Airstrikes on Syria: Israel Acts While US and Europe Fret About Intelligence

Intelligence leaks attributed to Washington are a growing concern for the Israeli government

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The skies over two Syrian cities darkened with the smoke of Israeli airstrikes Wednesday evening. The bombing runs on sites in Damascus and outside Latakia were the sixth  time this year that Israel was reported to reach into Syria to destroy weapons systems it believed were headed for Hizballah. The reported targets Wednesday were the kind of advanced anti-aircraft batteries that, if deployed by the Shiite militia, would impede Israel’s ability to do exactly what it had just done: reach over its borders to remove a perceived threat “over the horizon.”

But if the military operation went off without an apparent hitch, the mission overall was less than a complete success.  Israel’s determination to strike discreetly, a key element in the battle plan, was undone by leaks, the most credible of which, on CNN, was attributed to U.S. officials. That report infuriated the Israeli security establishment, whose outrage brimmed over in the  Friday morning Hebrew press.  “What on earth are the Americans thinking when they finger Israel as responsible for the strikes in Syria?” Alex Fishmen asked in a Yedioth Ahronoth commentary with “Sold Us Out” as the headline. “Past experience suggests that we shared information with them on our operational activity so as to prevent embarrassment and surprise, but Washington is selling our secrets on the cheap.” A separate story on the same page said the CNN report was “causing officials in Jerusalem to tear out their hair.”

The Israelis had reason for concern.  Though Israel clearly wants the freedom to prevent Syria’s government from sharing advanced weapons with Hizballah, the Jewish State tries to do it without being drawn into Syria’s civil war. And Syrian president Bashar Assad, who has his hands full with poorly armed rebels, has scant incentive to involve the most powerful military in the Middle East.  That’s surely why in the hours after the explosions, neither party – neither Assad nor Israel – even acknowledged that things had blown up in Damascus and outside Latakia.

The silence served both sides. If either government spoke publicly of the strikes, Assad would be obliged to strike back. His foreign minister made that threat in July, following an airstrike U.S. sources also attributed to Israel. “We’ve declared to the world that we will retaliate immediately if Israel attacks again,” foreign minister Walid Moallem told Lebanese TV. “Any aggression will be met with a response of a similar magnitude.” A tit-for-tat could quickly escalate out of control.

But Washington also had its reasons to be miffed. Israel launched its latest attack on the very same day UN arms experts reported that Syria was moving briskly to dismantle its chemical weapons program, completing destruction of production and mixing equipment a day ahead of schedule. Israeli airstrikes could only threaten the delicate diplomacy, on which the promised elimination of Syria’s WMD systems balances.

All of which amplifies yet another revelation contained in the U.S. intelligence files revealed by Edward Snowden: That Israel is a “priority target” of American counterintelligence, on a short list with China, Russia, Iran and Cuba. That disclosure, reported Aug. 29 in the  Washington Post, caused barely a ripple in Israel. The two countries are extremely close allies at many levels – American citizens can serve in Israel’s army – but also are extraordinary wary of one another. Israelis take that caution in stride, as they do so much else, in the name of security.

“I can tell you with certain knowledge that [the United States] has been listening in on its allies, including Israel,” former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, when word surfaced on a saucier subject — that Washington had eavesdropped on 35 world leaders.  “When the Americans think they need to listen in on someone, they’ll just do that.”

Does Israel return the favor?  Israeli security officials say they greatly doubt any Israeli intelligence service would risk eavesdropping on American leaders, or even operate in the United States without clearance from Washington. They cite a constellation of sensitivities, including Washington’s presumed lead in detecting surveillance, and the importance of U.S. military aid totaling $3 billion a year. But the shorthand explanation runs just two words:  Jonathan Pollard.  The Texas native, who held both U.S. and Israeli citizenship, was sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel while working as a civilian intelligence analyst with the US Navy.

“Technologically, the U.S. is capable of knowing who is listening in, so even if Israelis wanted to, they know whatever they tried would be detected,” says Dov Weissglass, who was chief of staff to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.  “And since we’re still licking our Pollard wounds very strongly, we are still extremely cautious on this issue.”

More than that, though, Israel places an overall lower priority on the kind of eavesdropping that has roiled relations between Europe and the Obama administration — listening in on the cell phones of elected leaders, even allies. Israel boasts a “signals intelligence” capacity, showcased by its military’s Unit 8200,  so formidable it’s often credited with the astonishing success of Israel’s hi-technology sector. But not much of that capability is directed at chatter between politicians in friendly capitals.

Wednesday’s airstrikes demonstrated where it’s typically focused instead.

“Tactical intelligence, military intelligence, that’s the real valuable information,” says Weissglass.  “What is known as political intelligence or diplomatic intelligence is nonsense.  You just have to read the paper or look on the internet to learn what’s going on, especially in a democratic country. On a Friday night in any bar in Tel Aviv, a guy with a beer and a bowl of peanuts can collect more information in an hour than you’ll ever need.”