Sunday, August 29, 2004

israelinsider: diplomacy: Israel and its supporters flatly deny "dubious" claims of espionage

israelinsider: diplomacy: Israel and its supporters flatly deny "dubious" claims of espionage: "Israel and its supporters flatly deny "dubious" claims of espionage
By israelinsider staff August 29, 2004

Israeli and American Jewish leaders categorically rejected the possibility that Israel was operating a spy in the United States. "Israel is not aware of having received information from this man," a Jerusalem source told Haaretz. "Nobody used him, people hardly knew him, and we don't understand this fantasy," another source said. "Since the Pollard affair, no intelligence man would dare think of gathering information in the U.S."

On Friday, CBS News ran a report claiming that the FBI had been conducting a long investigation into alleged improprieties by a Pentagon staffer, who supposedly passed classified material to representative of AIPAC. The staffer, a non-Jewish analyst named by the Washington Post as Larry Franklin, is a reserve colonel in the U.S. Air Force who has in the past been assigned to Israel.

Israel's defense establishment said it conducted a thorough examination over the weekend with all security and intelligence bodies to verify the reports that a Pentagon employee passed secret information to Israel. "The examination revealed what we expected," said a senior defense official. "There are no sanctioned espionage operations going on against the United States. There is no truth to these reports." Another officials characterized the whole affair as a "lie" -- a charge that showed up in a headline on Israel's leading newspaper.

Knesset Member Yuval Shteinitz, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Israeli Parliament, said: "Speaking as someone who is completely responsible for the supervision of Israel's secret services, this did not happen and never will. There are no spies in the Pentagon and not in the United States."

The most authoritative on-the-record Israeli statement to date comes from Military Intelligence chief Major General Aharon Ze'evi, who on Sunday flatly denied that Israel is collecting intelligence information in the United States. "We are not running any operatives or collecting intelligence in the U.S.," he said. "The U.S. is an ally. I believe that this is an internal problem."

The reference to an "internal problem" was raised repeatedly in Israel today, alluding to a perceived power struggle within the U.S. government over who was to blame for 9/11 and also divisions concerning responsibility for faulty intelligence preceding the war against Iraq.

Eytan Gilboa, a respected Israeli commentator on American affairs, suggested that the revelation was timed on the eve of the Republican convention to embarrass or even slander President Bush or was part of a power struggle between officials representing the traditional pre-9/11 State/CIA approach to the Middle East and the counter-terrorist policies advocated by the Pentagon and the Vice President. Another factor was that both the CIA and the FBI are engaged in a "battle for survival" after repeated U.S. commissions have attacked them for failing to prevent 9/11. Israel, according to Haaretz, has been "caught in the crossfire" between these agencies and their Pentagon rivals. The word "scapegoat" has been bandied about on Israeli radio talk shows.

Minister in charge of Diaspora Affairs, Natan Sharansky became the first Israeli Cabinet minister to speak in public about the matter, raised the same point in an interview with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation televisionk, insisting that to the best of his knowledge, Israel strictly enforces a ban on spying in the United States. "I hope it's all a mistake or misunderstanding of some kind, maybe a rivalry between different bodies," he said, singling out "the Pentagon and the CIA."

"There are absolutely no attempts to involve any member of the Jewish community and any general American citizens to spy for Israel against the United States," Sharansky said.


U.S. officials involved in the Mideast diplomatic process also appear puzzled. "The whole thing makes no sense to me," said Dennis Ross, special envoy on the Arab-Israeli peace process during the Clinton presidency and the first Bush administration and. "The Israelis have access to all sorts of people. They have access in Congress and in the administration. They have people who talk about these things," said Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Indeed, suspicions have been voiced that the whole affair is either "a storm in a cup of water, as former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Meir Rosenne. Some even suggested that the leak was an intentional smear against Israel or the "Jewish lobby," especially as it coincided with the eve of the Republican National Convention.

Uzi Arad, a former senior official in Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, expressed his view that the allegations were leaked to hurt the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. "They way it was reported, they pointed out in which office [Franklin] worked," Arad told Israel Radio. "They pointed at people like Doug Feith" -- a senior official in Pentagon policy-setting, and a Jew -- and other defense officials who have long been under attack within the American bureaucracy."

