The U.S. spies on Israel, media yawns

So, every time there is the remote whiff of an Israeli spy scandal, we hear screaming from pundits the world over about how unloyal a friend is Israel. But what about how America spies on Israel?

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.

[…] 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.”

Read it all.

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17 Responses to The U.S. spies on Israel, media yawns

  1. John M says:

    Meryl, I ask this in all candor – there is no “right” answer: If (God forbid) the US ever went to war with Israel, would you stay here or emigrate?

  2. I’m an American, John. Third generation. That’s a pretty offensive question.

    Not that I think such a war would ever happen. Democracies don’t make war on democracies.

    Now, if you ask me would I help Israel out in her last hour of need, if that was what was required (in a war not with the U.S.), then yes, I’d help. In any way I could. As a Jew, not an American. Or I guess as an American Jew.

  3. John M. says:

    I don’t think it’s offensive Meryl. When I was a wee lad, my father was an officer in the Army. We lived on an Army post, and our next door neighbors were named Goldberg. The father was a Captain in the infantry, and I believe was born in the US, but I don’t remember their family history. When the Yom Kippur war happened, he went AWOL and flew to Israel to enlist in the army. This was a Captain, mind you, and he enlisted as a Private in the Israeli army. His family was allowed to continue living on the base in his absence. He served through the war, and after being discharged, he returned to the US, knowing he would face court-martial for desertion. My father was appointed to defend him at the court-martial. He was acquitted of desertion, and was instead found guilty of some trivial charge like disobeying an order. He faced no jail time and was given an honorable discharge. I think they may be living in Israel today.

    Anyway, the point is, that even hard-core patriots realize there are some obligations that transcend nationalism. BTW, my dad served two tours in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star.

  4. Your example is of a Jewish army officer fighting for Israel against Arab nations, risking court-martial, but not fighting for Israel against his own country.

    Sorry, but it’s an offensive question. Asked politely or not, it is still an accusation of dual loyalty, a charge that Jews have had to suffer since the Babylonian Exile.

    Now that Israel exists again, you’d think the charge would go away.

  5. Robert says:

    I guess we should just start questioning every minority group from Mexicans to the Irish and see if they would defend their country against the US. This type of Balkanization only serves to divide American citizens.

  6. Ed Hausman says:

    Anti-Semites like to point to the attack on the USS Liberty as an example of Israeli ingratitude to the US. While the attack itself was pretty obviously made in error, the Liberty was a spy ship, checking out Israeli operations during that Six Day War.

    Personally, while I wonder why Pollard has to serve time far beyond anyone remotely as guilty as he was, I served in a similar capacity to his, and I would have beaten him to a pulp before turning him in if I’d caught him at it.

  7. John M. says:

    The Capt. Goldberg analogy is very apt Meryl, if one looks at military law. when an Army officer deserts, and fights in the forces of another country, ANY country, whether it is fighting the US or not, that is essentially considered treason, on the same level as fighting the US itself. The penalties could have been very severe. But the other officers on the court saw that it was a case of TIERED loyalty, not dual loyalty.

    To Robert: Mexico and Ireland are fine countries, but I think people who lurk here probably would agree that they do not have the special status of Israel, which is more than a nation with a diaspora. It’s a divinely ordained state and people. The regular rules don’t apply.

  8. I think that one way of explaining why the question is offensive would be to invoke Godwin’s law. That is, for the United States to go to war with Israel, one or the other would have to change so drastically that one of them would no longer be worthy of defense. The example that pops to mind is the difference between the two phases of the World War. Under the Kaiser, Jews fought on both sides. In the second phase, people applaud those Germans who fought against the evil and consider them the true patriots.

    In asking a what if question, one needs to consider what would have to happen in order to make the hypothetical even possible.

    For the United States to go to war with Israel, assuming Israel has not been taken over by Al-Qaeda, it would have to become a country that every patriotic American (today) would fight against.

    Of course, I am sure that the US Army has the contingency plans about this just like it has contingency plans for every country and every combination of countries. That is a matter of training and preparation and not what is expected.

  9. Robert says:

    Sorry John, but that is an utter cop out. Are you saying that Mexicans, French, English who might have dual citizenship might not have the same potential conflict? I think you need to review some history John, go back to WWI and the conflict that many Germans had when the US declared War and lets we all forget the Japanese situation during WWII. So, if you are going to try to promote the balkanization of the US by questioning the loyality of Jewish Americans then you also better start questioning the loyalty of every other nationality and cease with the double standards!

