The revelations over the past weekend about the United States and Britain's monitoring of a series of top civilian targets around the world, including Israel's prime minister and defense minister, are still stirring up a row – both here and in European Union institutions, whose officials were also eavesdropped on by the Americans.
Brig.- Gen.(ret) Dr. Shimon Shapira, who served as Benjamin Netanyahu's military secretary, says that "everyone listens in on everyone – and we have always proceeded on that assumption."
There is of course a difference between assuming something and knowing it, between high probability that someone is listening in on you and actually catching the strategic ally snooping through the prime minister's emails.
Discussions I held Sunday with several security sources, following the exposure of further details regarding the American monitoring of officials in Israel, reveal that in the world of intelligence there are also rules about what is permitted and what is forbidden. For example, it's acceptable for a country to spy on foreign representatives serving within its territory. Such an act is not considered unusual or forbidden in the spies' unwritten rule book. On the other hand, spying on a friendly country on that country's territory is definitely considered a deviation from the rules – a big deviation even.
In 1983, when Ehud Barak assumed the role of Military Intelligence chief, he was exposed to one of Israel's best kept secrets: Intelligence material arriving from highly sensitive sources and nicknamed "green substance." This material was produced by the Bureau of Scientific Relations (Lekem) – the Defense Ministry's intelligence agency. Barak didn't know that one of the main sources of the "green substance" was a civilian intelligence analyst in the US Navy, a Jewish American citizen named Jonathan Pollard.
In 1986 Pollard was captured, put on trial and sentenced to life in prison. The Americans argued that the use of the intelligence information Pollard delivered to the IDF's Directorate of Military Intelligence caused them heavy damage, as part of it "spilled" to the Russians and led to the arrest and death of American spies, and that fixing the damage required billions in resources and many years.
The affair had serious consequences for the relations between the countries and the status of America's Jews. The American intelligence community fought against Pollard's release, including a direct and serious threat made in 1997 by CIA chief George Tenet, who vowed to quit if President Clinton kept his promise to Netanyahu and released Pollard. The United States did everything to make it clear to Israel that it must not dare do it again.
Now it turns out that in the name of defending its own national security, the US spied on that same Ehud Barak. Israeli officials have assumed that the US is spying in Israel ceaselessly and shamelessly, but apart from minor, isolated incidents, including the conviction of an intelligence officer after he received an offer to serve as a spy for the US, there was no solid proof of that.
As long as it was not caught blatantly spying on its friends, the US could have rightfully voiced severe criticism against Israel for operating Pollard as a spy in the heart of the American intelligence community. Now that it turns out that the Americans spied on any possible target, they must end Pollard's imprisonment.
He has been in prison since 1986 after committing extremely serious offenses against the American law. There is no excuse or reasonable explanation for the Israeli insolence in operating him. However, the claims that some of this material reached non-Israeli elements were proved to be false, and this material eventually served Israel in matters related to its national security. That the exact claim the White House is using today to explain the NSA's actions.