Snowden revelations of US spying give Israel golden opportunity to end Pollard saga

Israel’s intelligence community must appeal to its US counterpart and request that as a gesture of mercy it persuade Obama that the time has come to pardon Pollard.

An undated photo of Jonathan Pollard prior to his arrest (photo credit: Justice for Jonathan Pollard)
An undated photo of Jonathan Pollard prior to his arrest
(photo credit: Justice for Jonathan Pollard)
In the mid-1980s, the Israel Security Service (Shin Bet) got wind of two unusual requests made by two foreign missions in the country. The first request came from the Romanian embassy in Tel Aviv. At the time, Romania, which was headed by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, was pursuing a policy that was largely independent of the Soviet Union. It was the only country in the Communist bloc that maintained diplomatic ties with Israel.
The two countries traded with one another, and Romania permitted Jews to immigrate to Israel as per the terms of an official quota that it instituted each year. In exchange, handsome sums of money were funneled into the accounts of the Ceausescu family and its associates.
The two governments also maintained defense and intelligence ties. While Romania also trained and hosted Palestinian terrorist organizations on its soil, it also shared intelligence about these groups with Israel.
This complex relationship did not prevent the Romanian intelligence service, the Securitate, from carrying out espionage and surveillance activities in Israel both for its own use and also as a sort of “subcontractor” working in the service of the Soviet Union.
Romanian intelligence planted a number of agents among the Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel. In 1965, the Shin Bet captured Efraim Samuel and his wife, who came to the country seven years prior, red-handed as they were transmitting messages from their apartment in Haifa to their handlers in Romania. The Romanian embassy stationed intelligence officers under the guise of diplomats, and surveillance and transmission equipment was used to communicate information.
The Romanians had asked to relocate their embassy to the top floor of IBM House, the high-rise office building that looks over the Kirya Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv. The official explanation for the request was that the Romanians needed larger, newer offices. The Shin Bet, however, which was responsible for counterespionage, understood that the Romanians wanted to “improve their vantage point” and move their eavesdropping and electronic surveillance equipment closer to the Defense Ministry and the IDF General Staff headquarters. The Shin Bet quietly intervened, acting behind the scenes with the building’s management and preventing the Romanian embassy from renting the prized space.
(Photo: Romanian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu with US Secretary of State George Schultz in 1985. Reuters)
In a similar manner, the Shin Bet foiled a similar plan in the 1980s, when staff at the American embassy in Tel Aviv brazenly sought to rent the top floor of the Mandarin Hotel, the beachside resort in north Tel Aviv. The hotel is just a few hundred meters away from the Glilot Junction, which foreign media reports say is the site of the Mossad’s headquarters. Just over a kilometer away sits the nerve center of the vaunted Military Intelligence outfit 8200, which has been and is today Israel’s main intelligence-gathering arm.
The Shin Bet knew with absolute certainty that the American request was an intelligence gambit – most likely cooked up by the National Security Agency – aimed at cracking the communications frequencies used by Mossad and 8200.
These instances – and many others like it that have not been revealed – explain why Israeli officials were hardly surprised at the latest revelations from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA subcontractor who is now hiding in asylum in Moscow. Israel has always known that it is a target for espionage activities by hostile Arab governments, rivals like the former Soviet Union, and even close friends like the US and Britain.
The revelations that appeared in The New York Times earlier this month were based on documents former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked. According to the report, in January 2009, spies monitored the email traffic of Olmert in the waning days of his tenure. The next month, Ehud Barak’s email traffic was intercepted. Another target of surveillance, according to the report, was the Hebrew University’s Institute of Physics, an internationally recognized center for research in atomic and nuclear physics.
The underlying message from these reports is clear: the US spied on Israel, and it is reasonable to assume that it continued to spy afterward.
There is nothing new about any of these revelations. The Shin Bet and the defense establishment have known for decades that CIA agents acting under the cover of diplomatic immunity have been gathering information about Israel from their base at the US Embassy on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv. These intelligence officers were accredited to serve as liaison with their Israeli counterparts but at the embassy there were also military attaches and even personnel with fully diplomatic job titles who were trained in intelligence gathering.
