All spies are equal, but some spies are more equal than others. The world of espionage or spying is defined by what CIA legend James Angleton called the “wilderness of mirrors.” A wild world of contradictions, deceptions and doubt, the only way to navigate this world is to find enough mirrors that show the same thing. And when that happens, the intelligence community can make what it calls “high-confidence assessments” about reality.
But intelligence is a double-sided coin. It requires gathering information on other nations and actors, but also guarding US information at the same time. Unfortunately, while America is doing well on the first count, we’re doing poorly on the latter. And things seem set to get worse. After all, soon-to-be Commander in Chief Donald Trump has little interest in deterring anti-US intelligence operations.
The best example, of course, is Trump’s reaction to recent Russian espionage. Against the confident assessments of the US intelligence community, Trump denies Russia is responsible for widespread cyberoperations against US interests.
Still, recent weeks have offered another example of Trump’s counterintelligence neglect. Namely, in the President-elect’s response to Israel’s reaction to a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli officials claim they have evidence the United States bears responsibility for tabling that UN resolution. Making this case, one Israeli official referenced “ironclad information.” This information, another official added, was sensitive but would be shared with the incoming Trump administration.
But here’s the crunch: While Israel claims its information came from Arab and other diplomats, its information-descriptors imply intelligence collected against the United States. For one, the only proof that would be presentable to Trump would be something tangible such as a recorded phone call or a digital copy of an email. Israel would never risk identifying a human source in the Arab world just to embarrass Obama.
The terms used, such as “ironclad,” are also suggestive of intelligence. That’s because diplomatic language is only a sign language for deeper political realities. After a disagreeable meeting between foreign leaders, for example, those involved will often describe the exchange as “full and frank.” As the “Macmillan Dictionary of Diplomacy” notes, that phrase is deliberate. It is a code for strong disagreement. Just as diplomats saying “we disagreed” would be uncouth, Israeli officials would never overtly admit spying on America.
But be under no illusions, “ironclad” is probably code for intelligence material. And Israeli officials know that Trump and the US government know this. Their use of those words is likely deliberate.
Unfortunately, Trump and other Americans don’t seem terribly concerned about this blatant espionage. And for conservatives especially (we who believe in the sacrosanct value of a strong national defense), this neglect is a big problem. The Republican President-elect is only one figurehead for a broader casual conservative indifference to Israeli spying. And that fuels understandable Israeli beliefs that they can spy on America without challenge.
Because it’s part of a trend.
Take the 2015 release of Jonathan Pollard. A US government employee, Pollard harmed American security by spying for Israel. The problem? Only a few non-isolationist conservatives such as Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens and myself were willing to express concern at Pollard’s release. Many prominent American conservatives stayed deafeningly silent. Some, such as Shmuley Boteach, publicly and proudly celebrated the release. In doing so, American conservatives implicitly rewarded adversarial action against our interests.
Don’t get me wrong, the United States is right to support Israel. While, like George W. Bush, I oppose Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, I support Israel’s right to vigorous self-defense in Gaza and beyond. I also share Israeli concerns over Iranian revolutionary empowerment in the broader Middle East. And I recognize the fact that anti-Israeli attitudes in Europe are often sustained by anti-Semitism.
Equally important, I recognize that the US government also spies on its allies, including Israel. There’s a reason, for example, that Hebrew is a focus language at the US Defense Language Institute. Indeed, this is the way of the world. When the French Embassy in Washington hosts parties, it does so not because it knows Washingtonians enjoy a fine Bordeaux, but in recognition that Washingtonians who enjoy a fine Bordeaux will be more inclined to French interests!
But my gripe is that Israeli espionage is unchecked in its ambition against US interests. As former NSA counterintelligence officer John Schindler accounts, Israeli human-intelligence operations inside the United States are at a scale to those of American adversaries. Moreover, unique of any US ally, Israel has no qualms about advertising — even if via the pretense of diplomatic code words — its intelligence operations against America.
While most allies spy on each other, allies are not expected to publicize their doing so! This is a defining rule of the wilderness of mirrors. Sadly, the failure to respond against breaches of that rule is also unique to America. In 2010, for example, after Israel was caught cloning UK passports for use by its officers on foreign operations, Britain expelled a senior Mossad officer from London. That expulsion was a relatively small step, but it sent a public message of high-level political dissatisfaction. By my memory, no such message has ever been sent by Washington.
Ultimately, it’s clear who is to blame here. Because it is not Israel. Like any nation, Israel seeks to pursue its own self-interests. And forged by the legacy of the Holocaust, Israeli officials are understandably hesitant to trust others with their security. They will push as far as they can push in service of their nation. That’s fine.
What’s not fine is Americans — whether the President or the average citizen — who fail to speak out against actions counter to interests.