Spy Games: America's efforts to spy on Israelf

Gregory Levey - The New Republic - May 8, 2007

In George Tenet's new book, At the Center of the Storm, the former CIA director claims that, when the Israeli government sought the release of jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in 1998, it was at Tenet's insistence that the former Navy intelligence analyst was kept behind bars. People who say Israel cannot be trusted by the United States have long pointed to Pollard as the case in point. In 2004, Pat Buchanan wrote, "Washington today is rife with reports the FBI has been investigating whether or not a nest of Pollardites inside the Pentagon has been funneling secrets, through the Israeli lobby ... and on to Sharon." Anytime Israel is thought to be snooping on its closest ally--such as in the 2005 arrest of Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin for providing information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)--commentators jump on it as an excuse to disparage Israel's trustworthiness. After Franklin's arrest, The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss wrote, "Did Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, run a covert program with operatives in high-level US government positions to influence the Bush Administration's decision to go to war in Iraq?"

But this perspective is missing one whole side of the equation. While Israel has certainly spied on the United States in the past (and likely continues to do so), it may actually be the United States that is the nosier country--and the one that enjoys far more license in such covert activities. If one party should be paranoid about prying eyes--and I'm not sure either should--it should be the Israel.

When I first started work at the Israeli prime minister's office as a speechwriter, I already held a security clearance from a previous job. Still, to obtain the higher level of clearance required for my new position, I had to go through a battery of security tests, interviews, and background checks. Nothing strange there, but then I noticed that the security agents seemed most concerned that I might be spying--for the United States. In fact, much of the questioning turned on this issue. And my clearance was twice delayed because I had a few (not very close) acquaintances who worked in American intelligence. It had never occurred to me that the Israelis were concerned about American espionage, which seemed to me like the least of their troubles, so I asked an Israeli counterintelligence agent if this was really such an issue. "Definitely," he nodded gravely. "They're trying to spy on us all the time--every way they can."

When I recently brought this up to a former U.S. intelligence official who spent several years working on Middle East issues, he was quick to confirm it. "As an American, I would certainly hope so," he said, referring to the question of whether the United States spies on Israel; he added that he had himself analyzed information from "classified sources in Israel." There is "definitely an inordinate amount of focus" on Israel in U.S. intelligence, he told me. And, when I asked him if he thought there were people in the Israeli government and military who were feeding information to the United States--Israel's own Jonathan Pollards--he said, "It wouldn't surprise me at all." "The neocons ran the administration until recently," he added, but "someone who rides the fence on whether Israel is a true ally in the CIA or [the Department of] Defense would push for that sort of thing."

For obvious reasons, it's impossible to provide current examples of this phenomenon. But there have been cases in the past that have been disclosed, only to be quickly hushed by both the Israeli and American governments (in a way that the Pollard issue, a festering wound to both countries, never was). One of the most telling such examples is the 1986 episode of Yosef Amit. Amit was a major in Israeli military intelligence. At one point, he worked in the secretive "Unit 504," which is responsible for coordinating spies in Arab countries neighboring Israel, and he also had close contacts in the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency. In the mid-'80s, Amit was recruited by Tom Waltz, a Jewish CIA officer based in the CIA's station in Tel Aviv. And, until his arrest, he furnished the CIA with classified information about Israel's troop movements and its plans in both the occupied territories and Lebanon.

The incident got little press in either the United States or Israel, whose government barely even complained about it. Waltz stayed at his post in Tel Aviv, and, later, when officials inside the Israeli government considered offering to trade Amit for Pollard (or even to release Amit in exchange for leniency for Pollard), they quickly nixed the idea, because they feared stoking more anger in the United States. To some Israeli government officials I have spoken with, there is a lingering sense that Israel has been subjected to a "double standard," as one of them put it.

Rafi Eitan, the legendary Israeli spymaster who was Pollard's handler (and who can no longer return to the United States for fear of arrest), is now a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet. Inevitably, he was circumspect about the specifics of U.S.-Israeli espionage and counterespionage, but when I asked about the extent of American spying on Israel, he said simply, "Some things you don't hear about." Then, laughing bitterly, he added, "Why don't you ask the head of the CIA about that? He knows."

A senior Israeli diplomat I spoke to about this was a bit more open. "The way I see it," he told me, "there has been a switch. For many years, we knew that we could count on the Pentagon and the CIA, but we had to be careful of the State Department. Now it is the opposite. The State Department is more supportive of us, and we have to be more careful of the Pentagon and, especially, of the CIA." Then he shrugged and said that, if Israel is caught spying on the United States, it harms Israel, but if the United States is caught spying on Israel, the Israeli government brushes it under the rug for fear that this, too, will hurt Israel.

"What does America have to lose? Israel has something to lose," the former American intelligence official told me. "What is Israel going to do if it catches the U.S.? The U.S. has Israel by the short and curlies."

To be sure, Israel almost certainly does continue to spy on the United States, despite occasional protestations to the contrary. But all countries, including allies, are constantly engaged in espionage against each other--especially when their relationships are so close. Not only does the United States return the favor, it also has far more leeway to do so because, if it were discovered, it wouldn't harm U.S. interests at all.

In the coming months, the recently delayed trial of two former AIPAC staffers accused of passing classified information to the Israeli government will finally commence. When it does, some pundits in the United States will gleefully use it as a tool, once again, to cast doubt on the level of trust Israel deserves. But they're really living in glass houses.

GREGORY LEVEY was Israel's United Nations speechwriter and senior foreign communications coordinator for Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. He teaches at Ryerson University.