Following Newsweek’s report this week that the extent of Israeli espionage operations in the US was “sobering” and “shocking,” and a follow-up article alleging that Israel’s aggressive spying activities are routinely covered up because of Jerusalem’s powerful connections in Congress, new details emerged involving a former vice president, an unexpected hotel room visitor and a private moment in the loo.
According to a former senior US intelligence agent who spoke to Newsweek, when Al Gore was vice president, a surprise guest was hiding in an air duct in his hotel room during a trip to Israel 16 years ago — an alleged Israeli spy. The source detailed how after Secret Service agents swept the room, clearing it, one of the men stayed behind for a private bathroom moment before Gore was to arrive, when he heard a sound.
“So the room was all quiet, he was just meditating on his toes, and he hears a noise in the vent. And he sees the vent clips being moved from the inside. And then he sees a guy starting to exit the vent into the room,” the former operative told Newsweek, adding that the Secret Service agent did not scramble for his gun. “He kind of coughed and the guy went back into the vents.”
On Thursday, Newsweek published a report, quoting unnamed former US intelligence officials, alleging that Israel’s aggressive spying activities in the United States have been routinely hushed up because of the country’s powerful connections in Congress.
Israel has emphatically denied the claims. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Saturday that an impression was forming in Israel that “someone” was trying to harm the “excellent” intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States.
“In all my meetings with US intelligence officials, I’ve never heard one claim about Israeli espionage in the United States,” Steinitz said Saturday, according to Channel 10.
Steinitz added that he was set to meet this week with the head of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence and would bring up the issue of the publication of these reports.
The Newsweek article came two days after the original story published in the magazine cited US intelligence officials and congressional staffers who have been privy to information on Israeli spying activities, calling the extent of it “shocking”, “sobering” and far exceeding similar activities by any other close US allies.
“It has been extensive for years,” an official told the magazine.
“There is a small community of ex-CIA, FBI and military people who have worked this account who are absolutely cheering on [Newsweek’s original] story,” he said. “Not one of them is anti-Semitic. In fact, it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It has only to do with why [Israel] gets kid-glove treatment when, if it was Japan doing it or India doing it at this level, it would be outrageous.”
The official was responding to vigorous denials by Israeli officials, including one who said that some of the reported was “tainted by a whiff of anti-Semitism.”
Intelligence officials quoted in Thursday’s article said that the “Israel lobby” was ready to pounce on any suggestion of misconduct on Israel’s part.
In addition, they said, Israel goes after “senior US Navy officers on shore leave in Haifa, after space industry officials, or scientists with intellectual property, anywhere. This has always been a huge concern for the community.”
One former American official said Israel regularly tries to pump US scientists and defense industry officials for information at conferences and trade shows.
“I remember speaking to one US scientist who was at a conference and being worked by a group from [Israel]. And this scientist, who was savvy enough to recognize what she saw, said it was really unbelievable how the elicitation techniques were being used – the invitations to come over – basically getting the data dump from a fellow scientist. And the naïveté on the part of the American scientists was really striking. We saw this all the time.”
Israel’s commercial attache in Washington, DC, invited him to come to Israel on a free tour after he gave a lecture at a security industry trade show, he claimed.
“Their goal,” the official said, “is to get contacts to come out of the US and over there and then wine them, dine them, assess them, see what their weaknesses are. I mean, we had government officials going over there who were offered drugs, like, ‘Hey, do you want to go get some pot?’ What? These are US government officials. The drugs, women coming to your hotel room – they throw everything at you. No matter how high the official.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday morning shot down Newsweek’s claims that Israel was spying on the United States.
“First of all, these are malicious accusations,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio, adding that there was “no basis” to the report and that Israel was not doing anything even similar to spying on the US.
“I would not agree to any spying on the United States, neither directly nor indirectly,” he said.
But Liberman insisted that while he was on a diplomatic trip in the US last month, none of the congressmen he spoke with in formal meetings or behind closed doors had any “complaints” about spying, adding that he believes the accusations are a plot by entities in the US who seek to sabotage relations between the US and Israel.
The foreign minister downplayed concerns that the report would affect the two countries’ relationship.
Steinitz also denied the allegations Wednesday. The Israeli government resolved three decades ago not to spy on the US, and has not wavered from that decision since, he told Israel Radio. The minister also said that he met with the US intelligence chiefs multiple times over the past year, and the issue of the alleged Israeli spying never arose.
In Washington, after initially refusing to comment on the report, according to Newsweek, the Israeli embassy also categorically denied the allegations Tuesday night.
“Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period,” spokesman Aharon Sagi said. “We condemn the fact that such outrageous, false allegations are being directed against Israel.”
The issue of spying has come to the forefront in recent months as the possible release of Jonathan Pollard, a jailed American-Israeli spy, was brought up in connection with Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Pollard, a US-born navy intelligence analyst, is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for spying for Israel. He was captured in 1985.
The issue of Israel’s spying also became an issue in its bid to join the US visa waiver program. Reports have indicated that Israel’s covert activities were holding it back from achieving its goal of joining the program, which would allow Israeli citizens to travel to the US with much greater ease.
The requirements to get into the waiver program are already tough. According to a statement by the Department of Homeland Security quoted by Newsweek, these include “enhanced law enforcement and security-related data sharing with the United States; timely reporting of lost and stolen passports; and the maintenance of high counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control, aviation and document security standards.”
Two obstacles are said to be a relatively high rate of visa refusal — caused by an increase in young Israelis seeking to enter America as tourists and then work illegally — and Israel’s alleged discrimination against Arab-Americans who wish to visit.
But while Israeli diplomats maintain that Jerusalem is taking concrete steps to meet the required standards, a former aide quoted by Newsweek disagreed. “They think that their friends in Congress can get them in, and that’s not the case,” he said. “The Israelis haven’t done s**t to get themselves into the visa waiver program.”
Even if they did did, the magazine said, US officials fear allowing Israel into the program would make it much easier for the Jewish state to spy on its ally.
“They’re incredibly aggressive. They’re aggressive in all aspects of their relationship with the United States,“ the aide said. “If we give them free rein to send people over here, how are we going to stop that?”