Thanks to both Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s massive leak of NSA secrets, we have now learned about yet another US espionage scandal. The US (and the UK) spied on the offices of Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu:
The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel reported Friday that Olmert, as well as then-defense minister Ehud Barak, were among more than 1,000 high-profile targets of surveillance in more than 60 countries; the documents were dated between 2008 and 2011. Israel’s Ynet added that the surveillance extended to email intercepts at Netanyahu’s office when he took over from Olmert as prime minister in March, 2009.
Netanyahu’s office did not formally respond to the report, but sources in Jerusalem were quoted saying that the Israeli leadership had not “fallen of their chairs” at the news that they were spied upon. Netanyahu “is cautious and suspicious,” does not have a computer in his office, does not use email and does not have a private phone, Israel’s Channel 2 reported, “so they’d have to find other ways” to spy on him.
Israel was seeking clarifications from the US over the affair, Channel 2 said, in order to ensure that the surveillance was not continuing. It quoted an unnamed White House source saying blandly that the US “works like all countries to obtain information.”
The key issue of interest to the US at the time was Israel’s intentions as regards possibly attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Ynet report said, given Israel’s refusal to promise the US that it would not attack, or to commit to giving the US advance warning of any such attack. Barak, who was tasked by Netanyahu with coordinating with the US over Israel’s handling of the Iran crisis, has frequently remarked that he always worked under the assumption that he was working under round the clock surveillance by international agencies, the Ynet report noted.
The documents show that the agencies monitored an email address described as “Israeli prime minister.” Olmert, who filled the top job for much of the relevant period, confirmed that the address was used for correspondence with his office, but said that such correspondence was mainly handled by staffers. The same address was used by Netanyahu, Ynet reported (Hebrew).
The email traffic at that address was not encoded, and emails related to speeches, communications with the public and other non-sensitive issues, Hebrew media reports said Friday night.
The Ynet report said that the US interest in the email address would also have been in monitoring contacts between the Prime Minister’s Office and right-wing, pro-settlement groups, since the US at the time doubted the accuracy of what Israel was telling it about the scale of its building in West Bank settlements, and may have hoped to obtain more accurate information.
Olmert described the email address as an “unimpressive target,” saying that it was unlikely any sensitive information was compromised. He added that the most delicate talks with then-US president George W. Bush took place privately, according to the Times report.
The interception of Olmert’s email came at a sensitive time, while he was dealing with international condemnation of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, according to the Times. Relations between the US and Israel were also tense, as they are today, over Israel’s preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. According to the report, the allies were also at odds over cooperation on a wave of cyberattacks against Iran’s major nuclear enrichment facility.
Israel seems to be unimpressed with America’s spying efforts with reports that Israeli officials always work on the assumption that they are being listened to. For example, Netanyahu uses gestures and codes in sensitive discussions:
Netanyahu has no computer in his office, does not use email, and does not maintain a private phone, Channel 2 reported.
More dramatically, when discussing especially sensitive issues even at his home, Netanyahu and guests sometimes resort to “gestures” rather than speech, because of concerns that they are being listened to, Channel 10 reported.
It added that Netanyahu conducts his most sensitive discussions in the offices of the Mossad intelligence service, because only there is he confident that he is safe from listening devices.
Netanyahu’s aides will tell you that he sometimes “speaks in codes” during discussions, the Channel 10 report said, and that even when it’s not entirely clear what he means by the “code” name for this or that official, they can’t ask him because he won’t tell them.
Former Prime Minister’s aide Eitan Haber also recounts anti-espionage stories from previous Israeli leaders.
Despite the Israel’s downplaying of the effects of the US espionage, some Israeli officials declared that this spying is unacceptable. The Americans’ method for spying were almost comically easy:
Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday that in June 2007, shortly after Barak became defense minister, Israeli security personnel noticed the U.S. had rented an apartment on the same street as Barak’s Tel Aviv residence (the apartment had a direct view of the windows of Barak’s high-rise residence). The U.S. said there was no connection, but a sizable amount of electronic equipment was witnessed being brought into the apartment. The U.S. told Israel at the time that the apartment was being used by a member of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv’s security team.
The US spying scandal has given Israel a golden opportunity to press for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American-Israel who received an unprecedented life without parole jail sentence, and who has been languishing in a harsh US jail for 28 years. Demands for Pollard’s pardon and release emanated from across the Israeli political spectrum although Netanyahu himself did not want to play along:
The revelations gave momentum to the effort to encourage US President Barack Obama to commute Pollard’s life sentence to the 28 years he has served. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a point of saying that Israel did not need an excuse to deal with Pollard’s release.
“We do not need a special incident to talk about the release of Jonathan Pollard,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“We, I am dealing with this with every US president, including with President Obama all the time, including now.”
[…]But Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud Beytenu) and ministers spoke out on the reports that in 2009, the NSA and its British equivalent, the General Communications Headquarters, hacked into the emails of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak.
Edelstein assailed Washington for “hypocrisy,” saying that “this is a severe case and I hope this is the iceberg rather than the tip of the iceberg, because otherwise, this case is liable to do damage to our relations with the US.”
