. Would security and espionage cooperation be at new heights if there was so much distrust?
The differing interests are also a major part of the relationship between the two countries. Even in confronting Iran, the American superpower and tiny Israel do not see absolutely eye to eye.
The latest leak on that (or, at least, the result of hints and indications that Israeli officials may be intentionally giving to Americans) emerged on one of Israeli television’s top news programs on Saturday night. Ehud Yaari, a respected news analyst, reported that he was just back from Washington and “the Americans are convinced that there is a very high chance that Israel will decide to attack Iran before the elections in the U.S.”
Yaari said he got the “strong impression” that Obama-administration officials are preparing for a decision by Netanyahu in October. He said that the Americans talk about an Israeli strike “almost as a given—as a clear, unassailable fact.”
The Americans who whispered in Yaari’s ear may be correct in their impression, or it may be that Israeli diplomats and other officials—even the director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, on his unannounced visits to Washington—have been trying to make the Americans think that Israel is on a hair trigger. Israeli threats of military action have definitely prompted the U.S. and other countries to take the Iranian nuclear program very seriously and impose unprecedented economic sanctions.
Here is an example of Israel wanting to give the impression that a fateful airstrike on Iran could happen at any time. After we wrote recently that there is hardly any chance that Israel or the U.S. would bomb Iranian targets before Election Day, a very senior Israeli official said to one of us: “How can you be so sure?” His objectives seemed to include mystery, intrigue, and the now-routine policy stand that all options are always on the table.
That may help explain, indeed, why President Obama is sending his defense secretary, former CIA chief Leon Panetta, to Israel very soon: in part to coordinate what the two countries should do if a war does break out, but even more so to try to persuade the Israelis not to be hasty and to wait for at least another few months.
The talks in Jerusalem between Mitt Romney and Netanyahu may actually figure into Israel’s strategic calculus. Romney already gives Israelis the impression that he would go along with almost anything they do. His Middle East policy speech in Jerusalem on Sunday is likely to support Israel’s right to make its own decisions for its own security.
It would only be logical for Israeli leaders to look at the situation in October—whatever intelligence the Mossad may have gathered about the progress made by Iran in enriching uranium and designing a nuclear bomb—plus the opinion polls and any strong impression from the United States as to who is going to win the election in November. If they believe Romney is very likely to win, they will assume that the United States will be supportive after Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2013—even of an Israeli move against Iran that has not been revealed in advance to Washington. If they are convinced that Obama is heading to a second term in office, the Israelis may temper their behavior out of fear that they would not automatically be fully supported at the White House after Nov. 6.