Israeli Security Officials Speak to TIME of Their Own Snowdens

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Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu in the grounds of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem on March 14, 2005

In Israel, the headlines call Edward J. Snowden “the American Vanunu,” which perhaps sounds like an island nation in the South Pacific. Mordechai Vanunu is the Israeli man who in 1986 left his job at the nuclear power complex, carrying with him photographs and papers indicating something that up to that point had been widely rumored but never proved: that Israel possesses nuclear weapons.

Like Snowden, Vanunu left his home country before sharing his cache of documents with a British newspaper.

Unlike Snowden, he did not then remain spectacularly at large.

Even before the London Sunday Times got its story (“Revealed: The secrets of Israel’s nuclear arsenal”) into print, Israeli intelligence had lured Vanunu to a Rome apartment where Mossad agents overpowered him, injected him with a paralyzing drug and carried him to a beach in an embassy van disguised as an ambulance. A waiting speedboat shuttled him to an Israeli naval vessel disguised as a merchant ship, anchored just inside international waters. The day after publication he arrived in Israel, where he served 18 years in prison, and still is not allowed to talk to foreigners.

But you’ll hear no Israeli tongues clucked as the American Vanunu hopscotches around the globe, just beyond the reach of a mightily peeved U.S. government. Israel’s own security establishment has been embarrassed too often itself to rub salt in the wounds of its most valued ally. “This kind of thing can happen,” an Israeli intelligence official tells TIME. “It happened to them. It’s happened to us.”

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More than once. Within months of Vanunu’s expose, a Mossad case officer named Victor Ostrovsky left the spy agency and set to writing By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer. The book details an array of unsavory events, including heroin trafficking to raise funds. Israel was so alarmed by its contents that it took extraordinary step of seeking an injunction against its publication in the U.S. — and succeeded, if only for 48 hours. Then the Manhattan judge was overruled by an appeals court, and the resulting publicity helped boost it to the top nonfiction position on the New York Times best-seller list.

“There is no system that would give 100% protection from this kind of thing,” says the intelligence official, one of three who spoke with TIME about the Snowden affair, all on the condition they not be identified. “To professional people here it was not a surprise.”

Israel takes considerable pride in its security services, whose reputation for effectiveness — if not omniscience — is counted as a force multiplier even for a small nation accustomed to punching above its weight. But Israeli intelligence runs the same risks other countries’ face, and serving a democracy with a largely unfettered press is accustomed to seeing its embarrassments become public.

The Jewish state even has its own version of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private now on trial for downloading hundreds of thousands of secret documents and passing them to WikiLeaks in 2010. Two years earlier, Anat Kamm, a private in the Israeli Defense Forces, downloaded 2,000 documents from a computer at the Home Front Command and passed them on to a reporter for the leading daily Haaretz, which printed a story alleging commanders were ignoring a Supreme Court ban on targeted killings of Palestinian militants who could be safely arrested. Kamm was sentenced to four and half years for espionage and the Israeli army altered its computers so none can accept a thumb drive or disk.  (The Mossad’s never could.) The reporter, Uri Blau, was sentenced to community service.

And this year brought the Prisoner X scandal, which began with the word that a disgraced Mossad agent had hanged himself in the solitary cell of a prison wing he had entirely to himself. As the case unfolded, the agent was identified as Ben Zygier, an Australian-born “combatant,” as Mossad calls operatives who put themselves at risk in the field, who had apparently told several people what he did for a living, including intelligence officials for the Canberra government, who were grilling him over his numerous passports. Western intelligence officials tell TIME Zygier’s indiscretion caused the Israelis to abruptly abandon several ongoing operations and recall agents who might have been in danger. A Knesset inquiry reportedly found “serious systemic failure” in the agency’s recruitment and handling of Zygier, who was 34 when he died.

The Prisoner X case pivoted on the same issue that drives all the other exposures: trust, and how to divine its presence or absence in the human beings who work in intelligence agencies. The Israeli security service veterans who spoke with TIME emphasized the importance of vetting new hires and monitoring employees once they’re on board. The officials said they were not alarmed by the information or methods Snowden has revealed so far, like the PRISM program that routinely vacuums up vast amounts of user data from services like Google. “Every terrorist is living under the assumption that the Americans or others are trying to get them through mobiles or computers,” says one official.

But Snowden was a system administrator, with far greater access NSA computers than almost anyone else, and the Israelis assume there is more to come. “The big question,” the official says, “is how much more he knows and hasn’t revealed so far.”