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Close Ties Between CIA, Mossad Seen as Fraying

Espionage: Americans once rescued Israeli agents in Sudan. Now, some call the agencies post-Cold War rivals.

March 03, 1996|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Mossad agents were on the run, winding through the crowded streets of Khartoum, one step ahead of Sudan's secret police and their Libyan allies. The Israeli spies had been betrayed by Sudanese informants, their cover as European businessmen blown and their station--disguised as a private business office--compromised. They had managed to salvage only their secret communications gear before speeding off into the dark.

Their destination: Milton Bearden's house.

For the next 30 days, Bearden, Khartoum station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, hid the four agents from Sudanese authorities, moving them from one CIA house to another to prevent their capture and likely execution.

Finally, the CIA arranged a remarkable escape, packing the four into crates custom-fitted with oxygen tanks, then shipping them as cargo on a Kenya-bound aircraft, just as their pursuers were closing in.

The story of how the CIA rescued the Mossad agents in Sudan has never before been told, and it helps to shed new light on the ties between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, one of the least understood, most complex relationships in the espionage world.

With the demise of the Russian KGB, no other spy service remains so shrouded in mystery and intrigue as Israel's Mossad. In the post-Cold War world where U.S. intelligence agencies are giant bureaucracies facing constant congressional oversight, Mossad stands as a tough, daring spy service stripped down for fighting with a clear-cut goal: ensuring the survival of the Jewish state.

"Mossad," Bearden said "always fights above its weight."

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Mossad's reputation for independence and ruthless action is legendary. But its effectiveness has always relied on its close ties with the CIA, its institutional big brother in the West. Increasingly, though, that relationship is complicated by a growing feeling among some in the American national security establishment that it has become too one-sided.

Mossad, some U.S. sources complain, has done little recently to help U.S. efforts to track down international terrorists, even in the Middle East. For example, the United States neutralized teams of assassination and terrorist agents sent out by Iraq's President Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf crisis without help from Mossad, U.S. intelligence sources say.

Worse, some in the U.S. now see Israeli intelligence as a post-Cold War rival that has made the United States a prime target for its spying, for both political and economic information.

"By all accounts, the Israelis are among the most active foreign intelligence services operating in the United States," observed Jeffrey Richelson, an author and expert on U.S. intelligence.

In fact, a decade after U.S. naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard was imprisoned for spying for Israel, a Defense Department memo on counterintelligence recently labeled Israel a "nontraditional adversary" on espionage matters. The memo caused a furor in the American Jewish community after it was leaked, because it suggested that Israeli intelligence relied on "strong ethnic ties" to American Jews to conduct its spying. The report was quickly disavowed by the Pentagon and was withdrawn.

Still, one U.S. source acknowledges that while the CIA has had long-standing orders not to spy on Israel, "Mossad faces no such restrictions" in the United States.

Both the CIA and Israel's government refused to comment on any aspect of the intelligence relationship between the CIA and Mossad.

But U.S. experts believe that Israel aggressively spies on the United States because of--and in spite of--its reliance on Washington for economic and military aid. Politically, Israel needs to know where U.S. policy toward the Jewish state is heading; economically, it craves U.S. technology to maintain its high-tech military.

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"Israeli intelligence has done many things for the U.S. over the years," said Amos Perlmutter, editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies and an expert on Israeli national security matters. "Israel was a prime source of Soviet-made weaponry for the U.S. after the 1967 and 1973 wars, and the strategic understanding between the two countries was then complete. But today, the U.S. is the supermarket for espionage. If you want to steal military technology, you come to the United States, and Israel is, of course, involved in that."

Meanwhile, the Mossad can be lackadaisical about helping the CIA with its U.S. intelligence operations because it can afford to be, intelligence experts say. Focused on its nation's precarious strategic position, the agency cares single-mindedly about Israel, not fairness or teamwork. If it can receive intelligence help without bothering to respond in kind, why should it?

"What can the U.S. claim now against Israel?" Perlmutter asked. With its strong political support in the U.S. and a pivotal role in the Mideast peace effort, Israel believes that it is doing enough. "And that has an impact on the intelligence relationship," he said.

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