Frenemies: US-Israel Spy Strains Emerge Over Iran
Righwing swing in Mossad has hardened over years of war with Hamas, Iran threat
It didn’t take long for the United States to distance itself from Israel's Jan. 28 drone attack on an Iranian weapons factory in the city of Isfahan. Just a few hours later, U.S. officials leaked to the New York Times that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had carried out the strike, making sure to stress the Biden administration had no involvement whatsoever.
By contrast, Israel still hasn’t taken credit for the attack. According to former intelligence officials in both countries, the apparent urgency with which the Americans fingered Israel, plus several other Iran-related developments, points to renewed tensions between the CIA and Mossad over Biden administration efforts to revive the 2015 Iran’s nuclear deal, even as the two countries hold joint military exercises meant to warn Tehran not to develop a nuclear weapon.
The episode sheds fresh light on the close but contradictory ties between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, one of the most complicated relationships in the shadowy world of international espionage. On one hand, Mossad and CIA officers share intelligence and even coordinate some field operations, reflecting Israel’s status as a close and trusted U.S. ally. At the same time, the two spy services disagree sharply over Iran’s intentions. And despite fervent Israeli denials, former U.S. officials say the Mossad still runs aggressive intelligence-gathering operations in the United States that present thorny political challenges for U.S. officials.
“It can be a very valuable relationship,” a former senior CIA official told SpyTalk on condition of anonymity, citing the extensive network of spies the Mossad maintains across the Middle East and its intelligence-sharing arrangement with the CIA. To illustrate, he recalled a high-level meeting in 2007 with Mossad officials at CIA headquarters in Virginia. There, the U.S. agency’s leadership learned for the first time that Syria had secretly built a nuclear reactor capable of producing the fuel needed for a nuclear weapon.
“They came to the United States with the information and with photographs and laid it all out for us. We sat there with our eyes incredibly wide-open because that was something we knew nothing about until they brought it to our attention,” the former senior official said with an embarrassed laugh. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Soon after the briefing, Israeli warplanes bombed and destroyed the reactor.
The Mossad also reportedly tipped off the CIA on the Damascus hideout of Hezbollah's military mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and diplomats in two Beirut bombings in 1983, as well as scores of Israelis in Lebanon and Argentina. The two agencies teamed up and killed Mughniyeh in 2008 with a bomb concealed inside the spare wheel of an SUV as he walked by.
But even though the Mossad and the CIA have worked as partners, “that foreign partner also can be collecting against us,” the senior CIA official added. “So there can be value in a relationship, but there are always counterintelligence concerns as well.”
Indeed, former U.S. intelligence officials say the Mossad still ranks among the most active foreign intelligence services operating in the United States, where it routinely seeks to recruit informants. The agency targets those who can provide political insight into where U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East is heading, as well as economic intelligence so Israel’s high-tech sector and defense industries can compete with their U.S. counterparts, the former officials say.
According to published reports, the Mossad’s stateside operations also include trying to lure U.S. political, military and business officials to deliver lectures or attend conferences in Israel, where local agents size up their vulnerabilities for recruitment. These local agents also have reportedly targeted CIA station chiefs in Israel, breaking into their Tel Aviv homes and tampering with the sensitive communication equipment they used to communicate with CIA headquarters in Virginia.
Israeli officials adamantly deny their agents spy on the United States. But former intelligence officials, as well as those who worked at the White House and State Department, say these denials are laughable. Still, most of these officials spoke on condition of anonymity, underscoring the political sensitivities involved in discussing Israel’s alleged espionage in the United States. Israel enjoys strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers have little tolerance for complaints about such a valuable U.S. ally.
Some U.S. officials are careful to emphasize that Israel’s espionage activities in the United States are no different than those of other friendly countries. “They’re all trying to collect intelligence here,” a former U.S. official said. “The Israelis are no different.” A 2007 NSA intelligence report pilfered by Edward Snowden named Israel a top espionage threat to the U.S.
Seamless Sabotage Campaign
If the Isfahan attack indeed was the work of the Mossad, which seems likely, it was the spy agency’s first sabotage operation inside Iran since Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to office in late December for an unprecedented sixth term as prime minister, this time at the helm of the most radical right-wing government in Israel’s history.
The drone strike also would mark the seamless continuation of the Mossad’s strategy of sabotage and assassinations inside Iran to disrupt its nuclear program. That strategy began more than two decades ago and expanded under Netanyahu’s earlier administrations and those of his two predecessors.
