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.”
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