A Clash Of Cultures In The Spy Game

April 19, 1994 - Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv - The Chicago Tribune

President Clinton's recent decision to deny clemency to Jonathan Pollard, the American sentenced to life in prison for spying on behalf of Israel, is particularly humiliating to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

This is not simply because the Israeli leader personally appealed to both Clinton and his predecessor, George Bush, to free Pollard, but rather because Rabin is far more realistic than any American politician can allow himself to be about the complex world of espionage.

A few months after Pollard's arrest in November 1985, Rabin - then the defense minister - told a small group of Israeli journalists, over cocktails, "I don't understand why the Americans are making such a big fuss. After all, they're spying on us, too."

Rabin remained typically enigmatic, but in the years to follow we learned of several cases in which Americans in Israel had been caught gathering secrets. None of them featured the same broad and high-level penetration achieved by Pollard, a Navy intelligence analyst who provided his Israeli handlers with thousands of classified documents and satellite photographs. Yet the Israelis considered the covert U.S. activities to be quite severe, too.

Some of the questionable endeavors were by American citizens on academic and industrial exchange programs, who were discovered to be harvesting information from sensitive Israeli installations. In one case, an American scientist working at the nuclear and rocket research center in Nahal Soreq, south of Tel Aviv, was detained by Israeli security authorities who found him collecting data that went beyond his agreed level of access.

Another case involved an American taking part in a program at Rafael, the state-owned weapons development company in Haifa, informally accused of gathering information on its worldwide exports. Both Americans were simply asked to leave Israel immediately.

The most serious case, according to sources, was that of Yosef Amit - which has an unexplained, perhaps merely coincidental, link with the Pollard affair. A mere four months after the American was arrested near the Israeli embassy in Washington, Amit - a former major in Israeli military intelligence - was arrested in the parking lot of his apartment house in Haifa. On that day in March 1986, Israeli authorities made no public announcement. An intelligence officer was under arrest, suspected of providing military secrets to a foreign power, yet the media were told absolutely nothing.

Unlike in America, the arrest and trial were kept secret, and many months passed before relatives and others close to him identified the man held as "Prisoner X" in the psychiatric wing of an Israeli prison. In March 1987, the very month that Pollard was sentenced to life, Yosef Amit was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Last October, Amit was suddenly pardoned by Israel's president and freed. What remains covered-up by the judicial system and by military censorship is that Amit was spying for America. He either "walked in" as a volunteer or was recruited by U.S. agents who handled him on European soil.

As the conspiracy was unraveled, an officer in Israel's domestic secret service, Shin Bet, was also charged and sentenced - again in total secrecy - to three months in jail. As a friendly gesture and without knowing the true purpose, he had given Amit secret documents which the spy then used so as to impress his American handlers with his "access."

While Amit was still in prison, there were further mysteries but even fewer details about an Arab citizen of Israel who was sentenced in 1988 for providing information to people who seemed to be working for U.S. intelligence.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials have never gone public with these cases, seeing themselves as more pragmatic than Americans on the reality that even among allied nations there is espionage. In addition, Israel's legal system is more flexible, so the nation's authorities can execute their chosen policy of sweeping misdeeds under the carpet while sending the miscreants home.

Israeli leaders know, in any event, that U.S. espionage relies far less on human assets, depending instead on spy planes, surveillance satellites, and huge antennae to keep an eye and ear on the restive Middle East. According to former employees of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, electronic eavesdroping on Israel dates back to telephone bugging in the 1950s and carried through the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, when U.S. intelligence was monitoring any Israeli move toward jumping into the conflict.

The closest that any American official came to admitting that Israel is a target for espionage was in that eventful month of March 1987 when a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dave Durenberger - probably referring to Amit, without knowing his name - told Jewish campaign supporters in Florida that the United States had "changed the rules" in the early 1980s by recruiting "an Israeli to spy on Israel, and he got caught."

"This is not a one-way street," said the Minnesota Republican before the Pentagon and the Senate Ethics Committee chastised him for opening his mouth even slightly.

There is clearly a clash of cultures. Israelis are puzzled as to why Pollard has been singled out. They see Americans as both idealistic and rigid, behaving in the Aldrich Ames case again as though shocked to learn that other nations-even friendly ones-are, in the old British definition of espionage, still opening other gentlemen's letters.

U.S. agents abroad are either more talented or more fortunate. If and when they are caught, their deeds are hushed up because of a simple rule on the world stage today: No one wants to have stormy relations with the United States. Pollard had no such luck on his side.

Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv are coauthors of the book "Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance," published by Hyperion.

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