Since 2002, the Mossad’s hitmen have used pistols with silencers, magnetic bombs slapped on the sides of cars and a remote-controlled sniper rifle to liquidate six Iranian nuclear scientists. Together with the CIA, Israeli agents also infected the computers controlling Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility with the Stuxnet worm, destroying as many as 1,000 centrifuges. The Mossad also has bombed the same facility and stolen Iran’s nuclear archive.
In other attacks, the Mossad has killed the commander and 16 members of a Revolutionary Guards unit that targeted Israeli and Jewish targets abroad and used short-range armed drones to destroy an Iranian munitions factory.
It’s not clear why the Isfahan weapons plant was hit. U.S. officials believe it may have been connected to the production of Iran’s Shahab medium-range missiles, which can reach Israel.
The Mossad defends its covert actions, insisting Iran is determined to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. The CIA says that despite Tehran’s enrichment of uranium to near bomb-grade nuclear fuel since Trump’s scrapping of the accord, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not made the decision to make a bomb.
In addition to differing interpretations of Iran’s nuclear intentions, the Isfahan attack raises other red flags now complicating the relationship between the two countries’ intelligence services. They involve questions about the Mossad’s trust in the CIA and its subsequent reluctance to share Iran-related information with the Biden administration’s CIA.
“Intelligence agencies never share all of their information with the other agency,” former senior Israeli intelligence official Avi Melamed told SpyTalk. “Particularly now, with regard to the political identity of the current U.S. administration, the Israeli intelligence agencies are concerned about who actually sees the intelligence that Israel provides.”
Melamed said the Mossad is particularly concerned about Rob Malley, Biden’s special representative for Iran who’s been leading the administration’s indirect negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Though those talks have been stalled for months, the Mossad believes Malley is too sympathetic to the Iranians. Summing up the Mossad’s concerns about the CIA sharing its Iran intelligence with Malley, Melamed put it this way: “I would be careful about what I share about Iran.”
The CIA’s relationship with the Mossad has “always been an area of cooperation and strain, depending on what Bibi asks them to do,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former deputy chief of CIA operations in the Middle East, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Former CIA officials contend the extreme rightwing cast of Netanyahu’s government has not yet affected CIA-Mossad relations. “At a minimum, I would imagine senior Mossad leaders are giving assurances to the U.S,” the former senior CIA official said. “ I could see where they might be saying, ‘Hey we’ve got some crazy politicking going on here, but we want to maintain our good-standing relationship with you.’”
Stephen Slick, a former CIA station chief in Israel agrees. “Relations between the U.S. and Israel services are deep, longstanding, and institutional,” he told SpyTalk, noting the CIA did not post a new station chief in Israel when the new government came in. “I expect our services will continue to cooperate to the security benefit of both states regardless of the qualities or policies or politicians who may be serving in a broad coalition government.”
Still, the Mossad’s aggressive covert Iran strategy remains a major source of friction with the CIA, observers say. It began during the Obama administration, which withheld intelligence from Israel as it secretly negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2015. And it remains a thorn in the side of the Biden administration, which has tried to resurrect the JCPOA, reversing former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the pact in 2018 at the urging of Netanyahu.
“It’s not a question of whether our analysis is better than that from Israel; it's a question of how our respective policy makers perceive the nature of the Iranian threat,” Norman Roule, a former senior CIA Middle East expert and National Intelligence Manager for Iran, told SpyTalk. “The U.S. doesn’t view Iran as an existential threat. Israel does. . . So inevitably they are going to be more aggressive than their U.S. counterparts.”
The issue of trust has become another complicating factor in the CIA-Mossad relationship, the former senior CIA official concedes. He pointed to Trump’s infamous May 2017 Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, during which Trump revealed highly classified Mossad intelligence on the Islamic State terrorist group, jeopardizing the source of the intelligence.
According to the former senior CIA official, the disclosure infuriated the Israelis and led the Mossad to limit their intelligence-sharing with the Americans.
“That’s going to have an effect on the relationship—no if’s, and’s or but’s about it,” the former official said.
One of the most striking examples of how the differing U.S. and Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat have affected intelligence cooperation came in early 2021, when Netanyahu, then in his fifth term as prime minister and deeply distrustful of the newly elected Biden, ordered then-Mossad director Yossi Cohen to limit intelligence sharing with the CIA.