These accredited intelligence officials meet with their counterparts in Mossad, the Shin Bet, and Military Intelligence. They exchange information and situational assessments and they plan joint operations against the likes of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al-Qaida.
Alongside this close cooperation, however, there is also a great deal of intelligence-gathering from any source imaginable. These could be readily available source of information like media or meetings with Israeli officials. The gathering of information is also done through more stealth means, like secret trips near the vicinity of the Dimona nuclear reactor (the Israeli nuclear program has always been a central target of American espionage and intelligence-gathering efforts) or near military bases; photographic surveillance; and collection of nearby soil samples. There are precedents.
John Haddon, who served as the CIA station chief in Israel in the 1960s, told me about one of his trips to Dimona, during which a military helicopter landed nearby and asked him to leave the premises. It is not known whether American intelligence has recruited agents in Israel or recruited Israelis abroad, but it is certainly possible that it did happen – and is even happening now.
Most of America’s information-gathering efforts in Israel are done by means of the tremendous technological capabilities of the NSA. During the Six-Day War, the Israel Air Force mistakenly destroyed the USS Liberty, an NSA surveillance vessel that was sailing off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula town of El-Arish and was eavesdropping on IDF communications networks. (To this day, US naval veterans do not believe Israel’s explanation. They are convinced that the Israeli attack was motivated by malice.)
Even the untrained eye can see that atop the roof of the US embassy in Tel Aviv sit satellite dishes and sophisticated communications equipment which obviously are not just intended to enable broadcast and transmission to the State Department but also to listen in on what is being transmitted in Israel.
In the skies above, American surveillance planes conduct sorties (Beginning in 1958 when US spy planes discovered that a certain structure built near Dimona was a nuclear reactor and not a “textile factory,” which Israel claimed at the time). In space, spy satellites with audio sensors and telescopic cameras routinely train their sights toward Israel.
This week, the Walla! online news agency quoted a senior Israeli official who met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. The official told Walla! that during one of their meetings in the prime minister’s residence, the two men stepped out onto the balcony, where the premier covered his face with a newspaper and whispered to him the Americans were listening.
The Snowden papers reveal that Israeli embassies abroad, including the mission in Washington, are surveillance targets for the NSA and FBI. The late Brig. Gen. Yoel Ben Porat once told me that after he was named intelligence attaché in Washington in the late 1970s, he was warned that American intelligence were not just tapping the phones of the embassy and its staff, but that it was also capable of eavesdropping on private conversations behind closed doors. That is because the embassy building in Washington has been outfitted with surveillance and eavesdropping equipment. In addition, American technology is capable of picking up and deciphering the vibrations felt in the windows of the embassy which are caused by voice waves.
(Photo: Israelis demand the release of Jonathan Pollard during a demonstration in 2005 in Jerusalem. Reuters)
If, in fact, these technologies were available 30 years ago, one can only imagine what the Americans are capable of today. They are even more advanced than what we can learn from the Snowden incident.
Being fully aware of these capabilities, Israeli leaders, intelligence chiefs, IDF officers, and the directors-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and other sensitive agencies have for decades operated out of the basic assumption that every word said or written, even in closed-door meetings, is liable to make it to the ears not just of Iran, Hezbollah, China, and Russia, but also – perhaps in particular – friends like the US, Britain, or France.
By the way, it is no coincidence that the NSA shared its surveillance on Barak and Olmert with the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Three decades ago, it was learned that NSA bases in Britain were employing Hebrew speakers who were tasked with listening in on and deciphering transmissions from Israel.
(High-powered Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan (C) with actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Reuters)
One can assume that if the NSA succeeded in cracking the email accounts of the prime minister and defense minister, it succeeded, despite Israel’s impressive capabilities in the field of information security and encryption, in doing the same against the most sophisticated and top-secret coding employed by the Mossad, the Foreign Minsitry, the Shin Bet, and MI.
