Leaks of wiretap transcripts involving a member of Congress and a “suspected Israeli agent” have shone a rare light on the scope of suspicion the American intelligence establishment harbors toward Israel and its supporters.
Investigators wiretapping the alleged Israeli agent were so concerned about remarks by Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California during his conversation with her that the investigators subsequently sought a so-called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant — reserved for sensitive intelligence cases — to wiretap Harman, as well, according to a detailed story published April 19 by Congressional Quarterly. But then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales, the article claims, halted the investigation because he thought he would need Harman’s support in an upcoming clash over the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, about to be exposed by The New York Times.
According to the CQ story, Harman promised the alleged Israeli agent she would lobby the administration to back off espionage-related charges against two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington pro-Israel lobby. In exchange, her conversation partner is said to have promised he would lobby congressional leaders for Harman to become chairwoman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Harman has angrily denied that she made any such deal, and requested the administration to fully declassify the wiretapped conversations in question. Gonzales, meanwhile, has declined to comment so far.
But for close observers of the national security establishment, the real news was the extent of its suspicions of American Jewish supporters of Israel — up to and including its willingness to wiretap a member of Congress.
“It’s rooted deep in the system,” an official with an American Jewish organization said, “and it comes from the bottom up.”
The leaked transcripts hint, among other things, at the security establishment’s continued search for an Israeli mole that some reportedly believe remained uncaught after Jonathan Pollard, an American Jewish civilian naval intelligence analyst, was discovered engaged in massive espionage for Israel in 1985. More generally, the wiretap reflects the security establishment’s continuing concern about leaks of classified information to pro-Israel activists and Israeli agents who have shown themselves adept at obtaining nonpublic information from the government.
“We know that we are closely watched, that people might be listening to our phone calls. This is our working premise,” said a former senior Israeli official who was based in Washington in recent years. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said he believed that suspicion toward Israel was prevalent in the military and intelligence establishments but was not common at the political and diplomatic levels.
The disclosure of the Harman wiretaps comes at a time when the government’s most elaborate attempt to crack down on alleged wrongdoings by pro-Israel activists is at a crossroads. The prosecution of two former AIPAC lobbyists, which began more than four years ago and is scheduled to go to trial June 2, is under review and, according to press reports, might be dropped altogether. The conversations involving Harman focused on attempts to put an end to the legal proceedings against the two former AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman.
Although no formal explanation was provided from the National Security Agency for eavesdropping on the Harman conversation, it is widely believed that the wiretap was part of the investigation into the AIPAC case.
According to court records, wiretaps and surveillance in the Rosen-Weissman case began as early as 1999. From the indictment, which is now being reviewed by the attorney general’s office, it is clear that attempts to stop the flow of information to pro-Israel activists led to a wide- ranging counterintelligence operation in which Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists were being followed and their conversations monitored. These conversations involved senior government officials who had been in touch with the subjects of the investigation. The U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia reviewed transcripts of these wiretaps in lengthy pretrial proceedings, and parts of them are expected to be presented if the case reaches trial.
Stephen Green, a Vermont-based writer who has chronicled the counterintelligence spats between the United States and Israel since the late 1970s, said the mistrust toward Israel stems from agents working on the cases and not from an overall anti-Israel ideology. “This has nothing to do with politics or with Israeli foreign policy. These are people who deal with these issues on a daily basis and become very, very upset,” Green said.
Green, who, through the Freedom of Information Act, has obtained documents chronicling decades of security investigations of government officials suspected of leaking restricted information to Israel, was questioned by the FBI about his research during the investigation of the Rosen-Weissman case.
Suspicion toward pro-Israel Americans predates the Pollard espionage affair. In 1979, the FBI looked into allegations that Stephen Bryen, then a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, passed on information to Israeli officials. The search for Israeli spies, which at times focused on the notion of an Israeli network led by a master spy code-named “Mega,” intensified after the 1985 arrest of Jonathan Pollard.
The investigation, as it turned out, never ended, and as recently as April 2008 it resurfaced with the arrest of Ben-Ami Kadish, a former army engineer from New Jersey who passed on classified information to the same Israeli handler that was in charge of Pollard. Kadish, now 85, pleaded guilty last December as part of a plea agreement and is awaiting his May sentencing.
Echoes of the defense establishment’s concerns over American Jews’ loyalty to Israel were apparent, too, in a 1996 memo sent out by the Pentagon to defense contractors, warning them that Jewish employees with “strong ethnic ties” to Israel could be exploited by the Israelis to gather classified information. The memo was later retracted after Jewish groups protested its content.
The issue, however, is still being raised when discussing security clearance for American Jews who have ties with Israel. Arlington, Va.-based attorney Sheldon Cohen, who represents many cases of workers denied security clearances, has found a disproportionate presence of Jews among this group. The usual reason given is concern about their alleged ties with Israel.
Recently, Cohen authored an article dealing with a question posed to Jews applying for defense clearance: “Would you bear arms for the United States against Israel?” This hypothetical question is not presented, according to Cohen, to any other ethnic or religious group. “The one thing common to all the applicants to whom this question is put is their Jewish heritage,” he wrote.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman