Homeland Security Network Blog
Spy vs. Spy: Inside the Fraying U.S.- Israel Ties
Distrust set allies to snoop on each other after split over Iran nuclear deal; each kept secrets
The U.S. closely monitored Israel’s military bases and eavesdropped on secret communications in 2012, fearing its longtime ally might try to carry out a strike on Fordow, Iran’s most heavily fortified nuclear facility.
Nerves frayed at the White House after senior officials learned Israeli aircraft had flown in and out of Iran in what some believed was a dry run for a commando raid on the site. Worried that Israel might ignite a regional war, the White House sent a second aircraft carrier to the region and readied attack aircraft, a senior U.S. official said, “in case all hell broke loose.”
The two countries, nursing a mutual distrust, each had something to hide. U.S. officials hoped to restrain Israel long enough to advance negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran that the U.S. had launched in secret. U.S. officials saw Israel’s strike preparations as an attempt to usurp American foreign policy.
Instead of talking to each other, the allies kept their intentions secret. To figure out what they weren’t being told, they turned to their spy agencies to fill gaps. They employed deception, not only against Iran, but against each other. After working in concert for nearly a decade to keep Iran from an atomic bomb, the U.S. and Israel split over the best means: diplomacy, covert action or military strikes.
Personal strains between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erupted at their first Oval Office meeting in 2009, and an accumulation of grievances in the years since plunged relations between the two countries into crisis.
This Wall Street Journal account of the souring of U.S.-Israel relations over Iran is based on interviews with nearly two dozen current and former senior U.S. and Israeli officials.
U.S. and Israeli officials say they want to rebuild trust but acknowledge it won’t be easy. Mr. Netanyahu reserves the right to continue covert action against Iran’s nuclear program, said current and former Israeli officials, which could put the spy services of the U.S. and Israel on a collision course.
Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu shared common ground on Iran when they first met in 2007. Mr. Netanyahu, then the leader of Israel’s opposition party, the right-wing Likud, discussed with Mr. Obama, a Democratic senator, how to discourage international investment in Iran’s energy sector. Afterward, Mr. Obama introduced legislation to that end.
Suspicions grew during the 2008 presidential race after Mr. Netanyahu spoke with some congressional Republicans who described Mr. Obama as pro-Arab, Israeli officials said. The content of the conversations later found its way back to the White House, senior Obama administration officials said.
Soon after taking office in January 2009, Mr. Obama took steps to allay Israeli concerns, including instructing the Pentagon to develop military options against Iran’s Fordow facility, which was built into a mountain. The president also embraced an existing campaign of covert action against Iran, expanding cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.
Mossad leaders compared the covert campaign to a 10-floor building: The higher the floor, they said, the more invasive the operation. CIA and Mossad worked together on operations on the lower floors. But the Americans made clear they had no interest in moving higher—Israeli proposals to bring down Iran’s financial system, for example, or even its regime.
Some covert operations were run unilaterally by Mossad, such as the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, according to U.S. officials.
The first Oval Office meeting between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu, in May 2009—weeks after Mr. Netanyahu became prime minister—was difficult for both sides. After the meeting, Mr. Obama’s aides called Ron Dermer, Mr. Netanyahu’s adviser, to coordinate their statements. Mr. Dermer told them it was too late; Mr. Netanyahu was already briefing reporters. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we’re not coordinating our messages,’ ” said Tommy Vietor, a former administration official who was there.
In 2010, the risk of covert action became clear. A computer virus dubbed Stuxnet, deployed jointly by the U.S. and Israel to destroy Iranian centrifuges used to process uranium, had inadvertently spread across the Internet. The Israelis wanted to launch cyberattacks against a range of Iranian institutions, according to U.S. officials. But the breach made Mr. Obama more cautious, officials said, for fear of triggering Iranian retaliation, or damaging the global economy if a virus spread uncontrollably.
Israel questioned whether its covert operations were enough, said aides to Mr. Netanyahu. Stuxnet had only temporarily slowed Tehran’s progress. “Cyber and other covert operations had their inherent limitations,” a senior Israeli official said, “and we reached those limitations.”
Mr. Netanyahu pivoted toward a military strike, raising anxiety levels in the White House.
The U.S. Air Force analyzed the arms and aircraft needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and concluded Israel didn’t have the right equipment. The U.S. shared the findings, in part, to steer the Israelis from a military strike.
Read more: http://www.wsj.com/articles/spy-vs-spy-inside-the-fraying-u-s-israel-ties-1445562074
Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters
When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.