Neocons Protest US Spying on Israel

U.S. neocons are livid over a report that U.S. intelligence spied on Israeli efforts to sabotage the Iran nuclear talks, though they are curiously silent on evidence that Israel spies on the U.S. Ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says it would be a mistake to let this pressure blind U.S. leaders on what Israel is up to.

By Paul R. Pillar

An article in the Wall Street Journal about what the journalists describe as U.S. interception of communications of Israeli leaders has caused a stir, especially among those habitually quickest to leap to the defense of Israeli policies. We in the public do not know how much of the article’s content is true; it represents one stream of reporting by one newspaper’s correspondents.

The administration and the intelligence agencies, quite understandably and appropriately, are not confirming or denying any of this. But worthy of comment are some of the reactions to the report, as well as what U.S. intelligence should be doing in this direction regardless of what it is or is not doing right now.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own "red line" on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

U.S. intelligence agencies have responsibility to collect, within the limits of applicable laws and regulations, information on whatever is going on overseas, including whatever is going on inside foreign governments, that will help provide U.S. policymakers with the most complete and accurate picture of situations that they will have to deal with and that bear on important U.S. national interests. The policymakers in turn have responsibility for availing themselves of such information, for not impeding the proper collection and analysis of it, and for being as well-informed as they can be as they make decisions and conduct foreign relations.

Unquestionably the activities of the Israeli government fall within the bucket of things going on overseas that bear on important U.S. interests and thus are important for U.S. policymakers to be fully informed about. Israel is a major player in the Middle East and has been at the center of wars, debilitating occupations, and much else that makes for instability and controversy and that unavoidably have been major policy preoccupations for Washington.

The impact of Israeli actions on U.S. interests has been made all the greater because of the close association in the eyes of the world between the United States and Israel and thus the opprobrium that the former suffers because of actions of the latter.

The impact of Israeli policies and actions on U.S. interests has included much that is damaging and destructive, which is the kind of impact that ought to be among the highest priorities for the collection of intelligence. Recently, in connection with negotiation of the multilateral agreement to restrict the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli government did everything it could to sabotage and frustrate an important foreign policy initiative of the United States and its Western allies.

The Journal story states that intelligence collection enabled U.S. policymakers to learn details of Israel’s leaking of information about the negotiation, information Israel had obtained in confidential briefings by the United States or through what the Journal has reported as Israel’s own spying on the negotiations. This is certainly the kind of information it would be very useful for any policymaker to have in determining how to manage both a negotiation and any briefings of outside countries about the negotiation.

One thing this whole story is not about is “domestic spying”, not even to the same degree as the controversial matter of bulk collection of telephone metadata. It is common for intelligence collection aimed at foreign actors to involve conversations or other interactions with U.S. actors. This pattern is a natural consequence of the foreign actor being an important intelligence target precisely because of the impact or potential impact on important U.S. interests.

This is true of a foreign terrorist group seeking collaborators for an armed attack inside the United States. It is true of a foreign government searching for entry points for a cyber-attack against U.S. infrastructure. And it is true of a foreign government endeavoring to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.

The rules and procedures that the National Security Agency observes in handling intercepted communications that involve any U.S. persons or organizations are longstanding, well established, and extremely strict. Basically those rules involve not disseminating anywhere, even as highly classified material and even to other members of the intelligence community, any identifying information about any U.S. persons or institutions, and no information at all beyond what could not be excised without rendering the intelligence about the foreign subject meaningless and useless.

The rules also involve a clear understanding that information obtained about any U.S. persons can be picked up only as an unavoidable by-product of collecting against a foreign target, and can never itself be the objective of collection.

One of those who was quick to comment on this story, Elliott Abrams, pays no attention at all to these aspects of how such intelligence reporting is handled, as he professes to be scandalized by the Journal‘s report. He thus tries to portray the matter as something else it is not, which is some kind of improper encroachment of the executive branch on the legislative branch.

