There Is No Such Thing as ‘Friendly Espionage’

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama
Last month we reported on a story published by The Associated Press, according to which the Near East Division of the United States Central Intelligence Agency views Israel as the most serious threat to its secrets. The report cited interviews with several current and former US intelligence officials, who said the CIA views the Israeli spy community as “a genuine counterintelligence threat” to American interests. But Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum and well-known American supporter of Israel, has authored a well-researched response to the Associated Press piece, in which he argues that reciprocal spying has been a decades-old element in Israeli-American relations. He recalls the case of Yosef Amit, a Major in Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, who in 1986 was arrested for spying on behalf of the CIA. Amit is believed to have been recruited by US intelligence in Bonn, West Germany; it is said that his handler was Tom Waltz, a Jewish CIA officer from the Agency’s station at the US embassy in Tel Aviv. Amit was convicted in 1987 and stayed in prison until 1993, when he was released after serving two-thirds of his sentence. Pipes also quotes Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington from 1993 until 1996, who has said that, during his tenure as Israel’s envoy in DC, it was common knowledge among embassy staff that “the Americans were […] tapping our phone lines”, including the embassy’s secure line. Consequently, claims Rabinovich, American intelligence potentially had access to “every juicy telegram” communicated to or from the embassy.

It goes without saying, says Pipes, that the US National Security Agency, America’s signals intelligence organization, which is responsible for intercepting and deciphering foreign diplomatic messages, employs a considerable number of Hebrew speakers whose job is to spy on Israeli government communications. The NSA also receives intelligence from US diplomats and military attachés in Tel Aviv, whose job duties include “eavesdropping on conversations between key staff in Israel and at foreign missions”, says Pipes. He also cites the 2008 book Masterpiece: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Israeli Intelligence, which was published in Israel as the definitive official history of Israeli spy services (intelNews reported on it at the time). In the book, former Shin Bet officer Barak Ben-Zur  acknowledges that Israel’s officially unconfirmed nuclear arsenal is a prime espionage target of US intelligence organizations, which “routinely sp[y] on Israel to try to gather information” about it.

Pipe’s conclusion is that “states spy, even on allies, and that is okay […]. The mutual spying has few larger consequences”. It is difficult for anyone familiar with intelligence work to disagree with the first part of Pipes’ conclusion. Allies do spy on each other, sometimes more aggressively than on adversary nations, since they do not face as much counterintelligence hazards in allied environments. But it is equally difficult to accept the second part of Pipes’ conclusion —that reciprocal allied spying has few larger consequences— as anything more than simplistic. Sometimes spying between allies does have large consequences. It could be argued that British intelligence activity in the United States during the opening stages of World War II, which was aimed at pushing America to enter the war, was instrumental in changing the course of the War and of history itself. The United States and the Soviet Union spied on each other in World War II, when they were allies, and nobody in their right mind would argue that the spying was inconsequential, particularly in light of the Cold War that followed. Perhaps more importantly, arguing that the intelligence antagonism between Israel and the United States “has few larger consequences” is hardly applicable to the attack on the USS Liberty, the NSA intelligence collection ship that was napalm-bombed by the Israeli Air Force in 1967. The unprovoked attack killed 34 and wounded 170 American sailors, and nearly triggered a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the White House believed for a while that the American vessel had come under attack by Soviet jets.

All that is to say that mutual spying between allies can indeed have “larger consequences”, whose precise historical significance is often revealed only with the passage of time. Pipes is essentially correct in stating that all allies spy on each other; but this is not to say that espionage conducted by an ally is necessarily less threatening to its target than that conducted by an adversary. A counterintelligence officer —in the United States, Israel, or elsewhere— who makes operational distinctions between ‘friendly’ and ‘adversary’ spies is a liability to her employer and a threat to her country.

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