In April of that year, the Mossad gave the CIA less than two hours advance notice about a sabotage operation it planned to carry out against Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant. The late call effectively denied the Biden administration an opportunity to issue a formal request to call off the operation, the New York Times reported. The attack severely damaged the plant.
Biden’s CIA Director William Burns called Cohen to complain about the snub, according to the Times. Cohen said operational constraints and uncertainty over whether the operation would take place were behind the last-minute notification. Some Israeli sources said they held back information from the Americans because there had been leaks about previous Mossad operations, an allegation that U.S. officials have denied. But U.S. officials believed Netanyahu had extended his grudge against Obama for negotiating the Iran deal to Biden because of his intention to revive it.
Biden’s unhappiness with the Mossad’s secrecy regarding its Iran strategy persisted under the first of Netanyahu’s two recent predecessors, Naftali Bennett. In a nearly five-hour interview recently posted on Bennett's YouTube channel [in Hebrew, with English subtitles], the former Israel prime minister said that during his talks with Biden during his U.S. visit in August 2021, the president demanded that Israel give the United States advance notice “of any action we take in Iran.” But Bennett says he refused to comply, telling Biden: “There are things you do not want to know about in advance.”
Israel’s distrust of Biden softened somewhat last July after Bennett stepped down from Israel’s national unity government under a power-sharing agreement that brought centrist Yair Lapid to power. Lapid publicly chastised the new Mossad chief David Barnea for a speech in which the spymaster charged that Biden, by trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal, was “rushing into an agreement that is a complete lie,” adding that Tehran’s willingness to sign the deal “does not change Iran’s long-term desire to obtain a nuclear weapon."
Though Lapid himself opposes the nuclear deal, his aides said at the time that he felt Barnea’s language was too harsh in describing the policy of Israel’s most important ally. But now that Netanyahu is back in office, the gloves are back off when it comes to Israel’s efforts, both overt and covert, to torpedo any return to the JCPOA.
Some observers say the timing of the Isfahan drone strike, together with the Americans’ hurried assertion that the Mossad was responsible, sent contradictory signals as to how much the Biden administration knew about the attack beforehand.
Several explosive-packed quadcopter drones struck the Iranian weapons factory just as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken began a visit to Israel and only a week after Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Burns had visited Israel. Yossi Kucik, who served as chief of staff for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, told SpyTalk Israeli officials may have briefed the Americans on the planned attack beforehand to avoid news of the strike taking Blinken by surprise while he was in Israel.
Spokespersons for the White House and the CIA declined to comment when asked if Israel gave the United States advance notification for the Isfahan drone attack.
But the administration’s swift finger-pointing at Mossad struck some critics as evidence that Netanyahu may have again intentionally not given the Americans advance notice to underscore his concerns that Biden continues to pursue a revived Iran nuclear accord.
These critics cite reports that Iran envoy Malley met with Iran’s United Nations Ambassador Saeed Iravani in New York at least three times over the past several months. They also point to remarks by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who told a news conference in Tehran during a visit last week that he had delivered messages from the United States and other Western parties to senior Iranian officials that urged Iran to revive the nuclear agreement after months of deadlocked negotiations.
“It remains U.S. policy to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran,” Richard Goldberg, a former director for countering Iran’s nuclear program on Trump’s National Security Council and now a senior adviser to the pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “And in the absence of Iran saying yes to a nuclear deal, it remains U.S. policy to pursue alternative, passive pressure that could help induce Iran to say yes to a nuclear deal.”
If no advance notice of the Isfahan strike was given, it would actually be the third time Netanyahu has personally embarrassed Biden. In 2010, the Obama administration opposed Netanyahu’s policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. Netanyahu waited until then-Vice President Biden was in Israel on an official visit for his government to announce plans to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in occupied Arab East Jerusalem.
Whether or not Israel officially takes credit for the attack, former U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials say there is no downside for the Mossad being seen as its author. The munitions factory that was hit is one of those obscure targets that only Iranian insiders would know about, once again reminding Iran’s clerical rulers that Israel intelligence has penetrated the country and that its saboteurs can strike at will, these officials say.
If one of the goals of the Mossad’s covert sabotage campaign is to prevent any return to the JCPOA, some believe its hardball tactics, aided by Iran’s continued uranium enrichment to near-bomb-grade levels, its brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators and its provision of armed drones to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, may already have succeeded.