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, forcefully denied any wrongdoing. "Any allegation of criminal conduct by AIPAC or our employees is false and baseless. Neither AIPAC nor any of its employees has violated any laws or rules, nor has AIPAC or its employees ever received information they believed was secret or classified," the group said in a statement. AIPAC is cooperating fully with the governmental authorities. It has provided documents and information to the government and has made staff available for interviews."

Pentagon officials also have downplayed the significance of the allegation, stressing that Franklin was not in a position to significant influence over U.S. policy. "The Defense Department has been cooperating with the Department of Justice for an extended period of time," a Pentagon statement said. "It is the DOD's understanding that the investigation within DOD is very limited in its scope."

There are indications that if a charge is filed -- and after a reported year of investigation there has been apparently insufficient evidence to make an arrest -- it would probably be something far less serious than espionage, and may even be reduced to a technicality.

On the other hand, the Washington Post reports that there may be plans to investigate more senior Defense officials,
Newsweek said the investigation was launched after agents monitoring a conversation between an Israeli Embassy official and an AIPAC lobbyist noticed a Pentagon employee walking in. The FBI shortly thereafter began to follow Franklin and even allegedly saw him trying to pass a classified US policy document on Iran to one of its surveillance targets. But his alleged confederate was "too smart" and refused to take it, the Newsweek report states. It was not explained how the refusal to accept to document supports claims that classified information was in fact passed through AIPAC.

Israeli officials were dismissive of the whole affair, saying that Israel had far more to lose than to gain from spying on the United States. One official, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, said that the entire story was dubious from the start, noting that the two nations are very close strategic allies with enormous sharing of intelligence, especially as it pertained to Iran, the apparent subject of the classified document in question.

"We have very good, excellent working relations with the Americans, and we are very discreet about it. There is no need to operate [spies] in the Pentagon or anywhere else in the United States," the senior official said. "Also, it wouldn't be in our interest to take actions that would jeopardize these relations that we've built up over the years," he added.

Nevertheless, the suspicions of undue Israeli influence persist, and have already caused tremors in the American Jewish community stung since the Jonathan Pollard affair by allegations of "dual loyalty."

In this respect, Sharansky noted, the fact that the FBI has an investigation does great damage. "It revives the old charge that Israel is not an ally but a treacherous country, and the old saw that American Jews have a 'divided loyalty' problem." Sharansky said. "There is no doubt that these publications are damaging, [and] even though they are false, they are damaging," he said.

Likud MK Ehud Yatom, chairman of the Knesset subcommittee on covert intelligence, said he anticipated that the claims against Israeli would be soon withdrawn. "I imagine that within a few days the United States will come out with an announcement that Israel has no connection whatsoever with the supposed spy and his activities," he told Israel Radio.

Despite all the denials, Haaretz reports that senior members of the U.S. intelligence community have repeatedly suspected Israel of spying on the United States.

One American official, who declined to be identified, drew attention to the huge difference between the current investigation and the Pollard affair. "Pollard brought a box of documents out every day. He was paid by the Israelis. It was run out of the [Israeli] Embassy in Washington. This is a guy who probably mishandled information. Suddenly everyone is jumping the gun saying, 'This is like Pollard.' It is irresponsible to be saying this," the official said.

Former Mossad head Danny Yatom revealed that former CIA Director George Tenet believed that Israel was engaged in such activity in 1997-98; Yatom flew to the U.S. for a one-on-one meeting with Tenet to prove that the charges were baseless. Tenet dropped his suspicions as a result and wrote Yatom a letter of apology.

Still, AIPAC was already anticipating the negative fallout. In a memo sent via e-mail to members, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr and President Bernice Manocherian wrote: "We will not let any innuendo or false allegation against AIPAC distract us from our central mission -- supporting America's interests in the Middle East and advocating for a strong relationship with Israel."

The letter called for greater support: "In the coming days and weeks, it will be critical for members like you to continue to demonstrate your confidence as Americans, supporters of Israel and members of AIPAC."

An AIPAC official told the Washington Post:, ?Our folks are pretty outraged about this. We?ve had these kinds of accusations before, and none of them has ever proven to be true.?

One U.S. Jewish official, quoted anonymously, said he let out an audible sigh of relief upon learning that Larry Franklin was not Jewish."

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