Everybody Spies (Even USA vs Israel) But Only the Big Guys Get Away with It

[This article was written by Yossi Melman for the website of the Israel-based private television news service in English, French, and Arabic, i24News.]


In the mid-1980s, the United States Embassy in Israel made an unusual request which immediately aroused the suspicion of Israel’s domestic security service, Shin Bet (known to most Israelis as Shabak). Citing “shortage of space” in its main building on the Tel Aviv beachfront, the embassy asked to rent additional offices on the top floors of the Mandarin residential hotel on the Mediterranean, 3 miles north of Tel Aviv.

The only problem with that application was that the Mandarin is located less than a mile from the headquarters of the Mossad (the foreign intelligence agency of Israel) and the HQ of the military intelligence unit 8200.

It was pretty clear to Shin Bet’s field security officers that the request was a pretext for an intelligence operation by the National Security Agency (NSA) to get closer to its targets. Unit 8200 – equivalent to the NSA – is the most important tool of Israel’s intelligence community in its efforts to collect information on its enemies in the region and beyond.

Shin Bet managed to persuade the landlord to reject the American request, disrupting the NSA’s plans.

Given this incident and other precedents, the latest chapter in the Edward Snowden saga did not surprise Israeli leaders. They have known for decades that the U.S. has been spying in Israel and on Israeli targets.

Snowden’s revelations, backed by the 1.7 million secret digital documents he stole from his NSA and CIA contract employers, have exposed the systematic extent of U.S. espionage around the world. They show that almost no one is immune from the reach of America’s technological capabilities: neither foes like China and Russia, nor friends like Germany and Israel.

Snowden’s revelations show that the NSA – with its close British ally, GCHQ (“Government Communications Headquarters”) – monitored e-mails, phones and faxes of many world leaders, including those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In the newest chapter, Snowden’s leaked documents have exposed the fact that in 2008-09 the NSA intercepted the e-mails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy on all fronts in the world’s reaction to U.S. global espionage. For years it has been known that states spy on each other by recruiting agents and bugging communications of enemies, rivals and friends. The Americans are not alone. The Russian are doing it. So are the Chinese and the French and many other states.

Israel, too, has been in this game for decades. Israeli agents were caught red-handed on numerous occasions spying on U.S. soil – procuring uranium and designs of military hardware, among other things. The best known case is that of the recruitment and running of Jonathan Pollard, a US naval analyst who sold Israel many secrets collected by the U.S. intelligence community about Arab and Muslim countries.

It could be argued that the only difference between Israel and the U.S. is the scope of the espionage operations. These depend only on the technological capabilities of the respective nations. The U.S. has, so it seems, the most advanced systems.

There is one other distinction. A superpower like the U.S. can get away with such activities without showing remorse and being only slightly embarrassed in the eyes of world public opinion.

After all, what are friendly states like Israel going to do about it? Break off diplomatic relations with Washington? Of course not. With annual military aid of $3 billion, political support and strategic cooperation – including in the intelligence field (yes, some of that secret cooperation was also revealed in the vast NSA archive leaked by Snowden) – there is very little Israel can do. Unfortunately, it cannot even express its anger publicly.

The cruel reality emerging from the Snowden affair – which most probably will continue to provide the world with sensations – is very simple. What the big guys are allowed to do, the little ones are not.

December 23, 2013

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