Spying on Friends

May 15, 1997 - Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg - The Jerusalem Post

The attempt by US security circles to smear Israel's good name has mega-boomeranged, following the Washington Post's "disclosure" of a high-level mole working for Israel operating in US intelligence circles.

Senior American intelligence specialists are deeply dismayed at the results of what was clearly a botched hatchet job against the Jewish state.

As a result of the newspaper's "leak," one of the National Security Agency's most precious secrets has been blown: The world now knows that NSA had perfected a superbly efficient and complex intercept technique, one beyond the imagination even of spy thriller writers.

Shock waves of seismic proportions were felt by officials at agency headquarters when they opened the paper and read all about their interception of a phone call between a senior Mossad agent in Washington and his superior in Tel Aviv.

Israeli and European security chiefs alike were astonished by the startling expose. "They thought somebody at NSA must have had a brainstorm," said a now-retired senior intelligence official with much experience in US security matters. "NSA does not disclose anything whatsoever about its activities.

When the Washington Post broke the shattering news that an Israeli mole codenamed Mega had been asked to procure the secret letter of assurances sent by former secretary of state Warren Christopher to PLO chief Yasser Arafat following the Hebron withdrawal, Israeli intelligence chiefs could hardly believe their ears.

For the lion that roared mightily from the Post's printing presses had given birth to a very small mouse indeed. The contents of Christopher's letter had, after all, appeared in Ha'aretz not long after it was sent.

However, of far greater import than the amateurish "scoop" that would have shamed the editor of a comic book, what alarmed security highups in Israel was the fact of the intercept itself.

It had only one meaning... that Israel's much- vaunted electronic code system, called Silon (geyser in Hebrew) had been broken by NSA specialists.

About Silon, a French diplomat at one time strongly connected to Israeli military and security circles had this to say:

"The Israelis have such a wealth of computer and electronic expertise, it was clear to me without anyone giving away any secrets that their variable communication system was foolproof, and totally secure. To keep it that way it was constantly checked and upgraded.

This is still the opinion of specialists we have spoken to, one of whom told us: "The Americans are terrific when it comes to interception. But even so, there was only one way they could have broken Silon. And that is through a NSA mole operating inside Israeli intelligence.

"I am certain that the Israelis are working full blast right now, weighing the consequences of the NSA interception."

The very same fears are jolting European intelligence services - particularly in Paris, where there has been a strong suspicion of NSA spending huge sums in bribing local security operatives worldwide to hand over top-secret electronic codes.

For the clue to the secret of the NSA penetration we need to go back over a decade, when the Russians shot 25 CIA local communication operatives. The man who betrayed them was CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who hid his treachery by telling his superiors that it was Jonathan Pollard who had revealed the operators' identities, via Israel, to the Soviet Union.

The possibility that there is an Israeli traitor in our intelligence community cannot be disregarded, for it has happened before.

Foreign newspapers revealed that an Israeli intelligence officer had been imprisoned in 1986 for selling secret information to Washington. He was tried secretly, and sent to prison.

Shimon Peres, then prime minister of a national unity government, agreed, with the backing of Yitzhak Rabin, to keep the matter quiet so as not to jeopardize relations with the US.

In 1982, during the Lebanese war, another Israeli was caught doing the same thing.

And Mordechai Vanunu betrayed his county by selling atomic secrets for a large sum of money. It was later dwarfed by the $12 million-plus Brig.-Gen. Rami Dotan took from an American aircraft manufacturer to purchase jet engines that were not necessarily the right ones for Israel's needs.

In short, there are native-born Israelis who are willing to sell their souls and endanger their country.

The top priority now for Israeli and European intelligence chiefs following the Washington Post fiasco is to examine every aspect of a new situation in which their secret codes are an open book to the US.

Almost certainly the codes will have to be changed. There will also need to be a fresh staff screening operation. It all adds up to much work and heavy expense.

As for NSA, it will have to write off the many millions spent on creating sophisticated interception techniques, and start afresh recruiting an expanded informer network.

The FBI is said to be holding an investigation into the Mega mole theory.

There have been suggestions that despite the commotion over Mega, it was in reality just an ordinary telephone conversation. But the FBI is investigating what it calls an "intercept communication."

NSA bosses will also want to know why the "leak" to the Washington Post was not carefully vetted to avoid embarrassing the organization and revealing a key secret.

What troubles Israel's intelligence services is that NSA's main preoccupation seems to be eavesdropping on conversations between friendly powers, when its real task should be keeping watch on hostile nations and amassing vital information on international terror.

The Mega foulup will make this job even more difficult, since now the West's foes will also be taking precautions to protect their communication methods.

The writers are authors of The Mossad: Secrets of the Israel Secret Service and other books on the Middle East.

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