Why Israel spies on the US

1962 Spy vs. Spy cartoon by Antonio Prohias

1962 Spy vs. Spy cartoon by Antonio Prohias

A recent AP piece tells us that the CIA considers Israel its “number one counterintelligence threat” in the Middle East.

The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East, according to current and former officials. Counterintelligence is the art of protecting national secrets from spies. This means the CIA believes that U.S. national secrets are safer from other Middle Eastern governments than from Israel.

The article describes several incidents illustrative of the mistrust between the intelligence agencies of the two nations, including of course the cases of Jonathan Pollard and Ben-Ami Kadish.

One wonders why this article appears now. Did the story idea suddenly pop into the heads of the AP writers? I don’t think so. Someone at the CIA decided to stick it to Israel today, when Mitt Romney is going around (correctly, in my opinion) criticizing the Obama Administration for tilting against Israel.

The piece strains mightily to find an example of a case in which Israeli spying actually damaged US interests (at least, interests that the CIA is willing to publicly admit). The best it can do is point to a Syrian scientist who was working for the CIA who might have been caught because of an Israeli leak.

It’s very probable that the massive damage to US spy networks in the USSR that Jonathan Pollard was accused of causing was actually attributable to spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen:

[US Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger publicly stated that Pollard was the worst spy in American history: “It is difficult for me, even in the so-called year of the spy, to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant.” Despite his plea agreement to the contrary with the government, Pollard was given the maximum sentence, life in prison. Weinberger later said that he wished Pollard had been shot.

A week after the sentencing, the Washington Times reported that the United States had identified Shabtai Kalmanovich as the Soviet spy in Israel who supposedly worked for the Mossad but was actually working for the KGB; he had betrayed American secrets to Moscow. Kalmanovich had been flying under a false flag. Washington insiders winked knowingly at one another: Pollard’s contact in Israel had been caught.

Just to make sure that Pollard was blamed, U.S. intelligence sources, several months later, leaked word to the press of the Kalmanovich connection. “A Russian mole has infiltrated the Mossad and is transmitting highly sensitive American intelligence information to the Russians,” was the report flashed around the world by United Press International on Dec. 14, 1987. Citing “American intelligence sources,” the UPI announced that the “sensitive intelligence material relayed to Israel by Jonathan Pollard had reached the KGB.”

But it was all untrue. Every bit of it. Pollard wasn’t the serial killer. The Jew didn’t do it. It was one of their own WASPs-Aldrich Ames, a drunken senior CIA official who sold the names of America’s agents to the Russians for cash. Pollard was framed for Ames’s crime, while Ames kept on drinking and spying for the Soviets for several more years. In fact, Israeli intelligence later suspected that Ames played a direct role in framing Pollard. But no one in America then knew the truth.

Ames was arrested in February 1994, and confessed to selling out American agents in the Soviet Union, but not all of them. It was only logical to assume that Pollard had betrayed the rest of them, as one former CIA official admitted shortly after Ames’s arrest. Even one life lost was too many. So Pollard continued to rot in jail. No one dreamed that yet another high-level Washington insider had sold us out to Soviet intelligence. Years passed, and eventually a Russian defector told the truth. A senior FBI official-Special Agent Robert Hanssen-had betrayed the rest of our agents. Hanssen was arrested in February 2001, and soon confessed in order to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

One must ask what, exactly, is the aim of Israeli spying against the US? It is certainly not — as  with Soviet and contemporary Russian espionage — to weaken us diplomatically and gain a military advantage in a possible conflict. Nor does it, as is the case with Chinese spying, also include a massive component of industrial espionage to erode America’s competitive advantage in world markets.

No, it seems to me that Israeli spies are interested in questions like these:

  • What does the US know about Arab or Iranian capabilities or plans that it has not revealed?
  • What are US officials saying to Israel’s enemies in private? What are they hearing from them?
  • What are the capabilities of weapons the US is selling to Israel’s enemies? Is technical information available that could provide countermeasures?
  • What are US plans regarding its possible actions in the event of a conflict between Israel and Arab states, Iran or terrorist proxies?
  • What are agents of Israel’s enemies up to in the US? Who are they working with?

Naturally, the US doesn’t want Israel to know these things, as they constrain US actions and impinge on some conceptions of US interests. But from an Israeli point of view, it all represents information that is vital to Israel’s survival. And if you think that, from an American point of view, Israel’s continued existence is a Good Thing, you might wonder why Israel finds it necessary to spy on its great ally.

Update [1618 PDT]: The Israeli Prime Minister’s office has commented on the AP item saying “This is a false report.”

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