Israel’s alleged spying on the marathon high stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in Lausanne Switzerland has produced remarkably little reaction in the mainstream media. Israel has denied that it was spying but the White House has revealed that there was “eavesdropping” by Israel and added that the information was shared with members of Congress opposed to any agreement to deliberately undermine the Administration’s efforts. It is being suggested that the Obama Administration accepted that it would be spied upon by Israel but was outraged to learn that the information obtained was being fed back to Congress.
The United States reportedly learned about the Israeli spying through its own “eavesdropping” on Israeli government communications. It intercepted messages indicating that Israel had obtained information that it was not privy to in the briefings it had been receiving from Secretary of State John Kerry’s staff. That the White House cited its ability to tap Israeli communications was itself an indication of just how angry President Barack Obama was as it revealed to Tel Aviv that it was vulnerable to National Security Agency intrusion. One can be sure that cryptographers in Israel are now frantically looking for a way to improve their security and if they are successful the U.S. will no longer be able to read their mail, a major loss in a volatile region of the world.
That Israel has had its own successes in tapping into American communications has long been known to security officials, who have been concerned over the large and growing presence of Israeli companies with ties to that country’s government as contractors in U.S. telecommunications systems. The Whitewater investigation revealed that President Bill Clinton warned Monica Lewinsky that their phone-sex conversations might have been recorded by a foreign government. That country was Israel.
So given Israel’s high tech capability and its intense interest in the negotiations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, it should not really surprise anyone that its intelligence service, Mossad, would be tasked with finding out what information was not being shared by the White House. Israel has invested a great deal of political capital in confronting Iran and convincing the American public that it poses a genuine threat so it would be inclined to use every weapon in its arsenal to make its case.
But even accepting the predictable Israeli response, the truly intriguing questions relating to the incident that have not been explored are, “how exactly did the Israelis do it and with whom in the U.S. Congress did they share their information?” “How” and “why.” The questions need to be answered if only to prevent further leaks of sensitive information.
The intelligence obtained was described by the White House as being derived from “eavesdropping,” which would suggest some sort of electronic interception. But as the meetings undoubtedly took place in a technically secured room, which means that it was electronically “swept” before, during, and after meetings, the conversations could not be picked up from bugs planted inside which would either be found in advance or detected when they were switched on and began to transmit.
Eliminating a sophisticated “sigint” source suggests that the information might have been obtained from intercepting careless conversations on unsecured phones. Given the damage caused by Victoria Nuland’s use thereof to verbalize her view of Europeans, one should assume that security in that area has been increased dramatically, particularly in this case as it was imperative to maintain confidentiality in the discussions with the Iranians. Kerry himself several times stressed the need for secrecy as the negotiations moved forward and the American team was briefed specifically regarding the threat from Israeli technical intelligence.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in denying the spying charge, hinted that Israel might have obtained some of the alleged intelligence from “another entity.” But the Wall Street Journal article that broke the story clearly implies that information had been linked to confidential United States delegation briefings and included, for example, the account of a secret meeting between Kerry and his Iranian counterpart in Oman. Which leaves the possibility of a spy within the American negotiating team or back in Washington, someone in the room willing to feed the information to the Israelis. Indeed, several members of the U.S. delegation are on record as being hostile to the Iranians, including chief negotiator Wendy Sherman, who reportedly said that “deception” was in the DNA of the Iranian leadership. It is therefore not inconceivable that the American delegation or its support apparatus was somehow penetrated by the Mossad.
And the other issue is, of course, the question of who in Congress received the stolen information during the regular briefings that Israeli embassy staff, including intelligence officers, gave to legislators on Capitol Hill. It is reported that the Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and other Embassy officials used the intelligence during their briefings of select Congressmen in January and February in an attempt to heighten concerns over what Kerry and Obama might be doing in secret. This resulted in a flurry of comments from Congressmen warning that a bad deal was in the works coupled with demands for a legislative role in any agreement.
Who were the Congressmen who were briefed by the Israelis? Did they know or suspect that what they were being told was obtained through Israeli espionage? Did it not occur to them that the Israeli narrative on what was taking place differed in detail from what they were hearing through channels from the White House, suggesting that something might be afoot? Deference to Israel is normal for many in Congress, perhaps all too normal, so much so that the GOP is now being described by The New York Times as the party of Israel, but a lack of awareness of the American interests at stake in the game constitutes malfeasance at a much higher level.
Mossad eavesdropping on the Iran talks must surely have produced a detailed counterintelligence review to determine the source of the leak and the ultimate exploitation of the information. As the White House clearly now has the details regarding “how” the Israelis stole the information and “why” in terms of its use with Congress to undermine the talks, it might be suggested that the whole story be revealed to the American public. Just who were the Congressmen and was there anyone on the U.S. negotiating team playing both sides? It would be very interesting to learn the answers to those two questions.