Kadish court 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Master spy novelist John Le CarrÃ© once said, "We have learned in recent years to translate almost all of political life in terms of conspiracy." In some cases though, the converse may be equally true; we must learn to read conspiracies in terms of politics.
So it is with the arrest of Ben-Ami Kadish, the 84-year-old former US army engineer arrested in New York City on Tuesday on charges of passing classified information to Israel. Even assuming the charges have substance, the circumstances, and especially the timing of his arrest - 23 years after he allegedly last committed an act of espionage on behalf of Israel - raises puzzling and troubling questions.
To make sense of this affair, one must look beyond the details of the case, and speculate as to how they may be connected to broader and longer-standing political issues connected to the Israel-US relationship. The following examines some of these strands and their possible links to the Ben-Ami arrest - and while some of these connections may indeed sound conspiratorial, even something out a Le CarrÃ© novel or an Oliver Stone movie, none is without some basis in fact.
The Pollard affair and the search for "Mega" - How did the FBI finally catch on to Ben-Ami's alleged espionage after more than two decades? Accord to a senior US intelligence officer quoted yesterday by Newsweek, Kadish's spying activities on behalf of Israel were only "first discovered within the last few years... The official said the information that identified Kadish came from supersecret intelligence monitoring related to ongoing inquiries about the Pollard case."
Although Kadish's espionage activity was concurrent with that of Pollard, the only known link between the two is that they shared the same "handler" - Yosef Yagur, formerly the consul for scientific affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York in the early 1980s, who returned to Israel following Pollard's arrest in 1985 and the subsequent closure of the Lekem intelligence branch under which he worked.
If the Newsweek source is correct, this likely means that Kadish was detected by the US intelligence monitoring not of him, but of Yagur (believed to be an alias). Other reports have cited a meeting between Yagur and Kadish in Israel four years ago as the possible tip-off for the FBI as to the latter's spying role.
This is hugely significant - for it means that the US, having identified and located Yagur somewhere in Israel, was still monitoring his communications and movements two decades after the Pollard affair.
The US National Security Agency certainly has that capability - but why would they make such a significant investment in an Israeli spy handler who presumably long ago came in from the cold and is no longer active?
One probable answer is "Mega" - reportedly the code-name of what some US law enforcement and counterintelligence officials believe is an Israeli mole placed somewhere in the upper reaches of the American government during the time that Pollard was active.
This notion is based on what US intelligence sources have said was very specific requests for classified information made to Pollard by Yagur and his other Israeli handlers, as well as a reference to such an individual in an intercepted conversation between two Israeli officials. Israel has steadfastly denied it ever ran such an agent, a claim that reportedly has never convinced certain key intelligence officials, in particular David Szady, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.
Thus the search for big fish Mega - focused on Yagur - eventually turned up the relatively small fish Kadish (in terms of the information he delivered). But Kadish's exposure will only serve to justify the views of those in the US intelligence community that Israel has never come clean on Mega's existence or identity - and will also provide them with additional ammunition to argue the case that Pollard should not be released until Israel fully cooperates as to the extent of Yagur's activities in the US.
The AIPAC case and blowback from the intelligence wars over Iraq - If the Mega-Yagur connection explains the delay in Kadish's exposure, what about the timing and manner of his arrest? Such matters can certainly be handled more quietly, and the FBI and Justice Department also seem to have moved extremely quickly with the arrest of Kadish after intercepting a conversation he allegedly had on March 20 in which Yagur told him to lie to investigators. After all, it is not as if the long-retired Kadish posed any form of imminent threat.
One possibility is that the FBI and Justice Department wanted the arrest to hit the headlines before the start of trial in the US government's case against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, scheduled after many delays to get underway in Washington on Tuesday.
The charges in the AIPAC case are similar to that of the Kadish affair - that two senior AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, improperly received classified material from Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin and passed it on to Israeli diplomatic officials.
But the government has encountered many pre-trial setbacks in making its case. Unlike Kadish, Rosen and Weissman were not themselves government employees, and violated no loyalty oaths. Indeed, the prosecution of such civilians on this charge is unprecedented, and the trial judge has already agreed to a series of defense motions that are likely to make this case a tough sell, if not an embarrassment, for the FBI and Justice Department.
How convenient, then, to have the Kadish case break big in the media right before the trial begins, helping to create the impression for judge, jury and public that AIPAC's activities took place in a context of past Israeli efforts to spy on US secrets.
