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No Surprises: Israel, America, and Spying
States spying on allies is nothing new.

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to Washington

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Daniel Pipes

Israelis spying on Americans is in the news again: Leaders of the Jewish state just petitioned for Jonathan Pollard’s release and the Associated Press reported with alarm that U.S. national-security officials at times consider Israel to be “a genuine counterintelligence threat.” Its tone of breathless outrage suggests: How dare they! Who do they think they are?

But spying on allies is the norm, and it’s a two-way street. Before getting too worked up, Americans should realize that Washington is no innocent. From Reagan to Obama, the U.S. government has sustained a massive spying effort against Israel. Examples:

  • Yosef Amit, a former major in Israeli military intelligence, spied for the CIA for several years, focusing on troop movements and policies toward Lebanon and the Palestinians, until his 1986 arrest.
     
  • Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 1993-96, revealed that during his tenure, the U.S. government deciphered an Israeli code: “The Americans were certainly tapping the [embassy’s] regular phone lines” and even its secure line. As a result, he says, “Every ‘juicy’ telegram was in danger of being leaked. We sent very few of them. Sometimes I came to Israel to deliver reports orally.”
     
  • A mysterious submarine in Israeli territorial waters eleven miles from Haifa in November 2004, which fled upon discovery, turned out to be American, raising memories of the USS Liberty’s covert mission in June 1967.
     
  • Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist specializing in intelligence, found that U.S. military attachés in Tel Aviv gathered covert information sometime after 1996. Israeli officials, he discloses, believe the U.S. intelligence services have been eavesdropping on conversations between key staff in Israel and at foreign missions. U.S. spying, he concludes, has exposed “Israel’s deepest policy secrets.”
     
  • An official history of Israel’s intelligence services published in 2008 found (as reported by Reuters) that U.S. spy agencies use the embassy in Tel Aviv to engage in electronic eavesdropping and train embassy staff for “methodical intelligence gathering.”
     
  •  Barak Ben-Zur, a retired Shin Bet intelligence officer, wrote in that same volume that “The United States has been after Israel’s non-conventional capabilities and what goes on at the decision-making echelons.”
     
  • A 5,000-word secret memorandum dated October 31, 2008 (released by WikiLeaks), sent under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s name, catalogues topics that State  wants information on. The very long list includes intelligence on “Israel’s decision-making process for launching military operations and determining retaliation for terrorist attacks”; “evidence of Government of Israel” involvement in “settlement and outpost growth” on the West Bank; details on Israel Defense Forces operations against Hamas, “including targeted assassinations and tactics/techniques used by ground and air units”; and everything about information technologies used by “government and military authorities, intelligence and security services.”
     
  •  The National Security Agency employs large numbers of Hebrew speakers at its Fort Meade, Md., headquarters, where they listen to intercepts of Israeli communications. The 2009 legal problems of one of their number, Shamai K. Leibowitz, concerning his leaking information, revealed that he translated Hebrew-language conversations at the Israeli embassy in Washington into English, neatly confirming Rabinovich’s revelation.

Observers have drawn the obvious conclusion: Yitzhak Rabin, twice prime minister, commented, in Caroline Glick’s paraphrase, that “every few years Israel discovers another U.S. agent committing espionage against the state.” An Israeli counterintelligence agent notes that Americans “are trying to spy on us all the time — every way they can.” Matthew M. Aid, the American author of Intel Wars, finds that Washington “started spying on Israel even before the state of Israel was formally founded in 1948, and Israel has always spied on us.”

As Aid indicates, the spying is reciprocal. What’s more, it’s been routine, known, and implicitly accepted by both sides. It’s also not terribly worrisome, for these allies share much in common, from moral values to ideological enemies, and they often work in tandem. Therefore the mutual spying has few larger consequences.

Why then spy at all? Why not invite Israel into the Anglophone “five eyes” grouping that promises not to spy on each other? Because Israel is at war. As Ben-Zur of Shin Bet puts it, “At the end of the day, the United States does not want to be surprised. Even by us.” Nor, for that matter, do the Israelis want to be surprised. Even by Americans.

So, let’s be adults about this and calm down. States spy, even on allies. That’s okay.

— Daniel Pipes is President of the Middle East Forum and Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.



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