The biggest story in the American-Israeli relationship in the last 24 hours has been President Donald Trump's divulging to senior Russian officials of sensitive intelligence that, according to multiple reports, came from Israel intelligence agencies. The incident comes on top of a series of tensions between the two countries over Trump's upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and has the potential to turn into a major crisis.
Israel and the United States have had strong intelligence ties going back decades, but even in such a close relationship, frictions and misunderstandings have emerged from time to time. The recent incident could perhaps be the gravest and most damaging of its kind, but it isn't necessarily the first time that reports emerge about disagreement between the two countries over the use of "Israeli" intelligence information by the United States government.
In April 2006, reports described tensions between the two countries over a sensitive document, supposedly obtained by Israeli intelligence, that was made public by the administration of George W. Bush. The document was a letter sent by al-Qaida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the terror organization's leader in Iraq, Musa'ab al-Zarqawi, in July 2005. It was a long letter that contained many details about al-Qaida's long-term strategy in the Middle East and exposed rifts within the terror organization's senior leadership.
In October 2005, three months after the date appearing on the letter, the United States government took a rare step by publishing the full letter online. That step was taken only after portions of the 6,300 words-long letter were leaked to the press. After the leaks, the Bush administration decided to publish the full letter on the website of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) both in the original Arabic and in an English translation.
At the time of the publication, a senior U.S. official told CNN that the administration could not disclose how the letter was obtained. But a few months later, the Sunday Times reported that the source of the letter was Israel and that Israeli intelligence officials were angry over the letter's publication. Other reports, however, hinted that the document in fact came from U.S. intelligence, and not from Israel.
The Sunday Times report said that Israel passed the letter to the Americans believing it would remain secret.
"Israeli intelligence officials say the Bush administration blew their effort to penetrate al-Qaida in Iraq by releasing a letter to its top leader," a subsequent news report stated. The original Sunday Times report also said that agents on the ground were put at risk, but no other media outlet repeated that claim at the time, and a former U.S. official who was involved in discussions at the time told Haaretz on Tuesday that this claim was "absolutely not true."
There are, however, a number of key differences between the current scandal and the 2006 reports. First of all, to the extent that there were tensions back then, they were reported only in a small number of news outlets, unlike the current scandal, which has been verified by a number of leading U.S. publications in reports attributed to many former and current American officials. In addition, in 2006 there was no official statement from Israel, but this time, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, addressed the reports and, while not confirming them, also didn't directly deny anything.
In addition, the Zawahiri-Zarqawi letter wasn't made public by mistake, but rather as a result of a calculated decision which came after consultations within the White House and the intelligence community. This time, on the other hand, Trump shared the sensitive information with the Russians on his own initiative, and his senior advisers later needed to "clean up" the mess his conduct had allegedly created. Last but not least, while the current scandal revolves around intelligence that has to do with an imminent security threat - according to the reports, a plan by ISIS to carry out terror attacks using explosive laptops - the al-Qaida letter from 2005 was a broader strategic document that didn't involve any immediate terror plotting.
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