Paul Pillar

U.S. Intelligence Ought to Target Israel

An article in the Wall Street Journal about what the journalists describe as U.S. interception of communications of Israeli leaders has caused a stir, especially among those habitually quickest to leap to the defense of Israeli policies. We in the public do now know how much of the article's content is true; it represents one stream of reporting by one newspaper's correspondents. The administration and the intelligence agencies, quite understandably and appropriately, are not confirming or denying any of this. But worthy of comment are some of the reactions to the report, as well as what U.S. intelligence should be doing in this direction regardless of what it is or is not doing right now.

U.S. intelligence agencies have responsibility to collect, within the limits of applicable laws and regulations, information on whatever is going on overseas, including whatever is going on inside foreign governments, that will help provide U.S. policymakers with the most complete and accurate picture of situations that they will have to deal with and that bear on important U.S. national interests. The policymakers in turn have responsibility for availing themselves of such information, for not impeding the proper collection and analysis of it, and for being as well-informed as they can be as they make decisions and conduct foreign relations.

Unquestionably the activities of the Israeli government fall within the bucket of things going on overseas that bear on important U.S. interests and thus are important for U.S. policymakers to be fully informed about. Israel is a major player in the Middle East and has been at the center of wars, debilitating occupations, and much else that makes for instability and controversy and that unavoidably have been major policy preoccupations for Washington. The impact of Israeli actions on U.S. interests has been made all the greater because of the close association in the eyes of the world between the United States and Israel and thus the opprobrium that the former suffers because of actions of the latter.

The impact of Israeli policies and actions on U.S. interests has included much that is damaging and destructive, which is the kind of impact that ought to be among the highest priorities for the collection of intelligence. Recently, in connection with negotiation of the multilateral agreement to restrict the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli government did everything it could to sabotage and frustrate an important foreign policy initiative of the United States and its Western allies. The Journal story states that intelligence collection enabled U.S. policymakers to learn details of Israel's leaking of information about the negotiation—information Israel had obtained in confidential briefings by the United States or through what the Journal has reported as Israel's own spying on the negotiations. This is certainly the kind of information it would be very useful for any policymaker to have in determining how to manage both a negotiation and any briefings of outside countries about the negotiation.

One thing this whole story is not about is “domestic spying”—not even to the same degree as the controversial matter of bulk collection of telephone metadata. It is common for intelligence collection aimed at foreign actors to involve conversations or other interactions with U.S. actors. This pattern is a natural consequence of the foreign actor being an important intelligence target precisely because of the impact or potential impact on important U.S. interests. This is true of a foreign terrorist group seeking collaborators for an armed attack inside the United States. It is true of a foreign government searching for entry points for a cyberattack against U.S. infrastructure. And it is true of a foreign government endeavoring to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.

The rules and procedures that the National Security Agency observes in handling intercepted communications that involve any U.S. persons or organizations are longstanding, well established, and extremely strict. Basically those rules involve not disseminating anywhere, even as highly classified material and even to other members of the intelligence community, any identifying information about any U.S. persons or institutions, and no information at all beyond what could not be excised without rendering the intelligence about the foreign subject meaningless and useless. The rules also involve a clear understanding that information obtained about any U.S. persons can be picked up only as an unavoidable by-product of collecting against a foreign target, and can never itself be the objective of collection.