Israel Pulse

Israel rejects accusations of spying on US

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Article Summary
Committed never to spy on American soil, some Israeli officials consider the espionage accusations as politically motivated to damage Israel-US relations.

The rising tensions between Washington and Jerusalem have led to mutual disgust on both sides. And, as if that weren’t enough, an anti-Israeli campaign has been taking place simultaneously over the past few weeks, marking Israel as a country that frequently crosses the line of espionage against the United States. This is not a media campaign, because the media carries out its role in disseminating the information it receives from the relevant sources.

“We are talking about entities or agents within official bodies,” I was told by a high-placed diplomatic source in Jerusalem over the weekend. “They are spreading the information with precise timing so as to cause as much damage as possible to the already-rocky relations between Israel and the United States. They also want to reap side benefits such as obstructing the initiative to exempt Israelis from needing visas when visiting the United States, and blocking the initiative to free Jonathan Pollard.”

The open question that remains is: To what extent is this activity of the information disseminators coordinated with senior sources in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon? At this stage, there is no clear answer to this question.

The leading story this week seems to have been lifted from Walt Disney’s world: an American secret agent was sitting in the bathroom of the hotel suite of American Vice President Al Gore when the latter visited Israel 16 years ago. Suddenly, the agent heard a scraping sound and discerned a suspicious figure crawling in the air-conditioning ducts, trying to find his way into the room through the layer separating the ducts from the suite itself. According to the story, the agent cleared his throat and the mysterious Israeli crawled right back where he came from. Thus America’s intelligence database was spared from snooping foreign eyes.

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The head of the Mossad at the time was Gen. (Res.) Danny Yatom. On a radio interview on Sunday morning [May 11], Yatom ridiculed this tale, and rightfully so. Israel doesn’t need to send agents through air-conditioning or ventilation ducts into hotel suites in Jerusalem. Even 16 years ago, Israel had enough sophisticated, efficient, hidden means to allow it to wiretap or photograph whatever it wanted in its sovereign area.

In addition, the working assumption of any political leader visiting a foreign state is that the intelligence services of that state will eavesdrop and wiretap him during the course of the visit, wherever he goes. In the world of international espionage, these are the rules of the game.

Moreover, Israel’s diplomatic, political and defense leadership is rightfully convinced that the United States eavesdrops, photographs and wiretaps it throughout Israel. The American embassy in Tel Aviv resembles a huge satellite broadcast station, and not in vain. Recently it emerged (through documents made public by Edward Snowden and from WikiLeaks) that the Americans do indeed operate flagrant, aggressive, sometimes even human espionage (HUMINT) against Israeli governmental and defense-associated targets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the last few years have conducted most of their discussions on an assault on Iran in the Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv — a site viewed as relatively secure against wiretapping. They weren’t worried about wiretapping from Iran, but from the United States. And even this, by the way, is viewed as still within the boundaries of the [espionage] game rules.

Years ago, an American ambassador to Israel requested an urgent meeting with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The meeting was coordinated quickly, from one day to the next. The ambassador arrived and requested a private meeting alone with the prime minister, a request which was granted. Then the ambassador asked the prime minister, “Are you following me?” Shamir didn’t know what to answer. “To the best of my knowledge, no, but I’ll check,” he said. Shamir checked, and it emerged that it wasn’t Israel that was keeping tabs on the ambassador. The ambassador was invited to another meeting where he was gently told the following: "We do not tail you. Check at home to find out who is following you." Subsequently, this issue was never brought up again by that ambassador.

The complaint against the agent who ostensibly sneaked in via the ventilation ducts to the suite of the American vice president was submitted in its time via semi-official channels from the United States to Israel. Danny Yatom, head of the Mossad at that time, received the complaint and promised to inquire into the issue. Yatom summoned the heads of other Israeli espionage branches. He talked to the head of Directorate of Security of the Defense Establishment and additional espionage entities. All of them unilaterally and categorically denied that such a thing could happen.

A strict, supreme standing order exists in the Israeli defense system warning everyone who goes to the United States, or deals with the relevant issues, not to spy, not to be seen as if they are spying and not to provide the Americans with any excuse or pretext to which new accusations can be attached. This directive comes from the highest ranks and is fixed in written documents and in permanent, seasonal drills and warnings. This policy is the result of the explosion of the Jonathan Pollard affair [1985]. Israel was burned badly in that affair and, ever since, has become extra careful, coming to a strategic decision to be doubly careful: no spying on United States territory.

Within the boundaries of Israel, it is legitimate and acceptable to try to wiretap in order to understand as much as possible. Yet the Americans continue to act as if the only thing that interests Israel is to spy on them.