Nonetheless, nobody should tsk tsk and roll their eyes crying foul. Israel has also stuck its hand in the cookie jar. Since the founding of the state, Israeli intelligence agencies have routinely spied on the United States. Meir Novik, a former Shin Bet operative (who later went to become police commissioner) was sent to the US in 1949 to carry out spying missions.
Two years later, Elyashiv Ben Horin, an Israeli intelligence agent operating under the guise of a diplomat, was declared “persona non grata” and expelled from the US after he was apprehended by FBI agents while trying to recruit Jordan’s military attaché. Chaim Herzog, who was Israel’s military attaché in Washington, was also asked to return to Israel after he was found to be involved in illicit efforts to procure technology and weapons systems.
For three decades, Israel has routinely and systematically carried out all kinds of espionage activities on US soil. In 1968, agents from LAKAM - a Mossad outfit headed by Binyamin Bloomberg and Rafi Eitan - illegally obtained uranium from a nuclear factory owned by a Jewish American businessman, Zalman Shapiro. This uranium was used for the Dimona nuclear facility.
Arnon Milchan, the high-profile Hollywood film producer and businessman, was sent to procure vital equipment for Israel’s nuclear program. In the 1980s, American customs authorities exposed a number of plots cooked up by Israeli military officers, who came to the US to receive additional training, and who stole information regarding advanced military technologies which Israel sought.
In 1993, Howard Schack, the man who built US military bases in Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iraq, released a book in which he revealed that he spied for the Mossad, providing it with information about those same bases.
All of this happened before the arrest of Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who worked as an analyst for the US Navy. Due to neglect in protecting information, Pollard had unprecedented access to a treasure trove of some of the most classified information about at least six agencies in the US intelligence community, among them the CIA and the NSA.
(Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and then-President Bill Clinton at the Wye River peace talks in 1998. Reuters)
Pollard’s arrest provided a jolt to the US-Israel relationship. The most important rule in the intelligence word – “don’t get caught” – was broken. It seems that the cornerstone of the intelligence relationship between the two nations that began in 1951 – that neither of them would violate the sovereignty of the other and spy on the other – had been violated.
Then-president Ronald Reagan, thought to be one of the most pro-Israel presidents ever, was furious. Israel was shocked by the arrest. It quickly apologized, announcing that it dismantled LAKAM, which focused on technological and scientific espionage. Israel also pledged that it would never spy on the US again.
In the years that followed the Pollard incident, US-Israel intelligence ties were rebuilt. In recent years, they have grown much closer. The intelligence communities from both countries cooperated in attempting to foil Iran’s nuclear designs. The IAF strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007 is another example of the fruits of this collaboration.
The high-point of this cooperation was the manufacturing and planting of the Stuxnet computer worm into the computers of the Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The Snowden documents reveal that in 2008, the NSA and 8200 signed a secret agreement to tighten their collaboration, including the sharing of raw intelligence data between the US and Israel.
While one should not make the comparison between recruiting an American agent and having him deliver information to Israel, and conducting surveillance through eavesdropping, Israel certainly has the right to be angry and demand an American apology over the Snowden revelations. Netanyahu took a mild, responsible approach when he announced that Israel would seek clarifications on the matter with the US.
It is highly doubtful that the US will issue a public apology. As the world’s superpower, it permits itself to commit grave acts that it would not tolerate from smaller countries which depend on it for their welfare. Nonetheless, one can assume that the recent revelations will prompt newly articulated understandings between Israel and the US regarding espionage activities.
(Former president Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan, in 1994. Reuters)
This is still not enough. After 28 years in which the former US analyst has been rotting in prison, Israel now has a golden opportunity to finally bring the Pollard saga to an end. This shouldn’t be done by way of demagogic rhetoric we are used to seeing from the likes of Likud MK Miri Regev. It would be better if this were done quietly, behind the scenes.
It is incumbent on the heads of Israel’s intelligence community from Mossad, Shin Bet, and MI to appeal to their counterparts in the US and to request that as a gesture of mercy they urge their president, Barack Obama, and other relevant parties that the time has come to pardon Pollard.