Why Are We Spying on Israel? 

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Aug. 29 2013 5:25 PM

Why Are We Spying on Israel? 

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Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stand together prior to Obama departing from Ben Gurion International Airport on March 22, 2013, in Lod' Israel. Would Obama be posing like this with the leaders of Iran?

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman has another blockbuster today from the mixed-up files of Mr. Edward J. Snowden, this one providing details of the top-secret $52.6 billion “black budget” for the 16 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Among other details, the report discusses the recent resurgence of the CIA and the intelligence community’s new focus on “offensive cyber operations.” It also includes this striking detail:

Pakistan is described in detail as an “intractable target,” and counterintelligence operations “are strategically focused against [the] priority targets of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel.”
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The inclusion of Israel on that list might seem surprising, but the United States and its “greatest friend” have a long history of spying on each other. Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the AP reported on some of this last year:

In addition to what the former U.S. officials described as intrusions in homes in the past decade, Israel has been implicated in U.S. criminal espionage cases and disciplinary proceedings against CIA officers and blamed in the presumed death of an important spy in Syria for the CIA during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency's Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East, according to current and former officials. Counterintelligence is the art of protecting national secrets from spies. This means the CIA believes that U.S. national secrets are safer from other Middle Eastern governments than from Israel. […]
The National Security Agency historically has kept tabs on Israel. The U.S., for instance, does not want to be caught off guard if Israel launches a surprise attack that could plunge the region into war and jeopardize oil supplies, putting American soldiers at risk.
Matthew Aid, the author of "The Secret Sentry," about the NSA, said the U.S. started spying on Israel even before the state was created in 1948. Aid said the U.S. had a station on Cyprus dedicated to spying on Israel until 1974. Today, teams of Hebrew linguists are stationed at Fort Meade, Md., at the NSA, listening to intercepts of Israeli communications, he said.

And then there’s the high-profile case of Jonathan Pollard, the former Navy civilian intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison. Pollard’s release has long been a priority of the Netanyahu government and, apparently, Anthony Weiner

None of this has prevented the intelligence services of the two countries from working together, as they apparently did in the creation of the Stuxnet worm that crippled Iranian nuclear systems in 2010. As I noted on Monday, a certain amount of spying between allies is expected.

But leaders in Tel Aviv probably still won’t be thrilled to see themselves included on a list with Russia and Iran.