Spying for Zion
Spying goes on everywhere, all the time, 24/7. But the way spying is treated—when it is discovered, when it is publicized, when spies are arrested, tried, and jailed—is highly variable, especially in the United States. The timing is almost never a matter of chance, and the latest stories about American Jews spying for Israel are not coincidental.
Two American Jews have just pled guilty to attempting to transmit classified information to the Israeli government. In the first case, Elliot Doxer, a computer firm employee, thought he was passing trade secrets to an Israeli consular official—who turned out to be an FBI agent. Doxler said he was trying to help Israel, but prosecutors noted he was also seeking Israeli help in getting information about his estranged wife and son. He faces 12 years in prison.
The second case involved a U.S. government space scientist, David Nozette, who pled guilty after trying to sell defense information to a person he thought was a Mossad agent. Nozette first came to the attention of the FBI for failing to disclose that he had once consulted for Israel Aircraft Industries. Having identified him as a potential threat, the FBI offered him money. He took the bait. He could serve a sentence of 13 years.
A third recent case turns out to be more complicated and illuminating. Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli-American lawyer, worked as a translator for the FBI. He came into possession of classified documents, transcripts of FBI wiretaps of the Israeli embassy in Washington, involving Israeli efforts to influence Congress and U.S. public opinion in the matter of the Iranian nuclear threat. Leibowitz disapproved of these efforts and gave the documents to a left-wing blogger, Richard Silverstein, so that Silverstein would publicize them. Leibowitz has received a 20-month sentence for mishandling classified material.
No one seems especially surprised that the United States intercepts Israeli embassy communications; recent WikiLeaks documents have provided details of U.S. intelligence-gathering within Israel itself. But in other ways the Leibowitz case is surprising. In contrast with several journalists (such as James Risen of the New York Times, who faces a subpoena for having received documents from a former CIA employee), Silverstein has gotten no subpoenas. Stranger still is that Leibowitz, a well-known left-wing lawyer in Israel, was hired to work on classified FBI documents. By contrast, American Jews sometimes face special obstacles in getting U.S. security clearances: They have been asked whether they would bear arms for America in a war against Israel, a question not posed to members of other ethnic or religious groups.
All countries spy in and on the United States. Washington analysts, inside and outside government, share information all the time, and the line between classified and unclassified information is often blurry. But in the theater of espionage arrests, Israel appears to be singled out, with alleged Israeli spies attracting a unique level of attention.
In part, this special treatment is the bitter fruit of the Jonathan Pollard case. Pollard, a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy, pled guilty in 1987 to providing extensive secret information to an Israeli intelligence operation. Though more damage was done to America by Soviet spies like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, Pollard's activities particularly angered the U.S. intelligence establishment: Their counterintelligence arm had been humiliated, and Reagan administration officials like Caspar Weinberger felt betrayed by an ally.
Pollard was sentenced to life in prison, and American Jews have been in the crosshairs ever since. In 2004, U.S. Defense Department official Larry Franklin was accused of revealing classified information to two staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The case made front-page news worldwide. After five years, the charges against the AIPAC staffers were dismissed. Franklin was convicted, but his sentence of 13 years was reduced to 10 months of house arrest. In the course of the prosecution, it was revealed that the U.S. government had been investigating AIPAC and various Middle East specialists since 1999.
Other features may also account for some of the focus on Israel. Along with China, Russia, and France, Israel is said to conduct especially aggressive economic espionage in the United States. Israel has a small defense relationship with China. But the rules are different for small U.S. allies than for large U.S. rivals. In 2010 alone, there were at least 11 major cases of Chinese spying in the United States. Almost none received any serious media attention, except for the penetration of Google by Chinese hackers. The phrase "dual loyalty" virtually never appeared.
Perhaps least coincidental of all, the recent Israeli espionage cases appeared at the time of an interview given to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who described Israel as an ungrateful ally. The Obama administration's animus against the Netanyahu government is well known, and at least one commentator has suggested that Gates's criticism was designed both to embarrass Netanyahu and to soften the blow of the probable U.S. veto of the Palestinians' "Unilateral Declaration of Independence" at the UN at the end of September.
Stories about Israeli intelligence operations in the United States abound, often crossing the line into the realm of anti-Semitic paranoia. Recall, for example, the stories about teams of alleged Israeli operatives posing as art students in the United States and gathering intelligence, possibly related to September 11; or the stories about Israeli spying on phone systems in the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere; or the tales of Israeli agents filming the September 11 attacks. The circulation given these stories reflects a willingness in the mainstream media to put Israel in a suspicious light. And in the dark, quiet game of counterintelligence, Israel is sent the message that America is watching. That same message is being delivered to American Jews.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
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