Spies Like Us
Spy vs. spy intrigue between the CIA and Israel, centered around the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv
Portions of this article were subject to deletions by the Israeli Military Censor.
The United States Embassy in Tel Aviv, in a prime beachfront location at 71 HaYarkon Street, is six stories tall, not including the mysteries on its roof. Israeli intelligence operatives and journalists have for many years suspected that atop the embassy and perhaps in its basement are sophisticated surveillance systems that keep a close electronic eye on the Jewish state. Certainly, as is standard in most any U.S. Embassy, there is a suite of offices comprising the CIA station, its staffers given diplomatic titles such as “second secretary.” No attempt is made to hide their identity from Israeli authorities because this host government is considered friendly.
Friendship between nations, especially in the volatile Middle East, is not naïve. The Mossad and other Israeli security agencies, as well as top politicians, assume that the United States routinely listens to their phone conversations, copies fax messages, and intercepts email messages—data known in the spy business as comint (communications intelligence)—and also gathers sigint (signals intelligence), which involves analyzing data transmitted on various wavelengths by Israeli military units, aviation manufacturers, space launch sites, labs suspected of doing nuclear work: any defense-related facility that puts out signals. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that more than 20 years ago, embassy officials approached Israeli authorities with a request to rent office space in the Mandarin Hotel, on the beach north of Tel Aviv. Permission was denied, because that location is on a precise east-west line barely a mile from Mossad headquarters (inland at the Gelilot highway intersection) and a bit farther from the equally secretive military intelligence codebreaking and high-tech surveillance Unit 8200.
If Israeli counterintelligence—the spy-catchers at Shin Bet (the domestic security service known to Israelis as Shabak)—really wanted to check the roof or the basement on HaYarkon Street, perhaps they could break in to the building. In 1954, U.S. security officials at the embassy found microphones concealed in the ambassador’s office. In 1956, bugs were found attached to two telephones in the home of an American military attaché. Shin Bet also made crude attempts to use women and money to seduce the U.S. Marines who guarded the embassy. However, in the view of top Israeli intelligence insiders, the mystery of the roof—even though they have noticed that some antennae and equipment are covered—is closer to an urban espionage myth. The United States can easily park signals-intercepting ships in the Mediterranean near the Israeli coast; the U.S. National Security Agency controls plenty of spy-in-the-sky satellites and can watch and listen to most anything on the NSA’s agenda.
Indeed, there is no doubt the Americans regularly listen in to the private communications of the Israeli government and military. Hebrew linguists are trained and sought after by the NSA. The clearest case of such U.S. spying on Israel came to light in 1967, when the U.S. Navy’s ship Liberty was attacked by Israel’s air force during the Six Day War. Thirty-four American sailors were killed, and many of the survivors say their mission was to gather comint and sigint about Israeli and Egyptian military moves and plans. Most of them think the attack was intentional, to blind and deafen that particular NSA intelligence operation, but Israel firmly denies it.
Being in the business of collecting information, intelligence agencies know very well that everyone does it, friend or foe. Certainly the CIA station, based in the embassy, busies itself with clipping newspapers, harvesting web articles, recording radio and TV broadcasts, talking with Israelis, analyzing the results, and reading between the lines. Yet our image of espionage usually means running agents: recruiting people to betray their country for money or other motives. “In my 21 years in the agency, I never saw any official request for us to go recruit Israeli citizens,” says Robert Baer, a longtime case officer in the Near East Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. “They don’t have to,” said a former head of the Mossad who asked not to be identified by name. “They can get—and probably do get—whatever they want, because we Israelis don’t know how to keep secrets. We are talkative, and the CIA has great access to all levels of the Israeli government.”
While the CIA and Israel’s intelligence community have enjoyed close liaison in recent decades, cooperation has not always been the norm. From its founding in 1948 as a socialist country led by immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, the State of Israel was perceived by the CIA as part of the hostile Soviet sphere of influence. In 1951, David Ben Gurion toured the United States, met with General Walter Bedell Smith, Truman’s director of central intelligence, and convinced U.S. intelligence to give Israel a try. A highly personal relationship between the intelligence communities was forged, and James Jesus Angleton, who would become legendary for his obsessively suspicious counter-spy campaigns, was put in charge of the U.S. side. Israeli intelligence assigned Amos Manor and Teddy Kollek, who later would enjoy decades as mayor of Jerusalem, as his counterparts.
