Despite its fervent denials, Israel secretly maintains a large and active intelligence-gathering operation in the United States that has long attempted to recruit U.S. officials as spies and to procure classified documents, U.S. government officials said.
FBI and other counterespionage agents, in turn, have covertly followed, bugged and videotaped Israeli diplomats, intelligence officers and others in Washington, New York and elsewhere, the officials said. The FBI routinely watches many diplomats assigned to America.
Officials said FBI surveillance of a senior Israeli diplomat, who was the subject of an FBI inquiry in 1997-98, played a role in the latest probe into possible Israeli spying. The bureau now is investigating whether a Pentagon analyst or pro-Israel lobbyists provided Israel with a highly classified draft policy document. The document advocated support for Iranian dissidents, radio broadcasts into Iran and other efforts aimed at destabilizing the regime in Tehran, officials said this week.
The case is unresolved, but it has highlighted Israel’s unique status as an extremely close U.S. ally that presents a dilemma for U.S. counterintelligence officials.
“There is a huge, aggressive, ongoing set of Israeli activities directed against the United States,” said a former intelligence official who was familiar with the latest FBI probe and who recently left government. “Anybody who worked in counterintelligence in a professional capacity will tell you the Israelis are among the most aggressive and active countries targeting the United States.”
The former official discounted repeated Israeli denials that the country exceeded acceptable limits to obtain information.
“They undertake a wide range of technical operations and human operations,” the former official said. “People here as liaison ... aggressively pursue classified intelligence from people. The denials are laughable.”
Current and former officials involved with Israel at the White House, CIA, State Department and in Congress had similar appraisals, although not all were as harsh in their assessments. A Bush administration official confirmed that Israel ran intelligence operations against the United States. “I don’t know of any foreign government that doesn’t do collection in Washington,” he said.
Another U.S. official familiar with Israeli intelligence said that Israeli espionage efforts were more subtle than aggressive, and typically involved the use of intermediaries.
But a former senior intelligence official, who focused on Middle East issues, said Israel tried to recruit him as a spy in 1991.
“I had an Israeli intelligence officer pitch me in Washington at the time of the first Gulf War,” he said. “I said, ‘No, go away,’ and reported it to counterintelligence.”
The U.S. officials all insisted on anonymity because classified material was involved and because of the political sensitivity of Israeli relations with Washington. Congress has shown little appetite for vigorous investigations of alleged Israeli spying.
In his first public comments on the case, Israel’s ambassador, Daniel Ayalon, repeated his government’s denials this week. “I can tell you here, very authoritatively, very categorically, Israel does not spy on the United States,” Ayalon told CNN. “We do not gather information on our best friend and ally.” Ayalon said his government had been “very assured that this thing will just fizzle out. There’s nothing there.”
In public, Israel contends it halted all spying operations against the United States after 1986, when Jonathan Jay Pollard, a former Navy analyst, was convicted in U.S. federal court and sentenced to life in prison for selling secret military documents to Israel.
U.S. officials say the case was never fully resolved because a damage-assessment team concluded that Israel had at least one more high-level spy at the time, apparently inside the Pentagon, who had provided serial numbers of classified documents for Pollard to retrieve.
The FBI has investigated several incidents of suspected intelligence breaches involving Israel since the Pollard case, including a 1997 case in which the National Security Agency bugged two Israeli intelligence officials in Washington discussing efforts to obtain a sensitive U.S. diplomatic document. Israel denied wrongdoing in that case and all others, and no one has been prosecuted.
But U.S. diplomats, military officers and other officials are routinely warned before going to Israel that local agents are known to slip into homes and hotel rooms of visiting delegations to go through briefcases and to copy computer files.
“Any official American in the intelligence community or in the foreign service gets all these briefings on all the things the Israelis are going to try to do to you,” said one U.S. official.
At the same time, experts said relations between the CIA and Israel’s chief intelligence agency, the Mossad, were so close that analysts sometimes shared highly classified “code-word” intelligence on sensitive subjects. Tel Aviv routinely informs Washington of the identities of the Mossad station chief and the military intelligence liaison at its embassy in America.
“They probably get 98% of everything they want handed to them on a weekly basis,” said the former senior U.S. intelligence officer who has worked closely with Israeli intelligence. “They’re very active allies. They’re treated the way the British are.”
Another former intelligence operative who has worked with Israeli intelligence agreed. “The relationship with Israeli intelligence is as intimate as it gets,” he said.
Officials said Israel was acutely interested in U.S. policies and intelligence on the Middle East, especially toward Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
“They are sophisticated enough to want to know where the levers are they can influence, which people in our government are taking which positions they can try to influence,” said a former high-ranking CIA official.
But the official said the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, at least in intelligence circles, “is not one of complete trust at all.”
The latest counterintelligence investigation began more than two years ago, and initially focused on whether officials from a powerful Washington lobbying group, the American Israel Political Action Committee, passed classified information to Israel, officials said.
Several months later, the FBI conducted surveillance of Naor Gilon, chief of political affairs at the Israeli Embassy, meeting with two AIPAC officials. The arrival of a veteran Iran analyst at the Pentagon, Larry Franklin, sparked a new line of FBI inquiry.
In 1997 and 1998, the FBI had monitored Gilon as part of an investigation into whether Scott Ritter, then a U.S. intelligence official working with U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, was improperly delivering U.S. spy-plane film and other secret material to Israeli intelligence. Gilon was posted in New York at the time and operated as liaison between Israel’s Anan, or military intelligence service, and the U.N. teams, several officials said.
“Naor was the focus of FBI surveillance into allegations that I was a mole,” said Ritter, who was never charged in the case. “They suspected Naor was working me to gain access to U.S. intelligence, which was absurd.”
In an e-mail message this week, Gilon said he was under orders not to talk to the media about the current case. He has denied any wrongdoing in interviews with Israeli newspapers.
Franklin has not responded to requests for comment, and officials said he was cooperating with authorities. The FBI interviewed several AIPAC officials last Friday and copied the contents of a computer hard drive. AIPAC has denied any wrongdoing and said it was cooperating fully with investigators.
In a statement released Thursday, AIPAC said the group’s continued access to the White House, senior administration officials and ranking members of Congress during the two-year probe would have been “inconceivable ... if any shred of evidence of disloyalty or even negligence on AIPAC’s part” had been discovered.
AIPAC, has especially close ties to the Bush administration. Addressing the group’s policy conference on May 18, President Bush praised AIPAC for “serving the cause of America” and for highlighting the nuclear threat from Iran.
Washington and Tel Aviv differ on their assessments of Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Israel considers Iran’s nuclear ambitions its No. 1 security threat, and the issue is the top priority for AIPAC. The Bush administration takes the Iran nuclear threat seriously, but its intelligence estimates classify the danger as less imminent than do the Israeli assessments.
What mystifies those who know AIPAC is how one of the savviest, best-connected lobbying organizations in Washington has found itself enmeshed in a spy investigation.
Although never previously implicated in a potential espionage case, AIPAC has frequently been a subject of controversy. Its close ties to Israel and its aggressive advocacy of Israeli government positions has drawn criticism that it should be registered as an agent of a foreign country. Others, noting its ability to organize significant backing for or against candidates running for national office, have demanded that it be classified as a political action committee.
So far the group has avoided both classifications, either of which would impose major restrictions on its activities.
Three years ago, Fortune magazine ranked AIPAC fourth on its list of Washington’s 25 most powerful lobbying groups -- ahead of such organizations as the AFL-CIO and the American Medical Assn.
Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti and Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.