They point to recent remarks by Sullivan that the administration no longer considers a revived JCPOA a priority, as well as the joint military exercise that the U.S. and Israel conducted last month in the Mediterranean that mimicked a massive attack on Iran, as evidence. The exercise included simulations of an electronic attack to fry Iranian strategic communications, suppression of Iranian air defenses, strike coordination and reconnaissance, interdiction of Iranian warplanes and three successive waves of attacks by U.S. B-52 bombers.
Interviewed last week by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Netanyahu said the joint exercises confirmed Biden’s agreement that a “credible military threat” was needed to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu’s return to office reflects Israel’s accelerating swing to the right that began in response to murderous Palestinian terror attacks after the 1993 Oslo Accords and which effectively decimated the country’s left-leaning political parties. Netanyahu first served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to 2021, making him Israel’s longest serving leader.
Not surprisingly, Israel’s right-wing tilt also has surfaced within the military and intelligence services, where increasing numbers of Jewish settlers and religious nationalists now serve in elite combat units, military intelligence, the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency. At the same time, many moderate or leftwing Israelis have emigrated from the country or have declined to make service in the military or security services their career.
Just before he retired from the CIA a few years ago, Polymeropoulos recalled that he returned to the Middle East for a final official visit and reconnected with a Mossad officer he had known during his own years in the region recruiting agents to spy for the United States.
Back in the 1990s, Polymeropoulos said, many Mossad operatives he knew wore Birkenstock sandals and held decidedly left-wing political views that included full-throated support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But over dinner, Polymeropoulos discovered that the emotional toll from a relentless campaign of Hamas suicide bombings that killed some 1,000 Israelis in the early 2000s had turned the Mossad officer into a rightwing hardliner with little remaining empathy for the Palestinians’ plight.
Polymeropoulos is careful to say one embittered dinner conversation doesn't define the Mossad, but he's also well-aware the terrorism turned the majority of Israelis against the national aspirations of the Palestinians.
“Israel has changed a great deal over the last decade plus,” Polymeropoulos told a small Twitter group of former national security officials, think-tankers and journalists who were discussing Netanyahu’s return to power and its potential impact on U.S.-Israel relations.
“It is far more conservative, intolerant,” he continued. “My sense is that Mossad officers whom I always found to be rational, pro-peace, relatively secular have even changed as well. Rank and file became far more right wing over the years, from what I experienced.”
In a later interview with SpyTalk, Polymeropoulos hastened to add that, even with Netanyahu at the helm, he never found Mossad’s information to be politically skewed or biased in any way. “They were always completely professional,” he said.
But that hasn’t stopped Mossad case officers from continuing to spy on the United States, the unnamed former U.S.official said.
The subject of Israeli espionage in the United States became politically supercharged after the 1986 conviction of U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard for selling highly classified secrets to Israel. Pollard was given a life sentence, released from prison in 2015 after serving 30 years, and emigrated in 2020 to Israel, where he was greeted as a hero. Pollard, a Jew, claimed he committed espionage only because “the American intelligence establishment collectively endangered Israel's security by withholding crucial information.”
The former official said that in the wake of the Pollard affair, Israel and the United States reached a “firm understanding” not to spy on each other. But “these understandings can change,” the former senior CIA official added. “Opportunities may present themselves that are too good to be true. I can’t even tell you whether that agreement actually truly exists or not.”
This official continued: “The CIA, as a HUMINT organization, is always looking for opportunities wherever they can present themselves. Even among the most trusted of allies, if there was some opportunity that was too good to be true, it would probably be proposed and vetted and might be shot down. But I imagine that a good case officer is going to look for every opportunity to find intelligence that helps U.S. national security.” That includes opportunities to recruit Israelis—and vice versa.
Several Israeli intelligence officers based in the U.S. have been quietly expelled for their espionage activities over the years, the former U.S. official said. But Jerusalem has also quietly sent home some CIA case officers for similar reasons.
“That’s not so unusual,” the former official said. “After all, that’s the business we’re all in.”
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Another thought provoking article from SpyTalk. Since I only worked directly with Israel during my time at the Pentagon, my understanding of the degree of connection between MOSSAD and US intelligence is nil. I do, however, remember a hotly debated issue in the policy community on whether to provide Israel with some information we had collected. The augment centered around the fear that Israel would act on the intelligence if it was provided. Although my recollection is a bit fuzzy, I think we did eventually provide the information, and Israel did indeed take action against what it considered a threat. I suspect that David Enzel follows matters in the Middle East far more closely than I do. For someone who focuses mostly on East Asia your piece was filled with news. For that I am grateful.
And then there is the ghost of USS Liberty.