“It wasn’t easy to persuade the anti-communist Angleton that we could be friends,” Manor told us before his death two and a half years ago. “Even I was suspected by him, that I was a Soviet spy.” Manor, an Auschwitz survivor, had emigrated to Israel from Romania, which became a communist country after World War II. Over sleepless nights at Manor’s apartment on Pinsker Street in Tel Aviv, the Israeli did his best to keep up with Angleton at whiskey-sipping and chatting about the world. The two men became close friends, laying the foundation for CIA-Mossad intelligence cooperation as Manor proved to Angleton that what had been considered an Israeli disadvantage could be turned into a great advantage: Israel’s population of immigrants from the Soviet Union and its East European satellites made the country an indispensible source about everything that interested the CIA at the height of the Cold War, from the cost of potatoes behind the Iron Curtain to plans for new aircraft and ships there. The great turning point was the secret speech in Moscow in 1956 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denouncing Stalin’s crimes. A Jewish journalist in Poland procured the much-sought-after text and gave it to Israeli intelligence in Warsaw. It was quickly delivered to the CIA.
Still, while cooperating in anti-Soviet operations, the two countries had some conflicting interests. Desperate to have a qualitative military edge over its Arab neighbors, Israel ordered agents to steal U.S. technology. From the 1960s until the late 1980s, American law enforcement busted several conspiracies run by Israelis to procure defense and high-tech secrets and even components for Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal. This clandestine work was not done by the Mossad but by military officers and by a small Defense Ministry unit known as Lakam (Lishka le-Kishrei Mada, the “science liaison bureau”), which also ran Jonathan Pollard, who is now serving a life sentence for espionage.
In the late 1950s, the prime target of American suspicion in Israel was the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, which was constructed by the French as part of a secret deal linked with the Israeli-French-British invasion of Suez, Egypt, in 1956 that took President Dwight Eisenhower by surprise and greatly angered him. The CIA was assigned to find out what the Israelis were up to in the Negev Desert. The station chief in Tel Aviv in the 1960s, John Hadden, told us he would make a point of driving as close as he could to the nuclear reactor and occasionally stopped his car to collect soil samples for radioactive analysis. Shin Bet was obviously tailing him, and an Israeli helicopter once landed near his automobile to stop it. Security personnel demanded to see identification, and after flashing his U.S. diplomatic passport Hadden drove off, with little doubt there were big doings at Dimona.
When Americans were permitted to enter the Dimona facility as part of a deal with President John F. Kennedy, “it cost us a hell of a lot of money to arrange it so their inspectors wouldn’t find out what was going on,” the late Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban told us, as quoted in our book Friends In Deed. False walls were erected, doorways and elevators were hidden, and dummy installations were built to show to the visitors, who found no evidence of the weapons program secreted underground. [Sentence deleted by the Israeli Military Censor.]
Nuclear gamesmanship did not spoil the progress of friendly connections between the two intelligence communities. John Hadden set the pattern for all future CIA station chiefs in Tel Aviv by spending most of his time in open liaison activities, cultivating ties with Israeli officials in all fields. Hadden remembers attending a diplomatic dinner in 1963, when he was well aware that Israel, then an austere nation, saw Americans as hard-drinking and garrulous. Usually keeping his CIA-taught language skills to himself, he heard the hostess say hopefully to an Israeli colonel that if Hadden kept imbibing perhaps he would talk too much. The puckish spy smiled and surprised his hosts with his decent Hebrew: “Nichnas yayin, yotzeh sod!” which means “Wine goes in, a secret comes out!”
