An Ear for an Ear: Why Even Allies Aren't Exempt From Espionage

It's no surprise that Washington's allies aren't spared. If they're planning a surprise, the U.S. wants to know about it in advance.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The idea of an American president monitoring the communications of the German chancellor is fundamentally sound; too bad it came 80 years too late. Anyone feeling uneasy about Benjamin Netanyahu’s military adventurism might laud President Barack Obama for being caught in the act of listening in on - and, by extension, skimming through the text messages of - Angela Merkel.

Political leaders who are exposed to the products of the secret surveillance of enemies at home and abroad, as well as of loose-lipped friends, become severely addicted to these illicit materials. This gives budget-hungry intelligence agencies the means to endear themselves to the leaders. For 60 years now, America’s National Security Agency has greeted new presidents with a report containing the unvarnished reactions of world leaders to their victory in the November election.

When Obama first occupied the White House in January 2009, it was widely reported that he was upset at the prospect of giving up his beloved BlackBerry: U.S. intelligence knows the world operates on the principle of “an ear for an ear.”

No one should be surprised that allies are not exempt from espionage, whether human or electronic. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II relied on the Allies to crack Germany’s Enigma code; however, he later learned a bitter lesson when, in 1956 during his presidency, the British and French prime ministers, Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet, respectively, deceived him in regard to their decision to attack Egypt in what became known as the Suez Crisis. The third partner to Britain and France in the conflict, Israel, knew it would be incapable of hiding its military preparations on the ground and so made them appear to be aimed against Jordan rather than Egypt. The lesson was that the political intentions of major players, whether friendly or hostile, must also be monitored, especially in the case of states that have nuclear weapons.

Intelligence plays a critical role in diplomatic negotiations, too. At summit conferences held at Camp David or the Wye River plantation, in talks at Washington’s Madison Hotel or the State Department, all parties assume the facilities are bugged. That assumption also allows for deception by phone, but not for long.

Political espionage per se in Israel declined after the era of David Ben-Gurion and Isser Harel, although it continues as a by-product of intelligence gathering for security purposes. When Ami Ayalon headed the Shin Bet security service he exhorted agents to use restraint. In the Shin Bet, the distance is very short between the interception of a volatile conversation and delivering it to the head of the agency, from the surveillance unit to its direct superior and from there, bypassing all of the administrative and analytical levels, straight to the director. For the chief, there’s a great temptation to meet privately with the prime minister and show him transcripts - or even to play recordings - of conversations between party heads or his own cabinet ministers and outsiders discussing schemes to bring him down. While it is the outsiders and not the cabinet ministers who are under surveillance, the result is much the same. The official expectation of the heads of the Shin Bet, Military Intelligence and the police investigation and intelligence units is that they resist temptation and shelve all gossip that does not meet priority intelligence requirements.

On the orders of Chief of Staff Rafael "Raful" Eitan, the communications security unit of the Israel Defense Forces monitored conversations between his generals - ostensibly on the grounds of information security but in practice because Raful was dying to know what the top brass was saying about him behind his back.

Netanyahu has been a U.S. intelligence target since the 1980s, during his stints as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington and as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and possible even earlier, during his student days in Boston in the ‘70s. Now he cannot possibly be less of a concern to Obama than Merkel is - she is Europe’s de facto leader, but she isn’t capable of igniting the entire world. If the White House is monitoring two dozen or so international leaders, it’s unreasonable to think the prime minister of Israel isn’t on the list. Netanyahu’s bargaining positions vis-a-vis Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas affect how much attention Obama decides to devote to the Palestinian issue, but the main objective is to head off an Israeli surprise attack on Iran. When Netanyahu knows that Obama knows, and will act to stop him, it eliminates the chance of rash military action. And for that we owe thanks to both the attentive Obama and to Merkel, the sacrificial surveillance victim.

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press availability in the White House in Washington June 7, 2011. Credit: Reuters

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