The revelation that Israel was the source of secret intelligence President Trump leaked to the Russians has potentially placed another strain on U.S.-Israeli relations as Trump prepares for his first foreign trip including a visit to Israel. However, this is only the latest in a litany of intelligence snafus between the U.S. and Israel over the years.
1. Israel’s Nuclear Program
As Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program ratcheted up during the 1960s, the U.S. became increasingly concerned with intelligence suggesting a nuclear weapons program in Southern Israel. The Eisenhower administration first asked for an explanation in 1960 of construction suggesting nuclear research near Dimona Israel, which Israel claimed was the site of a future textile factory. Pressure continued under John F. Kennedy, and when Israel finally agreed to an inspection, the government created a fake control center and restricted access to the real nuclear-related sites for “safety reasons.” In 1968, uranium was suspected by the U.S. government to have been delivered to Israel in the Apollo Affair. By 1969, fully aware of Israel’s nuclear weapons, the Nixon administration decided to adopt a position of “nuclear ambiguity,” where they would avoid publicly acknowledging Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
2. Israel Attacks The USS Liberty
On June 8, 1967, at the height of the Six-Day War, the USS Liberty, a U.S. ship secretly gathering signal intelligence 30 miles north of Egypt’s shores, was attacked by the Israeli Air Force and Navy. 34 crew members were killed, 171 were injured, and the ship sustained severe damage.
Israel apologized for the attack afterwards, stating that it had mistaken the USS Liberty for an Egyptian ship. Both American and Israeli investigations concluded that a lapse in communication resulted in the attack. Numerous survivors and others maintain Israeli forces were not mistaken, however, and the attack was deliberate. The Israeli government agreed to pay $6.7 million in compensation to the victims and a further $6 million for the USS Liberty itself.
3. Operation Tipped Kettle
In the 1980s, the U.S. and Israel agreed to transfer weapons seized by Israeli forces from the PLO in Lebanon to the Nicaraguan Contras. Israel donated the arms in return for an expectation of increased military assistance. Israel soon complained the Americans were not keeping up with their end of the bargain, and a later Pentagon investigation found that the Israeli military attache in Washington and the international branch of the DoD had reached a secret arrangement where “in return for Israel waiving the payment, the U.S. defense contractor Numax was to retain its security clearance and government contracts after being purchased by Israel.” These shipments were a precursor to the notorious Iran-Contra Affair.
4. Jonathan Pollard
In 1987, as part of a plea agreement, Pollard pleaded guilty to espionage and providing classified information to Israel. Pollard, a Jewish U.S. naval intelligence analyst, approached an Israeli soldier on leave to offer his services as a spy. Among the materials he stole were the NSA’s manual on how the U.S. gathers its signal intelligence and the names of thousands of people who had cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies.
For years, the Israeli government asked for clemency for Pollard, and numerous Pollard supporters called for his release, claiming his life sentence was excessive (Pollard is the only American to be sentenced to a life in prison for spying on behalf of a U.S. ally). The Pollard case remained a sore point in U.S.-Israeli relations for years. In 2015, Pollard was released on parole.
5. The 2006 AIPAC Espionage Scandal
In 2006, Lawrence Franklin, a former U.S. Department of Defense employee, was sentenced 13 years in U.S. prison on several espionage charges, though it was later reduced to 10 months house arrest. Franklin conveyed highly classified information regarding U.S. policy on Iran to AIPAC policy director Steve Rosen and AIPAC senior Iran analyst Keith Weissman, who subsequently sent that information to the Israeli government. Rosen and Weissman were fired afterwards, and Israel and AIPAC denied all accusations of complicity.
6. The NSA Listens In On Benjamin Netanyahu
A 2015 Wall Street Journal report revealed that the NSA had monitored the communications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the previous year during the Iran nuclear talks. The NSA surveillance caused a stir, because the monitoring occurred while Netanyahu visited Congress and also picked up on conversations with U.S. elected officials.
Steven Davidson is an editorial fellow at The Forward.