Israel’s Intel Prowess Has Long Helped U.S. Presidents

Israel's ability to collect intelligence has given Washington a heads up on global terrorism, and saved many American lives

The U.S. believes material stolen by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard went to the Soviet Union — REUTERS
May 17, 2017 at 1:02 PM ET

If President Donald Trump blew Israel’s cover as the source of a vital nugget of intelligence about an ISIS plot against the West in order to impress the Russians, the president who does not know what it is to know something unwittingly face-planted into a thicket of bushes that could trip up his intentions down the line.

Several years ago, a senior National Security Agency official told me that Israel “has Syria absolutely wired. Their telecom infrastructure, military comms, FISINT – everything.” The official said that Israel had developed the capacity to selectively “blank out” Syria’s air defense system. But both the U.S. and Israel worried, in the years before the Syrian civil war, about the presence of Russian scientists at air defense command and control facilities. Russia was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade and patch the weaknesses in Syria’s defensive network. (A few weeks ago, Israeli war planes flew across the Jordan Valley and unloaded bombs on targets outside Damascus. Syria fired its air defense artillery after the jets had successfully returned to their base inside Israel.)

Even as Israel keeps a watchful eye on Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it has increased its own cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military and his intelligence services. Israel has sold to Russia a number of its high-tech kinetic drones, with fire capabilities rivaling that of the United States’.  It would presumably not want the Russians to know, for certain, that it also helps the U.S. monitor the gradual movements of Russian soldiers, spies and technology inside of Syria, nor the extent to which Syrian government communications are intercepted and given to the United States.

It would be hard for Russia not to assume, however, that anything Israel could do in Syria, it would do; and Russia surely knows, from own its experience that Israel acts principally with its own interests in mind, above all else. Rarely are major powers shocked (Shocked!) when relationships prove to have a hidden third wheel. Indeed, the U.S. and Great Britain have regularly spied on Israel’s drone operations over Syria and monitor Israeli military signals to pick up signs of imminent Israeli operations.

In the world of covert intelligence, the links between Russia (as the Soviet Union), Israel and the U.S. have taken the form of a classic French literary structure, le desir triangulair, with Israel often acting as the clandestine suitor, acting solicitous to both sides when its interests warranted, and then, months later, turning duplicitous and selling one side out in order to curry favor with the other.

From the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran to the vaporizing of Hezbollah-linked narcotrafficking networks in South America, to the detection of Russian electronic warfare capabilities in Syria, to ferreting out the intentions of ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist masterminds in the Middle East and North Africa, Israel’s signature blend of risky human intelligence operations and sophisticated technological capabilities have boosted American presidents ability to prevent strategic surprise and, without a doubt, prevented the unnecessary loss of American blood and treasure.

Without critical assistance from Israel’s Mossad, the U.S. government would not have been able to infect the Iranian centrifuge program with a zero day exploit that frustrated that country’s uranium enrichment program, a feat of covert daring that allowed the U.S. to negotiate the terms of a non-proliferation agreement much more favorably with the regime. (Separately, Israeli spies developed the means to assassinate key Iranian scientists involved in the program, bloody and effective operations that, a former CIA director told me, “we did not know of beforehand, and we’d find out about when we’d read them in the press, and we knew enough not to ask afterwards”).

But almost as often, the U.S. has found itself a target of Israel’s razor-sharp covert operations. The FBI has a squad of two dozen agents and analysts working full-time on Israeli counter-espionage cases today, according to a current U.S. official. And U.S. presidents have found themselves trying to temper the urgent fury of a tiny country confronting an existential threat from its neighbors, one with an undeclared nuclear weapons program that keeps its Arab neighbors perpetually obsessed with military balance, and one that has successfully faced down the panoply of threats and attacks that Americans were only dimly aware of before September 11.

Even the successful cyber penetration of Iran’s program escaped the boundaries of the tight channels that the two countries had kept it in, in part because Israel wanted to use the source code for other operations.

The U.S. has long suspected that the material stolen by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard ended up in the hands of the Soviet foreign intelligence service. Israel, the U.S, believed, had traded information about U.S. satellite capabilities and the NSA’s ability to track Russian submarines and command and control telemetry because, as Seymour Hersh reported in 1999, of “continued Soviet permission for Jews to emigrate to Israel.”  Pollard was paroled last year after serving 30 years for espionage. The Israeli government continues to press the U.S. to allow Pollard to return to Israel before he dies.

At the highest level, the NSA has a senior officer working out of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, called the Special U.S. Liaison Adviser Israel, to coordinate policy and target information with Israel’s senior intelligence officials. At Fort Meade, the NSA coordinates counter-terrorism collection against priority targets, like Hezbollah, and analysts from NSA’s dedicated Hezbollah branch have trained alongside analysts from Israel in a fusion center outside Netanya in northern Israel.

At the same time, separated by steel walls, electronic barriers, and code words that restrict information distribution, the NSA’s foreign counter-intelligence branch works to detect Israeli penetration of U.S. targets, and the NSA’s Middle East and Asia division  collects intelligence about Israeli political, intelligence and military operations, and intentions.