By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent, In Homeland Security
It’s expected that nations will collect intelligence. Much of it is open source, but other methods carry a certain weight because of sensitivity. Intelligence gathered from human sources is among the most sensitive of these collection methods. Some of this sensitive intelligence is shared among allies and the U.S. has intelligence sharing agreements on numerous levels with different nations. Frankly, it’s quite complicated, but it’s important to note that safeguards are put in place to protect sources and methods. What this means is that while intelligence may be shared the method by which it was acquired may not be. This is precisely why bigot lists – access rosters – are used. There is also professional courtesy among “friendly agencies.” Here’s the thing, though, intelligence that is shared is bound by agreements and cannot be shared with nations not party to the agreement.
Though there is little in the way of protecting information once it’s shared, professional courtesy to abide by intelligence sharing agreements is expected. If it’s discovered that the trust of the agreement was violated, then relations can take a hit and sharing agreements can be revised. This is one of the many issues counterintelligence analysts look at when trying to understand why a nation not privy to certain information has something that they shouldn’t. This was evident in the Wall Street Journal piece yesterday that described Israeli collection on the U.S. as being discovered by Washington’s own intelligence collection on Israel.
The U.S. is generally concerned with Israeli espionage and many who work counterintelligence consider Israel to be the top collection threat in the Near East. Some in the media have taken this out of context and placed Israel as the top collection threat, but it’s important to note that the threat is indeed regional. The high profile of U.S.-Israeli relations and the history of contentious espionage issues between the two nations often brings a lot of attention to any allegations of Israeli collection attempts. Israel and the U.S. do have an intelligence sharing agreement in place, but there are some things Israel may want or need that don’t fall under that agreement. This is what often serves as the motivation for Israel to collect that information to fill intelligence gaps. For the U.S., this is unacceptable because Washington chose not to share information for a specific reason and now that it is in the hands of a foreign nation it becomes difficult to protect the sources and methods used to collect that intelligence in the first place. This was an element in the now infamous espionage case involving Jonathan Pollard. Pollard claimed that the intelligence he provided to Israel fell under the sharing agreement; however that was not his call to make. Furthermore, intelligence he provided to Israel wound up in the hands of the Soviet Union.
The Pollard affair was the breaking point in how Israel collected intelligence on the U.S. and caused a low in U.S. – Israeli relations. Embarrassment followed, but eventually Israel made changes to its intelligence community and swore to never repeat the Pollard incident. Of course this didn’t mean that Israel would stop spying. After all, intelligence collection is a necessary element of statecraft. What changed was targeting and methods of targeting. United States would remain an intelligence target, but the methods used to collect that information would change. From the U.S. perspective, Washington would continue to collect on Israel to ensure its interests and information were protected. It didn’t take the Snowden leaks to demonstrate that the U.S. spies on its allies. Turnabout is fair game so to speak, but the practicality of collecting intelligence on allies and adversaries alike is vital and not necessarily vindictive.
In looking at this Wall Street Journal article covering the United States and Israel spying on one another over the Iranian negotiations there are a few things of note. First, when an article covering intelligence appears in the news and quotes unnamed officials it’s important to remember that these anonymous officials aren’t always anonymous. Or at least not as anonymous as one would think. People who are truly in the know can be few and far between, and those who can speak with authority are fewer still. In other words, if this was not an authorized leak, then it would not be too difficult to narrow down the individual responsible for unauthorized disclosure of information. Naturally there are exceptions to this, but the leaked information appears deliberate. Second, the article appears at a politically sensitive time for both nations. The United States and Israel are at a politically contentious standoff over the Iranian negotiations because of the high stakes for all parties involved. This article appears to be another salvo in the battle between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, this seems to be a calculated release on the part of the White House. From an analytical standpoint much of the information presented in the article that was allegedly collected by the Israelis doesn’t necessarily seem to have come from U.S. sources. Israel is widely known to be actively and aggressively collecting intelligence on Iran, thus it stands to reason that any details of the negotiations that the U.S. didn’t disclose to its Middle Eastern allies could’ve been collected from an Iranian source. Furthermore, Israel has ties with other western nations that are involved in the negotiations and some of these nations have provided details of the negotiations to the Israelis. In those cases, diplomacy, not espionage, would likely have been a source of much of the information. In short, while it is known that Israel collects intelligence on the U.S., at times aggressively, there were plenty of other sources of information available for exploitation. In light of how few examples were provided in the Wall Street Journal article by the anonymous official on how Israel collected the information on the United States, it would suggest that any information collected by the Israelis would have been used to confirm something they already knew.
One aspect that was a bit bothering was that some members of Congress seemed unconcerned that Israel was spying on the Iranian nuclear negotiations generally, or the U.S. specifically. Some members that were interviewed refused to view the intelligence collection as spying at all. This didn’t seem to be a partisan view, either. Frankly, members of congress should always be concerned when a foreign nation or non-state entity engages in any sort of espionage against the U.S. Granted, everyone spies, and while that is important to accept and recognize, the U.S. also practices counterintelligence for a good reason. U.S. Secrets are secrets for a reason and they must be protected. Indeed, the legislative body has oversight of the intelligence community and one would hope that they’d show more concern. All this being said, the nonchalance by some members of congress as discussed in a recent Daily Beast article didn’t identify which members were briefed by the Israelis as suggested by the Wall Street Journal article that kicked off this whole controversy. There are many unanswered questions that still need to be addressed, but for now what we have read regarding espionage between the U.S. and Israel is nothing new and unlikely to change. What we do have is further evidence that everybody spies. Intelligence collection is vital to statecraft and that is a constant that simply won’t change.
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