Abrams also declares that the United States should never monitor the communications of “close allies.” Setting aside the general question of why there should be such forbearance when even close allies have some interests that differ from those of the United States, this is another instance of the familiar practice of overlooking or excusing much that Israel does by simply applying to it the label “ally.”

This practice involves mere labeling, and rather arbitrary and questionable labeling at that, taking precedence over careful consideration of U.S. interests. Unlike all of the other countries that Abrams names as “close allies” (Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, and Canada), Israel has no treaty of alliance with the United States, which is a good thing, given the kind of scrapes that Israel gets into.

And none of those true allies (in their current incarnations, not as a former Revolutionary War foe or a fascist empire) has caused the United States anything like the problems the current incarnation of Israel does.

Although Abrams considers any intelligence collection by the United States aimed at Israel to be a scandal, he doesn’t say anything about Israel’s espionage against its “close ally” the United States. In addition to what the Journal reports to be recent such espionage regarding the Iran nuclear negotiations, there is the reminder we got earlier this year of the larger history involved when Jonathan Pollard was back in the news upon the occasion of his parole.

The Pollard case still is one of the biggest episodes of espionage, in terms of the sheer volume of U.S. secrets stolen and the damage to U.S. security, that the United States has ever suffered. The damage is especially severe in light of what Israel has done with U.S. defense-related information, including what it has done recently, when it has gotten its hands on such information.

The Israeli government initially lied to the United States by denying any involvement in Pollard, just as it is denying any involvement in leaking details of the negotiations with Iran. Whatever the United States has found out about these matters evidently has come from its own resources, not conversation with its Israeli “ally.”

One additional issue raised by the Journal‘s story concerns the expectations habitually placed on U.S. intelligence, especially in hindsight after perceived failures. The Middle East, and especially untoward events such as wars there, have figured prominently in this record. The outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, for example, is high on most lists of U.S. intelligence failures.

Six years earlier was another war, the Israelis started this one, that is seen as a U.S. intelligence success. The Johnson administration was unable to prevent the 1967 war, but it had all the information it needed on what was about to happen, and it tried hard to prevent it. The 1967 war was especially damaging in that it marked the beginning of an occupation, now nearly half a century old, that has been a central issue in the Middle East and one of the most persistent problems there for the United States.

Surprise attacks and warfare in the Middle East will continue to be major concerns for the United States, and it thus behooves the United States to use all available intelligence resources to find out as much as it can about such things, including whatever aspects of them involve Israeli intentions.

Along this line, we should note how often has arisen the threat of Israel militarily attacking Iran, and of how this threat is related to the subject of the nuclear negotiations that have been the target of Israeli sabotage attempts and reported Israeli espionage.

If the United States is surprised by a new war in the Middle East, if the surprise is due to the United States abstaining from collecting intelligence on Israel, and if that abstinence is due to political pressure not to spy on an “ally,” then we will know who ought to be blamed for the failure, and it won’t be U.S. intelligence agencies.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Neocons Protest US Spying on Israel

  1. DC Reade
    January 18, 2016 at 13:15

    fwiw, just tried to connect to the Greenwald article on The Intercept, and the software on my browser refused to allow me access to the site while providing the reason that “the security certificate is invalid.”

    Usually, when that page comes up on my computer, I get the option to make an exception; not this time, though. It was “Get me out of here!” or nothing. The same restriction applied when I set up a different tab and search page, and tried to enter the Intercept site itself.

  2. Abe
    January 5, 2016 at 21:43

    NSA spying on Israel: This is how you treat your enemies,7340,L-4747949,00.html

  3. Abe
    January 5, 2016 at 21:34

    In 2005, the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration ordered the NSA to spy on the telephone calls of Americans without the warrants required by law, and the paper ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for doing so. The politician who did more than anyone to suffocate that scandal and ensure there were no consequences was then-Congresswoman Jane Harman, the ranking Democratic member on the House Intelligence Committee.