“This is a real disgrace,” I was told one weekend by one of the former heads of Israel’s intelligence arms who is a veteran expert in these matters and was involved in this field for decades. He said that “the Americans allow themselves to repeat these accusations every time only because Israel responds the way it does: by submission, shrugging its shoulders, apologizing and feebly denying the charge. One day we really must go all the way and prove to them that these are total fantasies. We should not give in but demand a true, comprehensive and objective investigation. So long as we continue to behave like a weak satellite state instead of an independent country, it won’t change.”

Throughout the years, Israel was forced to face frequent American claims of espionage. Some of them turned into headlines and real crises. One example is the affair of Israel’s attempted sale of the Falcon spy plane to China [in 2000], a deal that was torpedoed by the United States, and the UAV Harpy drones sold by Israel to China. By American order, Israel ceased its sale of these drones to China, but at one point Israel was forced to carry out the terms of its deal [with China] and fix several spare parts that had broken down. Israel reported these proceedings to the United States, but that did not help. The Americans would not calm down until Gen. (Res.) Amos Yaron, CEO of the Defense Ministry, retired and left his job [in 2005].

American vengeance did not die down until other higher-ups were made to suffer the consequences. This was despite the fact that discussions held between the countries proved that Israel, without a shadow of a doubt, had operated in good faith in accordance with the terms of the contract it had signed, and with true transparency. All these attempts were to no avail. The Americans insisted on beheadings, and got their way. Israel folded. “It was an embarrassing capitulation,” said a retired Israel defense source over the weekend, well acquainted with the details of the affair. “Israel sent Washington special emissaries whose only task was to pacify the Americans at any price, instead of insisting on getting to the truth. Now we pay the price.”

A decade ago, an interesting conversation developed between a very high-level Israeli defense source and an equally high-level American (female) senator. At a certain stage, the accusation of Israeli espionage in the United States arose and the Israeli told his interlocutor that there has not been Israeli espionage within American borders since the Pollard affair. “But I hear that there is,” the American, a woman considered an unequivocal friend of Israel, answered.

“If so, perhaps you will show us some proof, evidence, something testifying to it?” said the defense person. The American senator’s answer was astonishing: “You are so good that you don’t leave traces on the ground. It is impossible to prove anything.”

The Israeli had no answer for this. Today, after years have passed, we can ask: If we are so good, how can it be that we sent an agent to crawl through ventilation ducts to the American vice president’s suite? An Israeli security source adds his own quip: “It’s a good thing that they don’t accuse us of sending classified materials to Washington in invisible ink, or operating carrier pigeons above the Pentagon.”

Let’s make sense out of all this: Everyone involved in the nitty-gritty details knows beyond a doubt that Israel does not conduct espionage activities against the United States within American borders. This directive is meticulously observed. At any given moment, there are numerous Israeli officers and security officials on American land taking courses, involved in professional training sessions, on work visits or attending professional or business-related meetings. They are briefed in advance not to ask too many questions, not to appear too curious and not to raise suspicion in any way. These briefings are the result of the numerous American accusations against Israeli officers who "asked too many questions" in these situations. These instances were checked in Israel and no basis for or hint of espionage was ever found in any of these cases. “The Israelis are truly inquisitive, and when an Israeli officer attends an advanced military course in Virginia, for instance,” said an Israeli source well versed in the subject, “he asks in order to learn and know. Not to spy.”

Now this has also been neutralized. On the other hand, when it comes to Israeli territory there is a legitimate Israeli effort to maintain control over content, events, sometimes even phone calls and more. This happens in all countries, and there is no reason to defame Israel specifically. There is a famous story about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who once spent time on an official visit to an eastern European country. It was very close to the era of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. Sharon was well aware that he was wiretapped wherever he went. When he entered his palatial suite in a hotel in the capital city, he approached one of the decorative lamps in the room, cleared his throat and told his escorts, “Aha, I am really in the mood for a large, juicy Hungarian sausage right now.” After a quarter of an hour, someone knocked on the door. A room-service messenger was there with a large tray of sandwiches, cheeses, refreshments and of course, an appetizing Hungarian sandwich. Sharon laughed and sat down to eat. If only we could laugh at such things today.

The Israeli-American relationship has reached a historic nadir. It is not clear if this is the all-time lowest point, or merely the lowest point of the new era. There are enough problems without this espionage affair. The painful, harsh words spoken by US Special Envoy Martin Indyk at the end of the week, on the heels of the blowup in talks with the Palestinians, represent a crisis in and of itself. Israel "earned" Indyk’s criticism. Israel reacted foolishly when a high-level official in Jerusalem personally attacked Indyk himself to Reuters.

Anyone who wants to ruin relations between Israel and the United States can do an excellent job, even without fabricating whoppers from the world of espionage games.

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Found in: us-israeli intelligence sharing, us-israel relations, us, spies, mossad, israeli military intelligence, israeli foreign policy

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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