  10. John M says:

    Sabba,

    I totally understand your reasoning, and I can see how the question itself really too simplistic.

    Robert,

    ” try to promote the balkanization of the US by questioning the loyality of Jewish Americans”. That’s just so over the top, and an obvious breach of the “civility” rule, that it merits no response.

  11. Cynic says:

    It is amusing that whenever this “Spy V Spy” discussion comes up nobody does an accountability of what the US has gained from those Israelis, apart from those “Duo Loyalty” Jews, be it from medical technology, agriculture or pure physics and mathematics.

    Start off with the history of Intel, the EEPROM and Intel’s chip that IBM used for its first PC to those pics sent from Mars, stents to keep America’s blood flowing and all those improvements to the F16 etc., that has provided the US with the advantage it has in this world.

  12. You don’t have to invoke Godwin’s Law to see the inherent offensiveness in asking me if I’d fight for Israel or America if they went to war with each other.

    Imagine this question to Rudy Giuliani during a presidential debate: “If Italy went to war with America, whose side would you be on?”

    It’s beyond offensive. It would be stupid. Nobody would ever think of questioning Rudy’s loyalty to America. And yet, Jews are constantly questioned on their loyalty to their home nations.

    Your analogy is a false analogy, John. It is comparing two completely different questions. You asked the question about America fighting Israel, and you’re trying to answer it with an American fighting for Israel in a war with a third party. That’s crap logic. It’s not a “tiered” loyalty thing. You’re asking an outright loyalty question: Us or them?

    And it’s obvious YOU don’t think you’re being offensive. You’re the one that asked the question in the first place. But you don’t get to determine what I find offensive. I do. And I’m telling you that questioning my loyalty to the nation of my birth—for a fictional situation, in fact—is about as offensive as you can get.

    The only way you could get more offensive would be to be outright anti-Semitic.

  13. Tatterdemalian says:

    “Democracies don’t make war on democracies.”

    Sometimes democracies make war on themselves. I see no reason to assume democracies couldn’t make war on democracies, were there equally strong differences of opinion between them. Say, enough Americans come to believe that the principles of self-defense are not only foolish, but extremely dangerous to their belief that “it’s better to not have guns and not need them, than to need them and have them.” Most likely we would turn away from democracy before actually going to war, but a mobocracy like the old Confederacy, or like the post-modernist’s libertarian/anarchist utopia, might go for it.

  14. Jon says:

    Meryl,

    John M’s question doesn’t seem offensive to me at all, though may be difficult for you to answer.

    I wouldn’t be offended if someone asked me if I would defend the land of my ancestors (Germany), or the United States in a war. Without a doubt, I would defend the United States. John’s question is an honest one.

  15. Jon, I answered the question. My answer was and remains: I am an American.

    I don’t need to make any other answer. Apparently, you can’t take that as a legitimate answer.

    That is why the question is so offensive. It shouldn’t even have to be asked. You would never ask someone of German ancestry if they would fight for Germany or America in a war. You would ask it of recent immigrants, perhaps, as shown by what happened in WWII.

    But I am, as I stated, a third-generation American. The question is not an honest one. It is an offensive one. It is, as I said, an accusation of dual loyalty, even though the questioner says he doesn’t mean it that way.

    My friend Heidi’s great-grandparents came from Germany around the same time as mine came from Russia and Latvia. She spent a summer in Germany as a teenager. But no one would EVER ask her if she would fight for Germany or America in a war. Don’t pretend that they would.

    Offensive. The question is not honest. It is offensive.

  16. Tatterdemalian says:

    If there is one single reason why the Roman Empire fell, it is because its citizens felt it was no longer worth fighting for, let alone dying for.

    I can see the same sickness setting in, here in the US. The clearest signs, such as officials being granted the right to rule by decree, and the soldiers and police officers being diverted from their duties to defend their countries, instead being forced to participate in bloodsports against their will, are a long way off. Things happen faster in the information age, though, and even the disrespect being shown for the rule of law and those who enforce it is worrisome, as it is self-reinforcing and nearly impossible to quell with reasoned argument.

    I hope it won’t happen in our lifetimes, that we must choose between loyalty to liberty and loyalty to the USA.

    … You know, ten years ago, if anyone had told me I’d ever sound like a survivalist whacko, I’d have thought they were idiots. Of course, I thought the same of anyone who willingly served in the armed forces, or even as a police officer. What a difference an actual attack makes…

  17. MMMM says:

    I would rather fight John M.

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