The Obama administration apparently views Israel as one of the top spying threats facing its intelligence services, according to leaked documents which were exposed Thursday.
A secret budget request obtained by The Washington Post from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden lumps Israel alongside U.S. foes Iran and Cuba as “key targets” for U.S. counterintelligence efforts.
According to The Hill, the document leaked by Snowden suggests that Israel does not believe U.S. assurances that its interests are aligned with Israel's on crucial issues such as Iran and peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
“To further safeguard our classified networks, we continue to strengthen insider threat detection capabilities across the Community,” reads the FY 2013 congressional budget justification for intelligence programs. “In addition, we are investing in target surveillance and offensive CI [counterintelligence] against key targets, such as China, Russia, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Cuba.”
The White House and the Israeli Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
The revelations come as no surprise to Georgetown University's Paul Pillar, who retired as the national intelligence officer for the Near East in 1995 after a 28-year career in U.S. intelligence.
Israeli spying, he told The Hill, has remained a major threat since U.S. citizen Jonathan Pollard received a life sentence in 1987 in a massive spying case that gravely strained relations between the two countries.
“Israel should be assumed to continue to have an aggressive intelligence collection operations against the United States,” Pillar said. While much information is collected through traditional political contacts, he said, “I would personally have no doubt that that is supplemented by whatever means they can use to find out as much as they can about what we're doing, thinking, deciding on anything of interest to Israel, which would include just about any Middle Eastern topic.”
The issues of continued Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria and Obama's strong interest in reaching a negotiated settlement to avoid a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, Pillar said, are two issues where U.S. and Israeli interests “certainly diverge.”
Spying, he said, could give Israel “warning indicators” before any public decisions, and enable the country to put its “political machine in action” and get the United States to reconsider.
“If I were in [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu's shoes and had his perspective,” Pillar said, “I would spare no effort to try to collect every bit of intelligence I could, in secret as well as openly.”
He said the public revelations won't impact U.S.-Israeli relations.
“Everything is trumped by political realities,” Pillar said. “Don't expect any statement by the White House press secretary tomorrow that says, 'Oh my gosh, we are really upset with the Israelis for trying to spy on us'. You're never going to hear anything like that, because politically it is hazardous for basically any American politician – and certainly an incumbent American administration – to underscore ... the divergence of U.S. and Israeli interests.”
The leaks by Snowden have thus far mostly strained the United States’ relations with Russia.
Snowden is wanted by the United States on espionage and other charges after he gave journalists classified documents detailing the NSA’s far-reaching electronic and telephone surveillance programs.
On August 1, Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia. He is free to stay in Russia until at least July 31, 2014, and his asylum status may be extended annually upon request.
Snowden leaked classified information to the Guardian and Washington Post pertaining to alleged NSA eavesdropping on telephone calls and emails of private citizens, then fled from his home in Hawaii, to a Moscow airport, via Hong Kong. After staying in the airport for more than a month, the Russian government decided to grant him political asylum.
U.S. President Barack Obama reacted angrily to Russia’s move and, in response, cancelled a planned G20 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.