“For 28 years, the US administration has been preaching to Israel about the danger and the lack of trust that results from spying on allies and today it turns out the shoe is on the other foot,” the speaker said. “There is no other way to characterize it other than hypocrisy.”
Transportation and Road Safety Minister Israel Katz (Likud Beytenu) released a statement asking, “Is this how friends treat each other?”
“Pollard was arrested for much less,” Katz said, demanding an American statement vowing to put an end to the surveillance and to immediately release Pollard in light of the most recent revelations.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said he made a point of bringing up Pollard in his recent meetings with top American leaders in Washington.
Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked, who heads the parliamentary lobby devoted to advancing the cause of Pollard’s release, said on Sunday that “the most recent revelations about spying and surveillance by the US against its ally needs to light a red light of morality for any logical person.”
“There needs to be reciprocity in any relationship between countries,” Shaked said. “It is inconceivable that while Pollard has been rotting in an American prison for decades for spying, which was considered an unforgivable crime by the American government, we are now informed that the US has been spying against Israel, and this is just swept under the rug.”
Former NY Consul-General Alon Pinkas also commented on America’s hypocrisy with regard to Pollard’s imprisonment:
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, noted a certain “hypocrisy” in that spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard has been in a US jail for 28 years, while the US is now proven to have spied on Israel. But Pinkas, a former aide to ex-defense minister Ehud Barak (another of the spying targets), made no particular fuss about the matter, noting that there are things “that the Americans can do” that their allies simply aren’t allowed to.
Pleas, or demands, for Pollard’s release are being issued from American officials too. As I mentioned in a previous post about Jonathan Pollard, the former CIA Director James Woolsey called for Pollard’s release. Now, the former US Assistant Defence Secretary Lawrence Korb has issued a similar request for Pollard’s release, also contradicting Netanyahu’s statement that there are no parallels between Pollard and the US espionage scandal:
“We don’t need any special event to spur us to action to free Pollard. We are busy with this all the time,” said Netanyahu. “There is no connection between reports stating that the U.S. collected data in Israel and the potential release of Pollard.”
The prime minister’s comments came as former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Dr. Lawrence Korb argued the opposite, calling Pollard’s ongoing imprisonment absurd, especially in light of the revelations about U.S. spying.
“The lack of proportion of Pollard’s sentence and his worsening medical condition in any case demands his release by any measure of justice,” Korb said.
Korb argued that revelations indicating that the U.S. has been spying on Israeli leaders while adamantly refusing to pardon Pollard after he has languished in prison for 29 years, “bring the case to dimensions of true absurdity.”
Korb’s comments echoed those of former New Mexico Governor and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson, who also called on Obama to free Pollard.
Richardson, who endorsed Obama in 2008 after dropping out of the Democratic primary race, wrote a letter to Obama earlier this month saying, “I served in the cabinet, under President Clinton, when Pollard’s release was discussed 15 years ago. In my view, there is no longer a need for a discussion today. Virtually everyone who was in a high position of government — and dealt with the ramifications of what Pollard did at the time — now support his release.”
Richardson wrote that he believed there was growing number of current and former senior U.S. officials — he listed several from the Clinton administration — who thought Pollard’s release was long overdue.
The Committee to Free Jonathan Pollard released a statement lamenting Pollard’s poor health conditions amid his ongoing sentence: “Pollard has recently entered his 29th year in American prison and his health is unstable. Statements by senior American officials, the humanitarian considerations and the close relations between the two countries must bring about an end to this unthinkable saga. We are calling on the prime minister and the president to act now, before it is too late.”
So why IS Netanyahu playing down the NSA scandal and the requests to free Pollard? (h/t Reality). Apparently he’s caught between a rock and a hard place:
But the silence from Netanyahu, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry has been deafening.
In fact, the only statement that the prime minister has made was to give vague reassurances about regular Israeli efforts to release Jonathan Pollard from US custody, reacting to the spin-off story about how these revelations should impact his fate.
Why Israel is reacting so differently than other countries, aside from possibly having been less naïve and having expected US spying, could relate to reports from a few months ago that Israel has sometimes joined the US in electronic spying on others and is on the receiving end of huge volumes of the controversial collected US intelligence.
But a byproduct of the agreement could be an unofficial partnership in which the US and Israel jointly set up listening capabilities (since Israel has massive access to communications collected by the US), with Israel doing the review on the US’s behalf where US law is constraining or so that the US has plausible deniability if the spying is made public.
There is also the billions of dollars in aid and powerful backing the US gives Israel on a range of issues to consider.
So while the US spying on Israeli prime ministers is at the very least unseemly, making too big a public stink (as opposed to private), when the price could be losing a massive and crucial intelligence source, is likely not in the cards.
If Israel’s compliance with America didn’t also compromise Jonathan Pollard’s health and well-being, not to mention the injustice of his extreme sentence, I would shrug and accept that these are the realities of Realpolitik.
But given the severity of Pollard’s sentence, the outrageous hypocrisy of America’s preaching to Israel about the prohibition of spying upon “friends”, and the imminent danger of America’s espionage secrets being exposed to Israel’s enemies, I think it might have been wiser for Netanyahu to speak up more loudly, both against the American espionage and for Pollard’s release.