Just in time for Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel – where he is reported to be focused mainly on not making a fool of himself before the media, London-style – the AP dropped a bombshell disguised as an article on the taboo subject of Israeli espionage against the United States. The detailed piece, which was sourced from several places in the Intelligence Community, has been met with shock and horror in the usual places; Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a denial as vociferous as it was quick. Aggressive Israeli spying on the U.S. is something polite people are never, ever supposed to discuss; mentioning it will not get you invited to the right Georgetown parties.
But there was nothing in the piece which was exactly news to anyone who knows how the global intelligence game is actually played. That CIA considers Israel to be the number-one spy threat in the Middle East is a revelation only to neophytes. Counterintelligence officers for decades have been aware of the extent of Israeli espionage against the U.S., at home and abroad, though politicos are customarily wise enough to never mention it. Indeed, CI experts for years have spoken of the Big Four threats to the USG: Russia, China, Cuba, and Israel.
Russia remains as big a spy threat to the West and the U.S. as it was at the height of the Cold War. Their operations are as aggressive as ever, and their playbook is the same. Although the round-up of a big Russian illegal network in the U.S. two years ago was treated as a comic-opera affair in the media, with emphasis on hot redheads (and, let me say, who doesn’t like hot redheaded spy-vixens?), that story justifiably caused deep concern in CI circles and indicated big problems, including possible penetrations of U.S. intelligence.
The Chinese spy threat is less popularly understood, and there is a lot less written about it, with some happy exceptions, but Beijing’s espionage against the USG has risen in recent years and shows no signs of abating, rather the contrary. That said, Chinese HUMINT operations are seldom successful outside their ethnic millieu – though that may be cold comfort given the size of the overseas Chinese community in the West today.
The inclusion of Cuba on the Big Four list may surprise, given the comically pathetic condition of that country, but Havana’s intelligence agencies have long punched above their weight in the global spy game. Cuban operations against the USG are widespread and pernicious, including long-term penetrations of our intelligence agencies. Castro’s case officers for decades have had no trouble recruiting spies among Cuban exiles – usually they have more volunteers than they can handle – and Cuban-American groups are deeply penetrated (usually the crazier and more right-wing an exile pontificates, the more likely s/he is a mole for Havana). Not surprisingly, Florida is a hotspot for Cuban espionage. Neverthless, like the Chinese, the Cubans operate best among ethnic kin, save the occasional oddball lefty Anglos who actually lose money spying for Cuba.
The Israeli espionage threat to the United States, however, is different, because DC and Tel Aviv are such close partners, and Israel is the world’s biggest recipient of American aid dollars. In the real world, allies do spy on each other. Per the counterspy’s mantra: There are no friendly intelligence agencies. Yet America’s closest intelligence partners, the Five Eyes of the Anglosphere (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and usually New Zealand), have preserved a remarkable amount of the sincere spy-friendship borne of shared hardship in World War II, and come pretty close to being friends who don’t spy on each other.
Israel emphatically is not that sort of spy-buddy. The AP article included glimpses of just how aggressive and duplicitous Israeli HUMINT operations against American interests actually are, and have been for decades. Anyone who has looked closely at the infamous Pollard case, including Israel’s continuing lobbying to get their boy out of his jail cell, gets some sense of how the Israelis play the game.
It’s no secret inside the Beltway that Israel spies on everybody, America included, and uses its close partnership with the USG to further its espionage against it. None of this is new, and as far back as 1954 Israeli dirty tricks targeted the U.S., including the false-flag bombing of the U.S. Information Agency office in Egypt, the so-called Lavon affair. Espionage is a messy business, to be sure, but what sets the Israelis apart is that they act so aggressively even towards their closest friends.
Israel’s intelligence agencies are small – certainly compared to America’s multi-headed espionage leviathan – and professional. Foreign HUMINT and dirty tricks are handled by the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (the legendary MOSSAD), while domestic intelligence is conducted by the impressive Security Agency (SHABAK), yet the biggest piece of the puzzle is Military Intelligence (AMAN), which includes Israel’s substantial and effective SIGINT effort.
The “MOSSAD myth” is a real force-multiplier, even though it’s only partly true. Israeli spies are far from super-human, as a long string of missteps and own-goals will attest, yet they are undeniably super-aggressive, including against America. Their small numbers are boosted abroad by sayanim (“helpers”), mainly diaspora Jews who provide material support to Israeli intelligence. From a CI perspective this makes Israeli operations a tough nut to crack, not to mention that MOSSAD relies on an array of fronts and cut-outs in many countries to assist its espionage. It was no surprise to CI hands that DoD’s Larry Franklin was convicted in 2006 of passing classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, since although AIPAC is widely known to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, the counterspies understand that it has an, ahem, exceptionally close relationship with Israeli intelligence. CI professionals were likewise less than shocked when it turned out that Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House’s intelligence committee, was reported to be having spooky conversations with AIPAC too.
There is a long history of Israeli espionage against America and its interests, and an equally long history of the American MSM showing little interest in delving deeply into some of the more intriguing Israeli ops in the United States (see: Israeli art students). In this sense, the weekend’s AP story was a surprise, and a welcome one. As a former CI officer I have nothing but professional admiration for what Israeli spooks manage to pull off, and in their shoes I’d do exactly the same stuff. Yet as an American I have questions about what our ally is doing, and why we tolerate the worst of it.
For a long time, American journalists and politicians have denied there is an issue here. The AP has blown the lid on that one, and good on them. Henceforth, those who deny that Israel spies mightily on the USA are either playing politics or they don’t know what they are talking about.