What do they mean when they say “Mega”? Is it an innocent code word used by the Israeli Mossad to describe the CIA? Or is it a sinister cipher referring to an American traitor who works for Israeli intelligence? Since last January, these uncertainties have poisoned the usually good and collaborative relations between the intelligence communities of United States and Israel. They have also revived bad memories of the Pollard affair.
Ironically, the latest espionage scandal began when U.S.-Israeli relations seemed to be back on track. In January, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet signed off on a U.S.-brokered agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Israeli troops withdrew from Hebron, and handed most of the city over to Yasser Arafat’s police and security forces. As a guarantor, Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave the two sides two different letters spelling out the U.S. commitments. The Clinton administration revealed the content of the two letters in only general terms.
Eager to see the exact wording of the letter given to the Palestinians, Netanyahu asked Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar to get him a copy. Newly arrived in Washington and lacking good contacts in the capital, Ben-Elissar turned to the chief of the Mossad station at the Israeli Embassy. The chief, whose name Israeli censors refuse to reveal, was reluctant to comply with his request. He called his immediate superior, a senior official and head of the Tevel (universe) unit at Mossad headquarters. Their short conversation was intercepted by listening posts of the National Security Agency. According to the Washington Post, the station chief said: “The ambassador wants me to use Mega to get the letter.” His superior replied: “We do not use Mega for this.”
As a matter of procedure, a translated transcript of the intercepted communication was disseminated by the NSA to the other U.S. intelligence agencies. FBI counterintelligence experts suspected that Mega was a code word for a senior and well-connected administration official with access to the letters, as well as to other Middle East top secrets.
For more than a decade, the bureau and officials at the Department of Justice have been obsessed with the suspicion that Israeli intelligence is running a mole inside the administration. This conviction originated in November 1986, following the arrest of Jonathan J. Pollard at the gates of the Israeli Embassy. Pollard, a U.S. citizen of Jewish origins, worked as an analyst at the counterterrorism center of U.S. Navy intelligence. He was sentenced to life in prison for spying on behalf of a secret Israeli intelligence unit called Lakam, a Hebrew acronym for Scientific Liaison Bureau.
U.S. prosecutors and investigators believed that Pollard and his Israeli handlers were helped by another American, referred to as Mr. X, who probably was a senior administration official. Mr. X provided the reference numbers that helped Pollard pull out requested files from America’s most-secret intelligence computers. But the investigators could not uncover Mr. X. Now, the FBI is eager to determine whether the old Mr. X of the Pollard affair is Mega.
Israeli officials have denied all. The Mossad has explained to the CIA that Mega is a code word it uses to describe its formal liaison relations with the spy agency. According to Rafi Eitan, a former senior Mossad official and former head of the disbanded Lakam, and who personally handled Pollard, the word Mega was derived from Megawatt. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was the name of an international gathering of representatives from a dozen Western intelligence organizations, including the Mossad and CIA, who exchanged information and assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions. That body no longer exists.
Yet, the Clinton administration refuses to accept Israeli explanations at face value. Nor does it rule out the possibility that Israeli agents are involved in illegal activities on U.S. soil. The Pollard affair sowed the seeds of this mistrust.
In defense, Israeli officials claim they have learned the lessons of the Pollard case. “We shall never again run agents in the U.S.A.” vows Eitan. He and other intelligence experts also point out that it was not a coincidence that Pollard was handled by Lakam, not the Mossad. The Mossad and the CIA have long enjoyed warm and cordial relations. Mossad operatives are stationed, under diplomatic cover, at the Israeli Embassy in Washington as liaison officers to the CIA. U.S. spies posing as diplomats maintain their contacts with their Israeli counterparts through the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
In the United States, Mossad has not only avoided spying on American targets, but has also refrained from operations against third parties, mainly Arab installations. Nevertheless, Nahum Admoni, the Mossad chief during the ‘80s, must have known that Lakam was running Pollard. So must have Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres and Defense Ministers Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Rabin.
On the other hand, since the CIA is reluctant to operate against Israel on Israeli soil, it uses other intelligence agencies to obtain information it wants. The late Yitzhak Rabin told me after Pollard’s arrest that Israel had uncovered five American spies operating in sensitive nuclear and industrial facilities in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The spies were questioned but Israel’s flexible legal system made it possible for the government to release and expel them, thereby avoiding conflict with its best ally.
“It is clear to us,” admits a former senior intelligence official, “that both countries, despite their friendship and strategic cooperation, are constantly involved in espionage against each other. The big difference between the U.S. and Israel is in the methods of information gathering.” While Israel has relied more on “humint” (operating agents), the United States has mainly used “sigint” and “comint” (intercepting communication of all sorts and electronic signals). This operational difference is a result of capabilities and priorities.
The aerial forest on the roof of the four-story U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv is evidence of the NSA’s capabilities and intentions. These antennas intercept virtually every single phone call, fax transmission and other means of communication originating in Israel. But the most impressive coup by the NSA was, probably unwittingly, revealed during the Mega crisis.
All Israeli diplomats and intelligence officers assigned abroad, and especially to the United States, are briefed to act as if their communication was intercepted. But now Israel knows for sure that the United States broke the Mossad code. Israeli code breakers, operating on “worst-case analysis,” assume that other codes, including those of the military and foreign ministry, have also been broken. In such circumstances, concludes an Israeli Cabinet minister, the damage to our national security is far greater than Pollard or maybe other Israeli operations might have wrought in the United States.