US President Donald Trump revealed details of a daring top-secret mission into northern Syria by Israel’s Mossad spy agency and elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit in a May meeting with Russian officials, sticking a dagger into the robust Israeli-American intelligence-sharing apparatus, according to a report Thursday.
The account, published in Vanity Fair based on information from unnamed sources the magazine described as “experts on Israeli intelligence operations,” sheds new light on both the highly sensitive covert operation deep in the heart of Syria and the damage done to the security relationship between the allies after the president revealed the secret information while apparently bragging about the quality of his intelligence reports.
A number of details about the operation, which involved an Israeli intelligence source that uncovered an Islamic State plot to use laptops to bomb planes, have already been reported on.
According to the Vanity Fair account, two Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters carrying Israeli commandos and Mossad agents flew into northern Syria, as part of a mission to insert a listening device to spy on an Islamic State cell that was devising new methods of carrying out bombing attacks sometime at the end of last winter.
The troops and spies were dropped off and transferred to jeeps, in which they drove to their target, where the commandos patrolled while the Mossad agents planted the device. The commandos and agents then raced back to the helicopters and returned to Israel undetected, the report said.
Several days later, signal intelligence troops from Israel’s Unit 8200 were reportedly able to listen in on an Islamic State soldier explaining how to make and use the laptop bombs, apparently devised by Saudi explosives mastermind Ibrahim al-Asiri.
Despite having been warned by US officials that Trump had been “leveraged” by Moscow and could pass sensitive info to the Russians, Israel shared the information with the US intelligence community, sparking the temporary ban on bringing laptops out of several Middle Eastern countries.
The report did not name the location or exact date of the operation, but Trump, in recounting details of it to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the US, during an oval Office meeting on May 10, did reveal the location, Vanity Fair said, potentially endangering assets Israel had on the ground.
Just as worrisome for Israel, though, was the idea that the Russians could pass the information on to their Iranian or Syrian allies.
The Israeli government has not officially confirmed that it is the source of the reportedly leaked intelligence. Yet Trump’s indiscretion sparked anger in the Israeli intelligence community, prompting calls by some for a scaling back of intelligence sharing with the US.
“Trump betrayed us,” the magazine quoted a senior Israeli military official as saying. “And if we can’t trust him, then we’re going to have to do what is necessary on our own if our back is up against the wall with Iran.”
Former heads of the Mossad have also publicly railed against the US president and implied that officials today should be far more guarded about the types of intelligence they pass along to their American counterparts.
“If tomorrow I were asked to pass information to the CIA, I would do everything I could to not pass it to them. Or I would first protect myself and only then give it, and what I’d give would be totally neutered,” Shabtai Shavit, who led the Mossad in the 1990s, said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel in May.
He described the US president as a “bull in a china shop” — or as the Hebrew version of the expression goes, an “elephant in a china shop” — cavalierly passing along information to Russia without first being properly briefed and unwittingly violating the unwritten codes of conduct of espionage.
Earlier reports said an Israeli intelligence asset embedded in the terrorist group had provided the tip-off that eventually led to the laptop ban, and that Trump’s information-sharing possibly put that asset’s life in danger.
Facing criticism over the leak, Trump admitted he had given information to the Russians, though he asserted in a tweet he had the right to do so. At the time, the source of the confidential material hadn’t yet been confirmed, but while media reports pointed first at Jordan, speculation quickly turned to Israel as being the original provider.
The US president then seemed to inadvertently confirm that Israeli operatives were the source of the intelligence in an off-the-cuff remark to journalists during his visit to Israel at the end of May: As he headed into a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump volunteered that he had “never mentioned the word Israel” in his conversation with the Russian foreign minister.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.