Another day, another revelation about how the United States and Israel are at each other’s throats over negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program. This time, it’s the Wall Street Journal with the scoop: U.S. officials, while spying on Israel, discovered that Israel had been spying on American negotiators and then sharing that information with lawmakers in Washington to undermine support for a potential deal with Tehran.
The meta aspects of the story — the U.S. spying on a rival which had in turn been spying on the U.S. — shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The leaders of Israel and the United States have spent decades proclaiming that there was a “special relationship” between the two countries, but their security services view each other with more suspicion. According to numerous books, former officials, and media accounts, Israel mounts more aggressive espionage efforts against the United States than almost any other nation on the planet. Less is known about American efforts to spy on Israel, though it is all but certain that Washington gathers intelligence on its putative ally frequently and intensely — particularly with the White House concerned about a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In an NSA document made public last year, the agency observed that “the Israelis are extraordinarily good partners for us,” in the realm of signals intelligence, or the interception of data. But, the document added, “they target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems.” Indeed, a 2013 National Intelligence Estimate on cyberthreats “ranked Israel the third most aggressive intelligence service against the U.S.” That position put Israel behind only Russia and China.
Israeli espionage against the United States has also targeted its industrial base. As Scott Johnson reports in the most recent issue of Foreign Policy, Israel likely acquired the needed uranium to jumpstart its own nuclear program from a Pennsylvania reactor. At other times, Israeli citizens have been caught stealing technology used to make artillery gun tubes, Israeli agents have also been accused of stealing from a U.S. contractor plans for a reconnaissance system, and Israeli spies are reported to have obtained high-tech materials used for missile coating.
Jerusalem’s ongoing espionage campaign has worried U.S. officials so significantly that they have strenuously opposed an effort on Capitol Hill to include Israel in a regime of visa-free travel, which American spies fear will facilitate the travel of Israeli operatives into the United States.
“If we give them free rein to send people over here, how are we going to stop that?” a former congressional aide told Newsweek. “They’re incredibly aggressive. They’re aggressive in all aspects of their relationship with the United States. Why would their intelligence relationship with us be any different?”
Israel strenuously denies mounting espionage operations against the U.S. “There is no such thing as Israel spying on the Americans,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday.
The most infamous case of espionage among these two friends revolves around a spy named Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for pinching a trove of U.S. secrets and supplying them to Israel. Defenders of Pollard argue that he was merely providing the Israeli government information needed for the country’s defense and that Jerusalem should have been receiving from Washington through official channels. The Israeli government has repeatedly requested his release, and Pollard is regarded as a national hero in some quarters in Israel.
American spies and security experts see him very differently. “Much of what he took, contrary to what he’d have you believe, had nothing to do with Arab countries or the security of Israel, but had everything to do with U.S. collection methods, to include most specifically against the Soviet Union,” retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, the former director of naval intelligence, toldForeign Policy last year, when Pollard’s release was being floated as a possible incentive to Israel to offer concession in U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Among the information spirited away by Pollard while he was working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy was technical information about U.S. spy satellites, analyses of Soviet missile systems, and information about NSA interception systems.
“When the Pollard case broke, the general media and public perception was that this was the first time this had ever happened. No, that’s not true at all. The Israeli intelligence service, when I was in the Justice Department, was the second most active in the United States” other than that of the Soviet Union, John Davitt, a Justice Department veteran and the one-time head of its Internal Security Section, told the New York Times in 1985.
At other points in the two countries’ relationship, the United States has turned its significant signals intelligence collection capabilities on Israel. In 1967, Syrian and Egyptian troops were massing on Israel’s borders, and the country’s leaders streamed into Washington asking for military support in the event of war. But those officials lied to their American counterparts, shielding the fact that Israel planned to launch a pre-emptive attack on its Arab opponents.
To improve its ability to monitor the situation, the NSA dispatched an intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, to cruise off the Israeli and Egyptian coastlines. The ship bristled with antennas and communication dishes and was capable of picking up just about any electronic signal moving through the air in its general vicinity.
As Israeli forces moved into Egypt and dealt Gamal Abdel Nasser’s forces a devastating defeat, the Liberty was offshore picking up Israeli military communications as those forces carried out summary executions of many Egyptian soldiers, according to journalist and FP columnist James Bamford’sBody of Secrets.
The Israelis were aware of the ship cruising in the Mediterranean and launched an aerial attack on the ship, strafing it with jets, bombarding it from torpedo boats, and ultimately killing 34 Americans. Israel maintains that its forces confused the ship with an Egyptian vessel, an explanation that fails to withstand scrutiny, as Bamford explains at length. Prior to the attack, Israeli forces had extensively surveilled the ship, which at the time of the attack was flying an American flag, and senior NSA officials became convinced that the attack was deliberate. “As a minimum, the attack must be condemned as an act of military recklessness reflecting wanton disregard for human life,” an NSA review 15 years after the attack concluded.
At other points in their history, American and Israeli spies have worked hand-in-glove with one another. It was Israel that provided James Angleton, the infamous CIA spy hunter, with a copy of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech denouncing Joseph Stalin and the personality cult around him. Obtaining that document and disseminating it was one of the CIA’s first major victories of the Cold War. U.S. and Israeli spies worked together on Operation Olympic Games, which successfully implanted the Stuxnet virus into Iranian industrial control computers and destroyed some centrifuges used for the enrichment of nuclear materials.
Those seem like the exceptions to the rule, however. For now at least, Jerusalem and Washington are back to their normal routine: spying on each other.