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.
One of those who was quick to comment on this story, Elliot Abrams, pays no attention at all to these aspects of how such intelligence reporting is handled, as he professes to be scandalized by the Journal's report. He thus tries to portray the matter as something else it is not, which is some kind of improper encroachment of the executive branch on the legislative branch. Abrams also declares that the United States should never monitor the communications of “close allies”. Setting aside the general question of why there should be such forbearance when even close allies have some interests that differ from those of the United States, this is another instance of the familiar practice of overlooking or excusing much that Israel does by simply applying to it the label “ally”. This practice involves mere labeling—and rather arbitrary and questionable labeling at that—taking precedence over careful consideration of U.S. interests. Unlike all of the other countries that Abrams names as “close allies” (Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, and Canada), Israel has no treaty of alliance with the United States—which is a good thing, given the kind of scrapes that Israel gets into. And none of those true allies (in their current incarnations, not as a former Revolutionary War foe or a fascist empire) has caused the United States anything like the problems the current incarnation of Israel does.
Although Abrams considers any intelligence collection by the United States aimed at Israel to be a scandal, he doesn't say anything about Israel's espionage against its “close ally” the United States. In addition to what the Journal reports to be recent such espionage regarding the Iran nuclear negotiations, there is the reminder we got earlier this year of the larger history involved when Jonathan Pollard was back in the news upon the occasion of his parole. The Pollard case still is one of the biggest episodes of espionage, in terms of the sheer volume of U.S. secrets stolen and the damage to U.S. security, that the United States has ever suffered. The damage is especially severe in light of what Israel has done with U.S. defense-related information, including what it has done recently, when it has gotten its hands on such information. The Israeli government initially lied to the United States by denying any involvement in Pollard, just as it is denying any involvement in leaking details of the negotiations with Iran. Whatever the United States has found out about these matters evidently has come from its own resources, not conversation with its Israeli “ally.”
One additional issue raised by the Journal's story concerns the expectations habitually placed on U.S. intelligence, especially in hindsight after perceived failures. The Middle East, and especially untoward events such as wars there, have figured prominently in this record. The outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, for example, is high on most lists of U.S. intelligence failures. Six years earlier was another war—the Israelis started this one—that is seen as a U.S. intelligence success. The Johnson administration was unable to prevent the 1967 war, but it had all the information it needed on what was about to happen, and it tried hard to prevent it. The 1967 war was especially damaging in that it marked the beginning of an occupation, now nearly half a century old, that has been a central issue in the Middle East and one of the most persistent problems there for the United States. Surprise attacks and warfare in the Middle East will continue to be major concerns for the United States, and it thus behooves the United States to use all available intelligence resources to find out as much as it can about such things, including whatever aspects of them involve Israeli intentions.
Along this line, we should note how often has arisen the threat of Israel militarily attacking Iran, and of how this threat is related to the subject of the nuclear negotiations that have been the target of Israeli sabotage attempts and reported Israeli espionage. If the United States is surprised by a new war in the Middle East, if the surprise is due to the United States abstaining from collecting intelligence on Israel, and if that abstinence is due to political pressure not to spy on an “ally,” then we will know who ought to be blamed for the failure—and it won't be U.S. intelligence agencies.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to The National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
Image: Flickr/Ze'ev Barkan.