Report suggests US intercepting secret Israeli comms

US intel says Mossad heads stirred anti-overhaul protests; PMO: ‘Completely false’

US media cite leaked file; ex-military intelligence head says report misinterpreted facts, likely confused former spy chiefs involved in protests with current agency officials

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Protesters rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans, at the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, on April 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Protesters rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans, at the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, on April 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Senior Mossad officials encouraged spy agency members and citizens to protest the government’s judicial overhaul plans, US media reported on Saturday, but the accuracy of the leaked intelligence documents cited by the outlets has been denied by the spy agency and questioned by experts.

The Prime Minister’s Office later issued a statement on behalf of the Mossad, denying the reports as “completely false and absurd.”

The leadership of the spy agency “advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest the new Israeli Government’s proposed judicial reforms, including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli Government, according to signals intelligence,” The New York Times and The Washington Post reported, citing a Pentagon document dated March 1.

The memo cited by the reports is unclear on how the Mossad leaders advocated for protest but said the efforts began during February. The information was labeled “FISA,” indicating that its collection required approval from a federal judge, as mandated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The use of signals intelligence — the interception of communications for information gathering — would mean the United States obtained its information through an act of espionage against its closest Middle East ally.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement on Sunday that strenuously denied the reports.

“The publication in the American press is completely false and absurd,” the statement read.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad chief David Barnea at a pre-Passover toast, April 4, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“The Mossad and its officials did not and do not encourage employees in the organization to go to demonstrations against the government, to political demonstrations in general, or to any political activity,” the statement continued.

“The Mossad and its incumbent officials did not deal at all with the issue of the protests, and have remained loyal to the value of stateliness that have guided the Mossad since its establishment,” the statement concluded.

According to Channel 12 news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Sunday with Mossad chief David Barnea to demand an explanation for the report, and was reportedly satisfied with Barnea’s response that its findings were not accurate.

The intelligence was also questioned by many on social media and by the managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, former military intelligence chief Tamir Hayman, who suggested the US may have confused ex-Mossad chiefs to serving ones — on the same day the intelligence report was released, dozens of former security officials, including ex-Mossad chiefs, penned a letter to President Isaac Herzog asking him to refrain from aiding the government in its judicial overhaul.

“Obviously, the report is essentially wrong. I think it is an erroneous interpretation of the organization of Special Operations Division and Mossad Alumni that participated in the protest. It may be that someone does not know how to differentiate between them and those who serve currently,” Hayman told Army Radio.

Managing Director of the Institute for National Security Studies, Tamir Hayman, speaks to Channel 12 news, May 28, 2022. (Video screenshot)

Natan Sachs, an Israel scholar at the Brookings Institution who spoke to The Washington Post about the leaked documents, later tweeted that it was “most likely a misinterpretation of what was heard: Mossad, IDF etc simply not on the coup-like business and not homogeneous enough to do it anyway.”

In February, it was reported that Barnea allowed junior employees of the intelligence agency to take part in the protests. Department heads and anyone more senior was barred from taking part, the Hebrew media reports added.

Protests against the government’s plans to shackle the country’s judiciary entered its 14th week on Saturday, with demonstrations continuing amid a violent terror wave, and even after the coalition paused the legislation late last month to allow dialogue on its highly divisive efforts.

Senior US officials cited by the Times acknowledged that the leaked documents appeared to be legitimate briefing material, though one appeared to be altered.

The Times acknowledged that the document might not be accurate, even if they are authentic.

Senior Israeli defense officials denied the reports, and the Prime Minister’s Office, which the Mossad is subordinate to, said it was investigating the report.

The documents were among a trove that were leaked and posted on sites such as Twitter. They are labeled secret and resemble routine updates that the US military’s Joint Staff would produce daily but not distribute publicly. The documents may have been altered or used as part of a misinformation campaign.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on April 8, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

According to CNN, the documents include details on “Israel’s pathways to providing lethal aid to Ukraine,” though no further details were given. Jerusalem has so far refused to transfer weapons as part of the aid it has offered to Kyiv, though last month a report indicated it may supply defensive systems.

Netanyahu’s coalition’s judicial overhaul proposals aim to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government almost absolute control over the appointment of judges.

Critics say the plans will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Proponents of the measures say they will rein in a judiciary that they argue has overstepped its bounds.

The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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