There is a correlating factor here, connected to the policy conflict that began in the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war and afterwards, between the "neoconservative" officials who very much wanted intelligence information that would support an invasion - most of them also identified as strong supporters of Israel - and veteran defense and intelligence officials of the "realist" foreign policy school that opposed them. Larry Franklin belonged to the former camp, and members of the latter believed AIPAC and other Israel-backers were too influential in the Bush administration's decision-making. The AIPAC case has been seen in part as blowback from this Washington bureaucracy battle.
Likewise, the timing and manner of Kadish's exposure might be read as another indication that with most of the most prominent neo-cons now gone from the Bush administration, officials less supportive of Israel are in the driver's seat.
Almost all the Israeli and American officials who have thus commented on the Kadish arrest have asserted that it is unlikely to have any influence on US-Israel security cooperation.
That may well be true, but it is equally improbable to claim that an incident like this would have no impact whatsoever.
In this regard, it is perhaps useful to draw a comparison between the context of US-Israel security cooperation at the time that both Pollard and, allegedly, Kadish were passing on American secrets to Israel, and the current situation.
Pollard has admitted that part of his motivation was a growing concern over the fact that Washington was increasing its security cooperation and assistance with parts of the Arab world back in the early 1980s (especially with Saudi Arabia, which received AWACs for the first time), while holding back valuable intelligence information from Israel.
Jerusalem is always looking to upgrade its security cooperation and assistance from the US, but that need has become even more pressing in recent years because of the Iranian threat. There are powerful voices in Washington who believe Israel already gets enough, or too much, or even asks for too much - for example, the F-22 stealth jet fighter that Jerusalem has been pressing to be allowed to purchase. The controversy a few years ago over Israeli arms sales to China in the face of Pentagon objections only exacerbated these differences.
The exposure of Kadish, a former US army engineer who allegedly delivered classified information about the then-fledgling Patriot missile system to Israel (and about advanced weapons systems sold to Arab states) certainly makes it less comfortable, at least in the short term, for Jerusalem and Israel supporters in Washington to press their case, especially in public.
This element of the Kadish affair goes together with the weakening of AIPAC via the Rosen-Weissman prosecution, as part of an overall agenda by certain US governmental elements who believe it necessary to clip the wings of the so-called Israel lobby.
All of the above theories focus on the possible role played in the Kadish arrest by members of Washington's "permanent establishment" in such agencies and departments as the FBI, CIA, NSA, the Pentagon and the Justice Department.
But what about the White House? Surely such officials as President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were informed about the pending Kadish arrest. Though the White House would not have impacted the course of this investigation, it surely could have influenced the timing and circumstances of the arrest, if it had wanted to.
Is it problematic for Bush to have this incident occur only weeks before he is scheduled to return here to help celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary? Or could it actually have been in some ways convenient for him and Rice to have this break now? One thing supporting the latter supposition is that the Bush administration is currently pressing the Olmert government to be more forthcoming in the peace process, especially to move forward on agreement with the Palestinians on a "declaration of principles" for a final-status agreement. This kind of embarrassing incident for Jerusalem could be interpreted as a way to soften up Olmert as Bush and Rice try to turn the screws on him.
Admittedly, it sounds far-fetched that this kind of sensitive intelligence issue would be as a blunt policy instrument. Except that it may have happened before, in a way very connected to this case.
In May 1997, a Clinton administration source leaked to The Washington Post the contents of a conversation between Israeli diplomats, monitored by US intelligence agencies, in which the mysterious Mega mole was supposedly mentioned. As Time magazine subsequently noted: "The leak came at a tindery time for US diplomacy in the Middle East. The Clinton administration has had testy relations with [then-prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu, whom Washington blames for the gridlock in the Palestinian talks. Israeli officials complained that if their embassy phone calls were tapped, Washington also is guilty of spying." The leak was interpreted by some informed observers at the time as a means of turning the heat up on Netanyahu, to get him to be flexible in advancing the Oslo process.
And now, at this sensitive juncture in the peace process, we get the Kadish affair - and presumably, a desire on Jerusalem's part to make an extra effort in Washington's direction in order to avoid heavier fall-out from it.
Sound a little too... conspiratorial? Perhaps. But to quote the mother of all conspiracy movies, JFK, in the matter of Ben-Ami Kadish it may be wise to "Forget what you know. We are through the looking glass, people; and sometimes black is white, and white is black."