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Pentagon Spy Flap Isn't Open-and-Shut Case

U.S. and Israel often share data, officials say. But the latter has riled friendly nations before.

August 29, 2004|Laura King and Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Not just in espionage thrillers, but in real life as well, it can be difficult to tell trusted friend from double-crossing spy.

That's especially true between close allies such as Israel and the United States, in a world where government officials, lobbyists, diplomats, think-tank analysts and intelligence veterans from both sides often move in overlapping political and social circles -- a pattern that can blur the line between cordially informal exchanges of information and espionage.

After U.S. authorities disclosed that a Pentagon analyst specializing in Iranian affairs is under investigation for possibly spying for Israel, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flatly denied that it had illicitly acquired any classified American material.

But cases such as these are not always open and shut. Longtime observers of the intelligence scene note that the U.S. and Israel often share sensitive data, particularly when one has assets the other lacks.

For example, the ranks of Israel's diplomatic and intelligence corps are honeycombed with native Arabic speakers, many of them Jews whose families emigrated from elsewhere in the Middle East. They are in many cases far better equipped than their relatively sparse U.S. counterparts to carry out sophisticated analyses of political and military developments in the region, and the fruits of such labors are routinely handed over to America.

Before and during the war in Iraq, Israel and the United States engaged in intensive sharing of intelligence -- some of which turned out to be tainted, military and intelligence officials on both sides have said.

Among American Jews, the subject of Israeli spying is fraught with tension because of fears of being tarred as a "fifth column" that puts Israel's interests ahead of America's. Some activists for Jewish and Israeli causes believe that it took years to recover from the damage done by the case of U.S. naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced in 1987 to life in prison.

In the current case, such concerns are complicated by investigators' suspicions that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the foremost lobby group in Washington for Israeli causes, may have served as a conduit for information improperly passed to the Israeli government. AIPAC has denied any wrongdoing.

For Israel, part of the problem when confronted with a spy scandal like this is that in the past, its protestations of innocence sometimes proved less than credible.

In recent years, under the watches of several prime ministers, Israel has antagonized a string of friendly nations, including Switzerland, Cyprus, Jordan and Canada, either by using their soil as a staging ground for spy activity or by having Mossad agents pass themselves off as these countries' nationals.

Israel suffered one of its worst cases of "blowback" -- espionage parlance for unanticipated and highly unwelcome consequences -- when Mossad agents tried, ineptly, to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997 by injecting him in the ear with poison.

To retrieve its disgraced agents, Israel was forced to free Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who returned to the Gaza Strip in triumph and was a driving force behind the campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings until he was assassinated by Israel in March.

Authorities in New Zealand were infuriated last spring when two Israelis were caught trying to fraudulently procure a New Zealand passport. Prosecutors said a disabled New Zealand man was unwittingly used as the phony passport applicant.

Israel has not acknowledged that its nationals were spies, but New Zealand says there is little room for doubt.

Bungles such as these have done much to dent the Mossad's image as a skilled and subtle practitioner of the art of espionage, and high-profile errors have prompted calls in Israel to rein in the spymasters.

In the aftermath of the Pollard case, Israel made strenuous pledges to refrain from spying on the United States. Senior diplomatic sources and analysts interviewed Saturday expressed doubt that Israel would have risked involving itself in such an operation at this juncture.

"Israel is not spying on American soil, full stop, in the sense that it's not trying to locate potential agents, it's not approaching them, it's not recruiting them, it's not running them, and it's not paying money for information," said Yossi Melman, an author who specializes in Israel's intelligence community.

"And it very much depends on the extent and detail of the information involved," Melman added. "If someone at the Pentagon actually passed a confidential document directly to Israel, it would be very, very serious, but if someone simply tells a third party, 'Well, it seems the American thinking on this subject is such and such,' then it's all much more murky."

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