Monkey Wrenches

May 15, 1997 - Metro West Jewish News (N.J.) - Editorial

Israel's latest scandal -- allegations that it is running a spy deep in the Clinton administration -- is related to its last, the Bar-On Affair, which almost resulted in the prime minister's indictment.

The connection between the two concerns the Hebron withdrawal, or more broadly, the future of the Oslo process.

The spy charge that surfaced in a Washington Post story last week stems from a conversation overheard by the National Security Agency. The conversation, between two Israeli intelligence officials, one in Washington and his superior in Israel, went like this -- "The ambassador wants me to go to Mega to get a copy of this letter"; came the reply -- "This is not something we use Mega for."

Wow, someone in NSA said, who's Mega? An Israeli spy passing confidential materials to Jerusalem?

The transcript was given to the FBI counter-intelligence boys and passed around Washington, until someone at the FBI said, wait a minute, this is too sensitive to be shared, and the copies were recalled. The bureau opened an investigation, but nobody was the wiser until someone shared it with The Washington Post.

Not surprisingly, the Israelis denied the inference that they are running a spy in Washington. Mega is the head of the Israel desk at the Central Intelligence Agency, reported Yediot Ahronot this week, and the conversation was a routine one. Before that, Ha'aretz reported that the NSA decoders misunderstood an Israeli reference to Elga -- a code name routinely used by Israeli agents for the CIA.

But even if there is no spy or mole, the Mega story still leaves many questions unanswered and illuminates a complicated and dangerous-for-Israel landscape in America's capital that is usually concealed behind a facade of handshakes and celebrations.

Because the Mega story appeared in the Post the same day the administration's top peace process diplomat, Dennis Ross, was meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the leak was intended to transmit a message to the prime minister: Never mind the pro-Israel/reluctant-to-take-on-the-Jews Clinton White House -- we can still get you.

Or, as the Associated Press quoted an anonymous U.S. official, someone was trying to "throw a monkey wrench" into Israel's relations with U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Mega story came the same week a special United Nations committee condemned as "torture" Israel's legalization of such interrogation methods as violent shaking and restraining prisoners in painful positions. (Ironically, the day after The New York Times carried an Anthony Lewis column criticizing Israeli "torture" -- Lewis was persuaded by Jacobo Timmerman that the use of any torture sets you out on a slippery slope -- the Times reported that the African National Congress owned up to having used "torture, executions and land mines" before taking power. Apparently, "torture" covers a wide area indeed, applying to both Israeli "shaking" and ANC "necklacing" -- the practice of putting suspected collaborators inside a car tire, pouring gasoline over them and setting the tire on fire.)

Taken together, the Mega and torture stories sent a powerful message that Israel's position in this country could be undermined. When the issue is terrorism, or the ambiguity clouding the Arab position on peace, Israel wins. But when the issue becomes an Israeli spy, or the use of "torture," Israel loses.

Mega sent another message -- whether or not Israel is spying on America, America is certainly spying on Israel.

Okay, Israel (without the administered territories) is the size of New Jersey and has the population of Chicago; the two countries are hardly equals. But the leak to the Post not only confirms U.S. spying on Israel, it endangers the Jewish state by offering clues to the encrypted code that masked sensitive Israeli communications from Washington.

The Mega conversation was overheard in mid-January. The Post story included the relevant quotes about Mega and the Christopher letter. Other intelligence services that recorded the heretofore indecipherable bursts from the Israeli embassy can match their recordings with the few sentences from the NSA transcript. Time for damage control. Israel must work backwards on the assumption that the Syrians, for example, can now decipher all communication that used the code and frequency of the Mega conversation.

Netanyahu must also contain the damage to his diplomatic effort. Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar is seriously compromised, even if Mega turns out to be the head of the CIA's Israel desk. The prime minister had already read the Christopher letter and briefed the cabinet on it. But Bibi had not shared the letter with Foreign Minister David Levy (Ben-Elissar's boss and political patron) or with the ambassador. Anyone trying to obtain the letter might have wanted to see whether, Netanyahu's assurances notwithstanding, it offered the Palestinians assurances that went beyond official, long-standing U.S. positions.

Netanyahu isn't the only one who should be worried; Clinton has grounds for concern. According to Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio, "No document is more restricted in circulation than the transcript of a decoded and descrambled communication furnished to the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Division. And yet, this is the second time in recent months that word of a NSA intercept has leaked."

The other NSA leak, also to The Washington Post, concerned a communication between the Chinese embassy and Beijing that triggered the investigation of a reported $2 million Chinese plan to funnel money into the U.S. election campaign.

What both leaks have in common -- besides their focus on NSA spying on foreign embassies in Washington and their publication in the Post -- is that they are bad for Clinton.

The Mega story hit the P-nerve -- in the nether world of U.S.-Israel relations, P stands for Pollard.

Ever since Jonathan Pollard was arrested more than a decade ago for spying for Israel, U.S. intelligence has been looking for a so-called Mr. X -- a more senior official who told the Israelis what to have Pollard ferret out. The notion that Mega was Mr. X therefore came easily to some journalists, like the London Daily Telegraph's Washington correspondent, who wrote that Mega "may have guided the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in its handling of the U.S. Navy spy Jonathan Pollard in the 1980s."

Mega may be another one of the "recycled" Pollard stories, to use Netanyahu aide David Bar Illan's term. (Bar Illan, by the way, appears headed to the United Nations as Israeli ambassador.)

Mega may therefore be a further setback for Pollard, whose cause this week received support in an unusual joint letter to Clinton from the Orthodox Union and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The context for Pollard's crime is the same as that for Bar-On/Hebron, Mega and the "torture" debate.

Pollard worked for Israel in the years following then CIA deputy director Bobby Ray Inman's decision to cut Israel off from vital intelligence information, a decision reached after Israel's 1981 air raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor. Israel needs to know about threats to its citizens; that need increases as it makes peace, handing over territory to former enemies. Just as there is no power equivalency between Israel and America, there is no moral equivalency between Israel's, and the Arabs', need for such knowledge or for confidence in America.

  • Return to Mega Spy Scandal page