The next two decades would see gradual growth in mutual confidence, as U.S. interests in the Middle East increasingly matched Israel’s concern with Arab radicalism and Palestinian terrorism. Yet in 1985, when Jonathan Pollard was arrested at the gates of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, by coincidence the CIA was assessing a “walk in”: an Israeli officer, Major Yossi Amit, who had served in a secretive military intelligence unit. As far as we know, Major Amit was the closest the CIA got to recruiting an Israeli as an agent. In his hometown of Haifa, Amit met a U.S. Navy officer who introduced him to the CIA. Amit offered his services as an experienced case officer who had run Syrian and Lebanese networks. He flew to Germany and spent time with CIA operatives and a psychologist, who used a polygraph and other tests to judge his credibility. This evaluation was handled well away from the CIA’s Tel Aviv station, though a counter-terrorism officer stationed in Tel Aviv was part of the team in Germany.
Amit claims that he did not intend to betray or spy on Israel, but he might have been willing to help the CIA in various Arab countries. He was arrested by Israeli authorities, tried in secret, and served seven years in prison.
In the 1990s, with an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations brokered by the United States, the CIA’s involvement in the region leapt forward. The Tel Aviv station was enlarged and given duties far beyond liaison with counterparts in the Mossad. The CIA’s new assignment was to turn Yasser Arafat’s secret police and commando units into a professional entity that would be pro-peace, pro-American, and in effect agents of influence for the CIA.
George Tenet, as deputy CIA director before getting the agency’s top job, was given the task in 1996. As Tenet wrote in his memoirs, At the Center of the Storm, he was reluctant, but it was an order from President Bill Clinton and he understood: “Security was the key. You can talk about sovereignty, borders, elections, territory, and the rest all day long; but unless the two sides feel safe, nothing else matters.”
The agency launched into this mission by staying, at first, within the confines of its longtime expertise: meeting with security chiefs, arranging trips for Arafat’s secret police to be re-trained in the United States, providing surveillance equipment aimed at countering the rise of Hamas radicalism, and coordinating all this with Israel’s Shin Bet and military.
The CIA station chief in Tel Aviv from 1995 to 1999 was Stan Moskowitz, a 40-year agency veteran who kept trying to mediate the inevitable disputes. Mossad officials did not like him, not because of his role in the peace process, but because they felt that—perhaps because he was a Bronx-born Jew trying to overcompensate—he kept himself at a frosty distance from the Israelis. This view is reflected in the memoirs of a Canadian-born Mossad operative using the pseudonym Michael Ross. In his book The Volunteer, Ross describes Moskowitz as “a self-important Beltway climber who drove around Tel Aviv in the back seat of a white Mercedes sedan.”
A former Mossad station chief in Washington who knew Moskowitz as a CIA research director before he moved to Israel had already noticed that Moskowitz had problems with the Jewish state. “Unlike other CIA officials who readily agreed to meet me, he was always very reluctant to do so,” says the Israeli, who asked not to be named.
After some years, Mossad men say, they came to nickname Moskowitz “the anti-Semite.” Though the title was exaggerated, annoyance with Moskowitz helps explain why an Israeli newspaper broke the unwritten rule of not naming the CIA station chief, when it wrote of Moskowitz in an article about the negotiating sessions with the Palestinians. Moskowitz died in 2006, a year after retiring.
A Palestinian uprising, the second Intifada in early 2001, found the CIA sucked into a new and more urgent role in mediating the volatile negotiating process that had blown up at Camp David in the summer of 2000. Meeting with presidents, kings, and prime ministers is nothing strange to CIA station chiefs around the world, but negotiating with them in a prolonged process was entirely different—especially when the stakes included an escalating wave of suicide bombings and Israeli retaliations. President George W. Bush, new to his job, assigned George Tenet to stay at the CIA and focus on that mission.
“Tenet was even more reluctant this time,” says a former Mossad chief who prefers to remain anonymous. “But he obeyed the orders.”
A different perspective comes from Reuel Marc Gerecht, a clandestine CIA officer in the Middle East in the 1990s: “Some in the agency relished the limelight,” he says. “Others thought it was a mistake. Tenet relished it, obviously.”
Tenet’s point man in Tel Aviv was Jeff O’Connell, the station chief who replaced Moskowitz. The Mossad had more respect for O’Connell, first because he did not have what they perceived as the conflicts of being Jewish. Second, before moving to Tel Aviv, O’Connell had been stationed in Amman, Jordan. The Mossad was highly familiar with how the CIA had cultivated intimate relations with King Hussein’s intelligence services, to the point that the Mossad was envious—thinking the CIA was even friendlier with the Jordanians than with Israel. It was a thinly veiled secret that Hussein himself had been on the CIA’s payroll in the 1960s.
