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
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
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
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
top peace process diplomat, Dennis Ross, was meeting with Benjamin
in Jerusalem, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the leak was
to transmit a message to the prime minister: Never mind the
pro-Israel/reluctant-to-take-on-the-Jews Clinton White House -- we can
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.
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.
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
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
services that recorded the heretofore indecipherable bursts from the
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
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
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
letter with Foreign Minister David Levy (Ben-Elissar's boss and political
patron) or with the ambassador. Anyone trying to obtain the letter might
wanted to see whether, Netanyahu's assurances notwithstanding, it offered
Palestinians assurances that went beyond official, long-standing U.S.
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
reported $2 million Chinese plan to funnel money into the U.S. election
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.
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