Who Is Spying On Whom?

The Washington Post headline screamed that a top U.S. official is spying for Israel. Once again, Israel and American Jewry is being thrown on the defensive. The allegation requires a serious response, but, first, some questions need to be asked of the messenger.

The only way the Post could get the story was through a leak by an anonymous source or sources. Giving the press sensitive information related to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) counterintelligence work is at best a serious breach of security and almost certainly a violation of secrecy laws. So the informant is probably a criminal who should be found and prosecuted.

Why did someone leak the information?

It wasn’t to stimulate an investigation because the story said the FBI is already on the case. The only reasons appear to be to embarrass Israel and perhaps create some leverage for the Administration to pressure Israel on peace process-related issues. The former has already been accomplished. The latter is less likely, especially with the current government, which is more likely to dig in its heels than respond to what looks like a form of blackmail.

The other disturbing aspect of the leak is that it reflects the apparent Bakerization of the Clinton Administration’s policy toward Israel. While Secretary of State, James Baker routinely attacked Israel in public and his department leaked damaging accusations to the press on numerous occasions regarding alleged Israeli misuse of U.S. technology (according to the Post, State had access to the NSA transcripts). Since his reelection, Clinton has begun to criticize Israel publicly, something he eschewed for his first four years. Now this. If the leak is a harbinger of what’s to come, it may be necessary to reassess the common view that this President is the most pro-Israel in history.

Beyond the usual reliance on unnamed sources, the Post did something else nefarious, even by the paper’s own low ethical standards. Along with the “spy” story, the paper ran a piece about Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben Elissar, labeling him a hard-liner and highlighting that he had worked for the Mossad (though not making clear this was more than 20 years ago). A source claims the Ambassador told an Israeli intelligence officer to ask the spy for information. The Ambassador once was a spook. Quod erat demonstrandum the allegation must be true.

Now, let’s talk substance. First, Israel probably spies on the United States, but would never admit it. The leak to the Post, if nothing else, confirms that the U.S. is spying on Israel. This isn’t really surprising (last year, the U.S. was caught spying on France), though, of course, we’d like to believe America doesn’t spy on its friends.

Israeli officials are suggesting that the NSA analysts might have misinterpreted the intercepts, which were admitted to be translated awkwardly. They’ve also pointed out that the information Israel was supposed to be trying to obtain, the letter of assurances Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave to Yasir Arafat, has been widely publicized in the Israeli press. It is logical that Israel would want to see the secret promises, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’d try to get the letter from a spy. Given Israeli paranoia, officials surely would sweep their Embassy phones for bugs and assume communications were being monitored. If not, they’re not as bright as I think (and they sure as hell know better now). Of course if the NSA was intercepting and decoding communications Israel believed were secure (as now appears to be the case), the situation is far more serious and it is possible that not only the United States, but other nations, not all friendly, have obtained sensitive material.

The most serious issue raised by the story is whether an American is passing secrets to the Israelis. If so, no matter the motivation, he or she is a traitor and should be prosecuted.

The Post referred to the Pollard case, implying an American Jew could be spying out of “love for Israel.” If this were the case, the old dual loyalty charges would be resurrected. The fact that there was a Pollard gives greater credibility to the allegations. This is yet another example of the grave damage that man caused and that his apologists ignore. Israel and American Jewry are still paying for his crime. The other day, for example, I heard one of the CIA’s former top officials say that beyond the damage to national security, Pollard caused U.S. officials to be more suspicious of the Israelis. The amount of strategic cooperation between our two nations is extraordinary. It might be even greater if not for this mistrust.

Everyone spies on each other. It’s a dangerous game, though, and getting caught can have serious repercussions. If proven true, the allegations in the Post story will further undermine American trust in the Israelis. The publicity alone mars Israel’s image as a friend and ally. Of course, Israelis’ trust in the U.S. has already suffered from the disclosure that the NSA is eavesdropping on their conversations.