A controversy over details leaked to The New York Times about an attack on an Iranian ship in the Red Sea has led to questions about the timing and responsibility behind the information finding its way to the media. On Tuesday, April 6 the Times reported that a US official had told the newspaper that Israel notified the US that Israeli forces struck an Iranian ship around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The timing was important because it came as US officials were in Vienna on the sidelines of an Iranian meeting with signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear agreement is known as. Why was the information leaked and by who? It is worth looking at this controversy as well as past leaks regarding operations in the Middle East.
More complexity has now crept into the story. “In one version, an Israeli official updated a counterpart American official with the understanding that the US would keep the information confidential. This was based on understandings followed in recent years as a condition for Israel being more open with the US. In another version, the Israeli leak to the US, or in some other fashion to the media, was illegal, and may need to be investigated,” The Jerusalem Post reported Saturday.
The timing of the attack last week was interesting: While officials were meeting in Vienna on Tuesday to discuss the Iranian nuclear deal, According to the timeline, the leaked details were held for publication for a day after the attack was briefly postponed. The news of the attack quickly spread to Israeli media. While media reported that Israel had notified the US of the attack, details of the attack on Iran’s Saviz ship, allegedly an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) mothership, emerged throughout the day. Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack on April 7. More details emerged on April 8, with initial reports only emerging around 6 p.m. in the Middle East.
In the past, leaks about operations have come from various sources in the region. The US has sometimes revealed that Israel carried out operations. Sometimes this is in response to Syrian or Iraqi sources blaming the US for airstrikes. For instance, the US said that a June 18, 2018 attack on pro-Iranian militias in Syria’s Albukamal was carried out by Israel. The US and Russia also claimed Israel carried out an April 2018 attack on the T-4 airbase in Syria. In November 2017, US President Donald Trump was accused of disclosing an “undercover Israeli mission to penetrate an Islamic State cell” during a discussion with Russia’s ambassador to the US. In November 2019, Russia alleged Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria by flying over Jordan. In November 2020, US officials said Israeli agents killed al-Qaeda leader Abu Muhammed al-Masri in Tehran.
In January 2021, after airstrikes on Syria, a “senior US intelligence official with knowledge of the attack told the Associated Press that the raids were carried out with intelligence provided by the United States and targeted a series of warehouses in Syria that were being used as a part of the pipeline to store and stage Iranian weapons.” In other cases, regional newspapers such as Al-Jarida or Al Ghad have obtained information about alleged Israeli airstrikes in the region.
The background of US officials confirming Israeli airstrikes in Syria has a track record going back several years to at least 2018. In August 2019, for instance, AP reported that “US officials have confirmed that Israel was responsible for the bombing of an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month, an attack that would mark a significant escalation in Israel’s years-long campaign against Iranian military entrenchment across the region.”
In the past, the US has also used messaging to warn Israel against attacks on Iran. Back in 2009, then-vice president Joe Biden warned Israel against an attack on Iran, calling it “ill advised.” After a September 6, 2007 airstrike on Syria’s nuclear reactor, US officials waited until September 11 to says that “Israeli warplanes targeted weapons destined for Hezbollah.” A US defense official was quoted as saying the strike “wasn’t big.” The US confirmed the Israeli strikes on September 12. Al-Jarida said on September 13 that Turkey provided Israel intelligence for the operation. The same day US intelligence officials said they had evidence of a North Korean-backed Syrian nuclear program. In the following days, the revelations of Syria’s nuclear program grew, illustrating how leaks can help fill in the blanks of a story.
More recently, US officials have appeared to lift the lid on Israeli actions against Iranian ships. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 11 about Israeli attacks on Iranian ships based on “US officials.”
A look back at these examples illustrates how leaks about operations can have several purposes. In rare cases they are used to embarrass a country or show that others are watching operations closely. For instance, the Russian disclosure of alleged Israeli use of Jordanian airspace was one such example.
In other cases US officials appear to have revealed information more as a way to back up the necessity of the operation, than to tarnish it. For instance in March 2009 US officials were quoted in The New York Times alleging Israeli strikes on Sudan “to stop the flow of weapons to Gaza.” In more recent years, US details about incidents in Iraq or Syria painted a picture of close US-Israeli cooperation.
More controversial was the story in US media about Trump disclosing information to Russia and also details about the June 2018 strike on Albukamal. The US has sometimes sought to deny its own involvement in incidents in Syria or Iraq. For instance, in August 2019, US officials were quoted by the AP confirming Israeli strikes in Iraq. This came after Iraqi militias linked to Iran began to blame the US and Israel. US Central Command had warned in the past that such strikes could lead to retaliation. There were concerns at the highest levels of the US Defense Department about alleged Israeli operations in Syria or Iraq amid US-Iran tensions. By January 2021, when US officials said they supplied intelligence to Israel for attacks in Syria, the report indicated close coordination between then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Israeli counterparts.
The recent disclosures about incidents at sea appear in contrast to that. The Wall Street Journal report came ten days after claims that an Israeli ship was damaged on March 1 off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. A second Israeli ship was reportedly targeted on March 25 in the Gulf of Oman.
The context of leaks and timing is important. Do they occur before the incident, or after? Who is leaking? In the case of the US reports often say “US officials” but sometimes ascribe the information to intelligence or defense officials. The January reports in 2021 apparently came from the State Department because they related to Pompeo’s meetings with Israeli officials. The US team of James Jeffrey supported Israeli strikes on Iran in Syria according to reports, articles and interviews between December 2020 and January 2021.
This means that when it comes to leaks there are various issues involved. One relates to what part of the government is doing the leaking. Is it from intelligence, defense or diplomatic sources? Is it leaked purposely to certain journalists or anonymously for other reasons? Is it about sending a message, either to Iran or maybe to Israel? Another aspect of leaks are leaks provided to Arabic language media regarding operations in the region, and who is leaking those to this media and why. The last question is about timing. Is the leak in response to media pressure or designed to drive the media narrative. Leaks are not always accurate, so they can be designed to distract. They can also be sending a kind of message as in: We know what you are doing, please stop. Or it can be: We know what you are doing and we will continue to carry out operations.
In most cases, the full story is never known. During the Trump years those close to the former president believed many leaks early in the administration, unrelated to Israel, were done by anti-Trump voices that continued to work in government. Those kinds of leaks are part of internal US politics and relate to relationships between journalists and government sources. This is very different from senior officials being told by their superiors to disclose details of an operation in order to send a message.