Israel Denies Spying Against U.S.

Steven Erlanger - NY Times - August 29, 2004

JERUSALEM - News that the F.B.I. has been investigating a Pentagon official on suspicion of passing secrets to Israel has caused a diplomatic scramble here, with officials rushing to deny spying on Washington and to assure the United States of its friendship.

Administration officials say the Pentagon official, who has been identified in some news reports but who could not be reached for comment early Saturday, works in the office of Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy.

Officials who have been briefed about the inquiry say the official is suspected of passing a classified policy draft on Iran to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group, which in turn is thought to have provided the information to Israeli intelligence.

Publicly, the Israeli government, through its spokesmen here and in Washington, have called the allegations wrong and outrageous, as has Aipac, the lobbying group.

"The United States is Israel's most cherished friend and ally," said David Siegel, the Israeli Embassy spokesman. "We have a strong ongoing relationship at all levels, and in no way would Israel do anything to impair this relationship."

Aipac called the allegations "baseless and false."

After the hugely embarrassing spying scandal of 1985, when Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence analyst, was arrested and convicted of spying for Israel, the Israeli government made a firm decision to stop all clandestine spying in the United States, Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the foreign and defense committee in Parliament, said Saturday.

Mr. Steinitz is chairman of the most powerful committee in Parliament, with oversight of all Israeli military and intelligence agencies, and is chairman of the subcommittee on intelligence. He says he has access to as much secret information as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"This was a firm decision," Mr. Steinitz said, "and I'm 100 percent confident - not 99 percent, but 100 percent - that Israel is not spying in the United States. We have no agents there and we are not gathering intelligence there, unlike probably every other country in the world, including some of America's best friends in Europe."

Mr. Sharon's office emphasized the same point on Saturday, issuing a statement saying: "Israel has no connection to this matter. The United States is Israel's greatest ally. Israel is not engaged in intelligence activities in the United States and denies reports to the contrary."

But Israeli officials also acknowledged that Iran is a vital security issue for them as well as for the United States, and that the views of Washington policy makers and analysts are of great interest to Israel.

Mr. Steinitz in particular considers Iran a nuclear superpower in the making, working on weapons that can hit Europe, as well as Israel, and he urged Washington and Europe to deal with Iran "before it is too late."

Still, reports of the F.B.I. investigation caused a furor here. And officials went to pains on Saturday to say that despite the importance of such intelligence, Israel only works openly in America, including diplomatic conversations and relationships with a full range of sources, from the White House and Congress to Aipac, which has its own sources. "America is the great exception," one official said. Mr. Steinitz said, "People leak sometimes when they shouldn't, that goes on everywhere, but that's a different matter."

While Israel has representatives of the Mossad, its intelligence agency, and military intelligence in Washington, they are attached to the embassy and their presence is known to American authorities, officials said.

Yossi Melman, an intelligence and terrorism expert with the Israeli daily Haaretz, said Saturday that since the case of Mr. Pollard, who remains in prison in the United States, "I know there has been a decision not to run any operations on American soil or to recruit Americans to spy for Israel."

Mossad, he said, is under instructions to have no direct contact even with officials from Aipac, "and I know that Israel is very, very sensitive about having even open contacts with Jewish members of the administration, because of the ramifications of Pollard" and the concern that Israel would be accused of playing on any dual loyalty that an American Jew might feel.

This is a case of an American accused of passing information to an American organization, Mr. Melman said. "While Aipac is pro-Israel, and maintains contacts with the Israeli Embassy and shares analysis, it does not deal with Israeli intelligence services," he said. "If Aipac passed on a secret document, that would be a sensitive matter for Israel. But if Aipac said, 'It's our understanding that the Americans in Doug Feith's office are thinking this and that,' that's different," he said.

But the lines are often hard to draw, especially with an issue as sensitive as the one involving Iran, which is considered by American and Israeli officials to be working on nuclear weaponry even though it has said its program is only to generate electricity - in a sense, presenting a publicly ambiguous stance, much as does Israel, which has developed nuclear weapons as a deterrent but refuses to discuss the matter. Iran is also interesting to Israel, although less so to the United States, for the financial and military support it provides Hezbollah, the militant anti-Israel group based in Lebanon and active in the West Bank.

For Mr. Steinitz, a hawk with Likud, Iran is a clear and present danger for the entire West. "The Iran nuclear program is so ambitious that after producing a first bomb, they could produce 20 bombs a year," he said. "This isn't North Korea or Iraq or even Pakistan. Iran will soon become a global power with intercontinental missiles that will threaten Europe and NATO, with disastrous political results for Israel, the moderate Arab world and the United States," he said.

But the problem of Iran is global, he said. "It's up to the Americans and Europeans to solve Iran, not little Israel."

  • See Also: The Franklin/AIPAC Spy Case Page