One tool for O’Connell was his fluency in Arabic. He would gather Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, the two security chiefs of Arafat’s forces, with Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter and his deputy, Ofer Dekel. O’Connell’s Arabic seemed to be even better than Dekel’s, and the five men would exchange pleasantries and even jokes, yet overall the American seemed amicable and cooperative with both sides. Dahlan has nothing but praise for the CIA and then-director Tenet.
Acting friendly is a routine and shallow part of espionage tradecraft. Their business in this case was deadly serious: finding some mechanisms to help save the Oslo peace process. They were carrying out their political masters’ orders, and O’Connell seemed almost desperate, though businesslike, in the quest to stop the fabric of negotiations from entirely unraveling. Occasionally the head of the Mossad, Efraim Halevy, would take part, so as to protect the foreign espionage agency’s traditional turf as liaison with the CIA. And in 2002, O’Connell helped to end the Palestinian siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, by mediating with Israel’s army and Shin Bet.
Around the same time, a former CIA operative claims, the agency had a smaller station working within the United States Consulate in Jerusalem, which is responsible for official American activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Melissa Boyle Mahle, topping off a 14-year undercover career that included recruiting agents throughout the Middle East, deployed her experience and her Arabic in a new post-Oslo liaison relationship with the Palestinians. It is believed that she cultivated agents and informants, who were paid for giving the United States information and analysis. From the point of view of Israeli security personnel, Mahle was a minor player, and they doubted that she was making any reliable headway in the volatile West Bank and Gaza. Mahle was forced to leave the CIA in 2002 for what she calls “an operational mistake” that she cannot talk about; one published account says she did not tell her superiors some personal details of contacts with agents. (She declined to comment for this article.)
The uprising continued. Peace efforts collapsed. O’Connell’s successor was Deborah Morris. Aside from the obvious breakthrough of being the first woman to be station chief in Tel Aviv, Morris failed to make much of an impression on her Mossad contacts. Thomas Powers, writing about the CIA in The New York Review of Books, said some in the agency groused about her promotion at one point to deputy Near East chief in the Directorate of Operations, complaining that Morris had never run an agent and “she doesn’t know what the Khyber Pass looks like but she’s supposed to be directing operations.”
The CIA station in Tel Aviv was heavily involved in attempts, after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, to keep his Fatah faction in charge in the Gaza Strip. The Bush Administration and the Palestinian Authority, now led by Mahmoud Abbas, seemed to fail to see that Hamas would win the Gaza elections of 2006. Though official motivations remain unclear, many Gazans believe that the CIA was ordered to help Abbas stage a coup d’etat in that narrow and destitute seaside strip. Whatever those efforts were, they backfired. Hamas gunmen were the winners, and Gaza continues to be an infectious splinter spoiling peace efforts.
With the fade-out of negotiations, the CIA returned to its traditional role, far from the limelight, while the CIA’s cooperation with the Mossad intensified as the Bush Administration launched its War on Terror after Sept. 11. The Tel Aviv station was enlarged yet again, with more than 10 staffers representing the major departments at the headquarters in Langley, Virginia: operations (meaning covert action), research, counter-terrorism, and counter-proliferation, with its focus on Iran’s nuclear work.
It is a mark of the respect that Mossad officials have for the incumbent station chief that they refuse to give his name or describe him, beyond this: He is “very professional” and “businesslike.” More significant for what will happen in the Middle East in the near future is this observation: that the American is very close to Mossad director Meir Dagan (who has had his post for an unusually long period, nearly eight years) and together they have brought U.S.-Israel intelligence cooperation into new areas—and, frankly, to new heights.
Israeli methods that had been condemned worldwide are now embraced by the CIA. Infiltrating extremist organizations, recruiting agents by applying pressure in every conceivable way, tough interrogation and imprisonment, and targeted assassinations had been hallmarks of Israel’s battle against Palestinian and other Arab terrorists; now the United States wanted to score similar successes against al-Qaeda and its associated jihadist groups. U.S. and Israeli officials, while refusing to confirm details of any joint operations, suggest they have been involved in clandestine missions aimed at a shared target: Iran’s nuclear program. [Two sentences deleted by the Israeli Military Censor.]