    In the wake of that NSA scandal, Harman went on every TV show she could find and categorically defended Bush’s warrantless NSA program as “both legal and necessary,” as well as “essential to U.S. national security.” Worse, she railed against the “despicable” whistleblower (Thomas Tamm) who disclosed this crime and even suggested that the newspaper that reported it should have been criminally investigated (but not, of course, the lawbreaking government officials who ordered the spying). Because she was the leading House Democrat on the issue of the NSA, her steadfast support for the Bush/Cheney secret warrantless surveillance program and the NSA generally created the impression that support for this program was bipartisan.

    But in 2009 — a mere four years later — Jane Harman did a 180-degree reversal. That’s because it was revealed that her own private conversations had been eavesdropped on by the NSA. Specifically, CQ’s Jeff Stein reported that an NSA wiretap caught Harman “telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage charges against two officials of American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in exchange for the agent’s agreement to lobby Nancy Pelosi to name Harman chair of the House Intelligence Committee.” Harman vehemently denied that she sought this quid pro quo, but she was so furious that she herself (rather than just ordinary citizens) had been eavesdropped on by the NSA that — just like Pete Hoekstra did yesterday — she transformed overnight into an aggressive and eloquent defender of privacy rights, and demanded investigations of the spying agency that for so long she had defended:

    “I call it an abuse of power in the letter I wrote [Attorney General Eric Holder] this morning. … I’m just very disappointed that my country — I’m an American citizen just like you are — could have permitted what I think is a gross abuse of power in recent years. I’m one member of Congress who may be caught up in it, and I have a bully pulpit and I can fight back. I’m thinking about others who have no bully pulpit, who may not be aware, as I was not, that someone is listening in on their conversations, and they’re innocent Americans.”

    The stalwart defender of NSA spying learned that her own conversations had been monitored and she instantly began sounding like an ACLU lawyer, or Edward Snowden. Isn’t that amazing?

    Spying on Congress and Israel: NSA Cheerleaders Discover Value of Privacy Only When Their Own Is Violated
    By Glenn Greenwald

  4. Zachary Smith
    January 5, 2016 at 20:09

    Another bunch with their panties in a wad are the congressional critters who have been pandering to Holy Israel. The Schneier on Security site references another WSJ article and other sources to talk about their hypocrisy.

    So now, with yesterday’s WSJ report, we witness the tawdry spectacle of large numbers of people who for years were fine with, responsible for, and even giddy about NSA mass surveillance suddenly objecting. Now they’ve learned that they themselves, or the officials of the foreign country they most love, have been caught up in this surveillance dragnet, and they can hardly contain their indignation. Overnight, privacy is of the highest value because now it’s their privacy, rather than just yours, that is invaded.

    I really wish that shitty little apartheid nation-state didn’t have the US Congress in its pocket.

  5. Anthony Shaker
    January 5, 2016 at 15:46

    There is a simple response to this. It is high time that traitors be called traitors and brought to justice for conspiring against their own country and passing on vital information to Israel. Without a legal deterrent against treason, no country should expect to survive for long. The United States is no exception.

    I truly fear for the American people. What awaits them if the Neocon criminals continue to hold sway is nothing to sneeze at. There is a deadly foreign parasite in the body politic.

  6. January 5, 2016 at 12:29

    While I disagree with the relevance of the Pollard case to Israeli current spying, and where it stands with the efforts of other spies against the USA, especially the work of MI5’s Peter Wright aka as SCOTT and ‘K”, Rick Ames, and Robert Hanssen for the Soviets, you are certainly right about its current efforts.

    The Mossad has been on the warpath with Washington ever since they parted ways over dealing with Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. They had worked together to stop this, even getting rid of leaker John P. Wheeler, III when he tried to frustrate their efforts.

    Obama was the one who intervened to promote the diplomatic route on solving what Iran apparently had in the way of nuclear weapons.

    TeleAviv went on the warpath in response, and it now, thanks to the Saudis joining the fray, has the upper hand despite the most justified spying by the American intelligence community.

    What Netanyahu is saying to friend and foe behind the backs of Washington is of the highest priority in preventing a general war in which nuclear weapons might well be used.

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