With the end of the Cold War, spy stories are becoming scarcer. The Washington Post report that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the possibility of an Israeli spy called "Mega", perhaps helps fulfill the yearning for the excitement of a previous era. If the allegations prove false however, there had better be an investigation of another sort in Washington.
According to the article, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted a conversation between two Israeli intelligence officers regarding a request by Israel's Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar. The ambassador allegedly sought a copy of the side letter written by then-secretary of state Warren Christopher to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat regarding the Hebron Agreement. The Israeli intelligence official reportedly told his supervisor, "The ambassador wants me to go to Mega to get a copy of this letter." The reported response was, "This is not something we use Mega for."
There are a number of striking things about this report. First, specific leaks of NSA intercepts are very rare. The NSA is perhaps the most secretive of America's intelligence agencies. NSA intercepts are among the most highly classified jewels of the intelligence community, not just for the information they contain, but because they reveal intelligence capabilities - "sources and methods" in spy-speak.
This particular leak, if authentic, revealed that the NSA is capable of cracking highly encrypted Israeli telephone conversations. This is the sort of capability that NSA might be quite proud of, but would be loathe to have splashed over the front pages of major newspapers.
The fact that this leak may hurt NSA makes the leakers doubly malicious; they are willing to compromise their own intelligence services in order to throw a wrench in US-Israeli relations. The seriousness of this act would be greatly compounded if the whole story is a big mistake, as some reports indicate.
According to a report published in yesterday's New York Post by intelligence analyst Uri Dan, the key term "Mega" does not refer to an American official spying for Israel, but to an established network for the sharing of political information between Western intelligence services. "Mega," according to Dan, is short for "Megawatt," the code name of the network. Another network, called "Kilowatt, reportedly exists to share intelligence related to counter-terrorism efforts.
If Dan is correct, then the Israeli officials were simply engaged in routine professional consultation, as to whether the ambassador's request could or should be fulfilled by consulting an official intelligence-sharing network.
Dan's explanation is corroborated by Israeli intelligence officials who, according to Yediot Aharonot analyst Ron Ben-Ishai, are saying that the Americans misunderstood the intercepted conversation - in particular the reference to "Mega". Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh also did not deny the text of the leaked intercept, but said that "I know exactly what 'Mega' is and I am sure that after we clarify this with the Americans, they will accept our explanations and the Washington Post report will turn out to be a wild goose chase. "It looks, therefore, like "Mega" is a 'what' and not a 'who.' If so, Washington Post and probably the FBI are going to be seriously embarrassed.
In any case, the comparison made by the Washington Post and many subsequent reports between this case and that of Jonathan Pollard are irresponsible and tendentious. The Washington Post claims that "one [US] official said…that if it turned out that a senior U.S. official was passing sensitive information to Israeli authorities, it could prove more serious than the espionage case involving Jonathan Jay Pollard."
It takes a great leap of imagination to take a single reference to something called Mega, and build upon it the charge that Mega is not only a person, but an American, not only an American, but a senior American official, and not only a senior American official but one who is doing more damage than the worst spy in the history of Israeli-American relations.
All this, when the document in question was known to Israel - Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet during consideration of the Hebron Agreement in January that he had seen it - and whose full text was published in Ha'aretz just two weeks later.
Despite the understandable restrictions on the ability of US and Israeli officials to discuss intelligence matters, both countries need to work quickly to figure out the truth and take corrective action. If, as Natan Sharansky would say, 10 percent of the allegations are correct, then Israel could have a legitimate scandal on its hands. But if this story is as shot through with holes as it seems, the investigation should focus on the sources of the story, and on how to deter future attempts to sabotage the US-Israel relationship.