Why spy

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous reported in a page-one story leaked by the Obama administration that “Israel spied on Iran talks with US” (accessible here via Google). John commented on the story here. I want to offer a few additional notes on the story:

• This “spying” story was leaked to Entous by “senior White House officials.” The leak complements the Obama administration’s public campaign against the Netanyahu government that is intended to defame and undermine it in advance of the deal in process with Iran, of which Israel is perhaps the most prominent public critic.

• In the wake of the Jonathan Pollard affair, the Israeli government adopted the policy that “Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.” Entous alludes to this deep in his story: “Current and former Israeli officials said their intelligence agencies scaled back their targeting of U.S. officials after the jailing nearly 30 years ago of American Jonathan Pollard for passing secrets to Israel.” (I’ll come back to this below.)

• Entous vaguely reports: “In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the [current and former US] officials said.” The implication that Israel was spying on the United States is nevertheless incendiary.

• A “senior US official” is quoted by Entous, for example, as referring to “Israel stealing US secrets[.]”

• “In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.” No detail regarding the alleged “eavesdropping” is provided.

• “The White House discovered the operation…when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.” So the United States “discovered the operation” in the course of spying on Israel. Even so, information from the talks might well have come from parties to the talks rather than from “eavesdropping.” Entous to the contrary notwithstanding, nothing in the story makes out “eavesdropping” on United States officials or even the talks themselves.

• Indeed, Entous reports in the seventh paragraph of his story: “Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.” I can’t find a single fact in Entous’s story that belies the Israeli denials.

• Entous also quotes a representative from Netanyahu’s office: “These allegations are utterly false. The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies. The false allegations are clearly intended to undermine the strong ties between the United States and Israel and the security and intelligence relationship we share.”

• In “Israel denies spying on Iran nuclear talks,” Jodi Rudoren and Michael Gordon report in the New York Times that three (named) top ministers of the Israeli government have denied the allegations.

• For example, the Times quotes defense minister Moshe Yaalon: “There is no such thing as Israel spying on the Americans,” the defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said at a pre-Passover toast, according to a transcript provided by his office. Mr. Yaalon said he had checked and found no complaint from the United States to Israeli intelligence services about such spying. ‘There is a strict prohibition on that,’ he said.”

• Entous declares that his account of “the Israeli campaign” is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former US and Israeli diplomats, intelligence officials and, policy makes and lawmakers. “The Israeli campaign” to which Entous refers, however, is Israel’s campaign against the deal in process. He doesn’t claim to have more than a dozen sources for his “spying” allegations, which he has obviously taken straight from “senior White House officials.”

• Entous reports: “U.S. officials said Israel has long topped the list of countries that aggressively spy on the U.S., along with China, Russia and France. The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally, U.S. officials said.” He doesn’t provide any details regarding the “spy operations.”

• The United States “helped the Israelis build a system to listen in on high-level Iranian communications.” Israel’s information regarding the negotiations may well have derived from the interception of “high-level Iranian communications,” though Entous doesn’t comment on this possibility one way or the other.

In short, Entous’s story requires close reading. Despite its statements and implications, it leaves crucial questions open. Although the reported story is less than meets the eye, the story’s subtext is nevertheless newsworthy. The “operation” Entous tacitly reveals is the Obama administration’s ongoing operation to undermine and delegitimize the government of Israel.

FOOTNOTE: You might want to file this away for future reference: “’People feel personally sold out,’ a senior administration official said. ‘That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.’”

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