These efforts build on some scattered but significant successes even before Sept. 11. Information from Israeli intelligence had been instrumental in joint Mossad, CIA, and FBI missions that thwarted Hezbollah and al-Qaeda plots as far afield as the Midwest and Azerbaijan. A Lebanese immigrant in Dearborn, Michigan, automotive engineer Fawzi Mustapha Assi, was arrested in 1998 for allegedly trying to provide Hezbollah with $120,000 of electronics gear. Well-informed Israelis say a Mossad case officer was sent to CIA headquarters in Langley, to coordinate the flow of information that the FBI could use for the bust. To the chagrin of the Mossad, Assi fled to Lebanon after an American court released him on $100,000 bond. That same year, covert CIA officers teamed up with Mossad field personnel in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Israel, focusing on Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, had eavesdropped on plans for a meeting between an Iranian intelligence man and three Egyptian jihadists who were linked to the planning of the al-Qaeda bombings that devastated the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Mossad shared the information with the CIA, and both agencies sent operatives to work with the Azeri security services, who arrested the men.
“Israel runs circles around the CIA when it comes to Gaza and the West Bank,” ex-operative Robert Baer says about collecting and analyzing raw intelligence. “There’s virtually nothing we can offer Israel about the Palestinians.” On the other hand, the CIA does not depend on the Mossad for its global war against al-Qaeda. The Americans have better sources for that in the Middle East, including the Egyptian and Jordanian security services. Gerecht, a former CIA officer, says the agency appreciates its relationship with the Mossad, “but the Israelis value it more than the Americans do.”
Baer feels that “the Israelis think we’re dummies.” Not true. The fact is that Israeli intelligence people speak with high respect of their American colleagues’ brainpower, professionalism, and devotion to their work. The Israelis also give the CIA credit for “not stealing agents—unlike the British MI6.” If the CIA works on recruiting an Arab, for instance, as a paid informant but finds out the Israelis are already running him, they will either back off or come to the Mossad to ask for permission to share the agent.
In all of this history—including decades of converting suspicion to cooperation—has the CIA merely been executing each president’s policies or pursuing the agency’s own view of the Middle East? This is a sensitive subject. Critics contend that the CIA is always pushing an agenda based on convoluted distortions, disrespecting human rights and cynically pursuing American strength at all costs. However, though perhaps with some minor exceptions, the CIA seems to be a loyal organization that adheres to lines set by its political masters in Washington. It wasn’t the CIA’s fault or intention that its mediation efforts exploded into a new Palestinian intifada. And when Israel started its secret nuclear program, the CIA pursued all the clues because the White House ordered it to.
“The agency is not a remote calculating machine,” says Gerecht. “It has its passions, and depending on the issue those passions can be deployed. Senior officials in that bureaucracy often have strong views and like those views to be considered.” But, he adds, “The agency is not much different from any other major foreign policy national security institution, such as the State Department or the Pentagon. Depending on the issue and the place, the CIA can have input in creation of policy, and it is staffed with human beings who want to have input.”
According to Gerecht, CIA staffers tend to see the Middle East through an Arabist prism—“about where State was, around 20 years ago.” He says that if you were to visit the office of a typical station chief in the Near East Division, you would likely find autographed pictures of the late King Hussein or some senior official in an Arab intelligence service, but hardly anything indicating a sentimental attachment to anything or anyone Israeli. This is only natural, considering that there are many Arab nations, leaders, and CIA stations, and only one Israel.
Gerecht contends that “the common theme is that they’d want the U.S. to coerce Israel more in the peace process,” a view that he feels comes from contacts with “elites in places like Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus.”
The truth, however, is that almost everyone in the United States government would like to see a stable Middle East. And if that means concessions by Israel, though not at the expense of its security, it is not exclusively the CIA that would work enthusiastically for that outcome.
Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence and military affairs for Haaretz, and Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, are co-authors of books including Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community, The Imperfect Spies, and Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.
Dalia Mogahed may be the most influential figure guiding the Obama Administration’s Middle East outreach
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