I can’t imagine anyone, especially readers of the New York Times and the Jewish Week, being surprised by the Times’ page one headline Monday revealing that the United States spies on Israel. More to the point, the FBI taps the phones of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. I’m shocked. Next thing you’ll be telling me is there’s gambling in the back room at Rick’s Café.
A former State Department official told me the U.S. has spied on "the British over IRA and Rhodesia sanctions, the Saudis and their arms and oil industry allies for F-15’s and AWACS, Sri Lanka over their war with the Tamil Tigers, and the Turks, who periodically pull out all the stops to lobby against pro-Armenian resolutions." And tht’s just a sampling.
The Times article focuses on the case of Shamai K. Leibowitz, an FBI translator who apparently leaked information about the wiretaps because he thought Israeli diplomats were being too aggressive in pushing their point of view. For the full story, read Scott Shane’s “Leak Officers Look at Efforts by U.S. to Spy on Israel
It seems someone failed to explain to Leibowitz and the FBI that that’s the legitimate work – and right — of diplomats as well as lobbyists, grassroots activists and everyone else who wants to influence public policy.
The Times story gives no indication that the US government thought the Israeli actions were “excessive and improper” – only those of the man responsible for the leak, which he knew was a violation of the law. Blogger Richard Silverstein, the recipient of the leak, felt that “nothing Mr. Leibowitz described to him appeared to be beyond the bounds of ordinary lobbying,” the Times wrote.
I hadn’t followed the case closely when it broke last year, but I’m not surprised that the feds were tapping the Israelis’ phones. And I expect they’re not alone; the Russians, Chinese, Arabs and others are probably trying to listen in as well.
This has been going on for many years. I have no proof, but I suspect it may have been something the FBI overheard one of its taps that led them to charge a pair of my former AIPAC colleagues – Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman — under the same Espionage Act as Leibowitz. In their case, however, the charges were dropped.
During the 1980s when I was the legislative director of AIPAC I operated on the assumption that someone – the FBI, NSA, foreign embassies and particularly the Arabs and their political and corporate friends – was listening.
I had only assumed AIPAC’s phones were being tapped until we got a visit from a job seeker claiming to be a Pentagon intelligence officer. He told my boss, one of my colleagues and me that our office phones, our home phones and probably our cars were bugged and that signals could be bounced off our office windows from several blocks away to listen in on conversations in any room with an outside window. (It didn’t occur to us to ask “So why are you sitting here in front of the window telling us all this?”) We thought he was a paranoid nut case and sent him packing; and that’s how it was that Aipac did not hire Jonathan Pollard, who a few years later was arrested for spying for Israel. The job Pollard applied for went to Steve Rosen, who was charged some 20 years later with violations of the Espionage Act for allegedly passing secrets to the Israeli Embassy.
Pollard may have been delusional about the extent of the bugging, but that such spying takes place has never been in doubt, as this week’s revelations demonstrate. The Israeli right will no doubt try to attribute this to anti-Israel bias, particularly in the Obama administration. In fact, it’s just business as usual in high-stakes diplomacy.
Still, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
When the Times reporter called me about the story, I told him, “I am not surprised at all to learn that the F.B.I. was listening to the Israelis. But I don’t think it’s a wise use of resources because I don’t see Israel as a threat to American security.”
— Douglas Bloomfield