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Spies Among Friends

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/spyingbig.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

With the exposure of Ben-Ami Kadish, 84, as an alleged Israeli spy, there is sure to be a fresh round of consternation in the United States about Israel’s past machinations. The Justice Department is charging in four conspiracy counts handed down Tuesday in New York that Kadish handed over a variety of documents, including some on nuclear technology, to his Israeli handler from 1979 to 1985. This agent also supervised Jonathan Jay Pollard, the U.S. citizen currently serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. But for all the condemnation, spying is something even the friendliest nations have always done to each other. Despite all the professions of friendship, the council of nations often resembles a den of thieves.

No matter how cordial relations are, suspicions always lurk that even best friends may have cherished secrets that they’re hiding from allies. No government wants to be caught surprised or, when it comes to military technology, left behind. More important than an ally’s wounded feelings is the instinct of self-preservation — one reason why Israel, Britain, and Taiwan keep trying to ferret out official U.S. secrets.

The surprising thing, then, would be if spying between the United States and its close allies were not taking place. Washington, you might say, resembles a kind of “Rear Window” writ large — with nation after nation deploying spies to ferret out what’s taking place behind official doors. Like Jimmy Stewart in that Hitchcock movie, they try to pull back whenever they sense that the objects of their attention are becoming aware of the surveillance, and are mortified when they’re caught red-handed. They want to act like they’re just another friendly neighbor, not an intrusive snooper.

But unlike Stewart, spies ultimately don’t have the police to rescue them once they’re in peril. Like the nations they serve, spies have to rely on their own wits for survival. More often than not, spies have no loyalty to anyone but themselves. After they’ve been exposed, they’re often cast aside once their usefulness is at an end. But that’s never stopped new ones from signing up—or nations from exploiting them.

Consider the United States. Since the American Revolution, it has relied on intelligence agents to spy on friends as well as foes. In the 19th century, according to the historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones in “American Espionage,” “during the next 75 years, presidents used their executive power to send secret agents to Mexico, Canada, the West Indies, Latin America, Europe, Turkey, the Far East, Hawaii and elsewhere.” Whether they functioned as quasi-diplomats or simply information-gatherers, the temptation to use such agents was clearly irresistible. They could provide a fund of information, not, obviously, on the order of modern intelligence services, with their panoply of technological devices, that might prove useful in crafting treaties or deciding when to embark upon war.

No matter how cordial relations are, suspicions always lurk that even best friends may have cherished secrets that they’re hiding from allies.

America’s closest ally has perhaps been Britain, but that didn’t prevent mutual spying during World War I. Before America’s entry into the war to end all wars, the British did not tell the State Department that they had broken the German codes. London didn’t alert Washington about German intentions in Mexico until it was sure of an opportune moment to lure the U.S. into the war. Even after America entered the war, Jeffreys-Jones writes, Washington rightly assumed that the British were spying on them, partly because London remained reluctant to share cryptological expertise.

What about World War II? Chums or not, the fact is that once again the British were spying in America, on a greater scale than ever before. In May 1940, Winston Churchill directed the British Intelligence Service to launch a massive covert operation called British Security Coordination, based in Manhattan, to influence U.S. opinion in a push toward war. It was a masterful black ops program. Essentially, it cooked up bogus documents and planted news stories in the U.S. media, often with the connivance of the Roosevelt administration. But by 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s close adviser Adolf A. Berle, an assistant secretary of state in charge of security, expressed his extreme displeasure at the “very considerable espionage” the British were conducting on U.S. soil.

The British kept spying on the United States during the Cold War. Kim Philby, one of the turncoat “Cambridge spies,” was stationed in Washington, in 1949, where he became close friends with his contact, James Jesus Angleton, head of counter-intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency. Philby, as a double-agent for the Soviets, turned over much information to Moscow about U.S. knowledge of communist spy networks. Or did he? A revisionist account by S.J. Hamrick called “Deceiving the Deceivers” argues that MI5 was running a disinformation campaign, and knew Philby was a Soviet spy, if one of marginal importance. But, in any case, part of Philby’s job was keeping his ostensible employer, MI5, informed about Angleton’s activities.

In the spy versus spy world, it’s often hard to know who is fooling whom, who the double (or triple) agent might be. Was Philby’s main role, in fact, to pass on to MI5 information about the CIA and Angleton? In the hall of mirrors that constitutes the intelligence world, no theory is too baroque or outlandish not to merit consideration.

After the Cold War ended, the focus on spying turned to business espionage. Sure, the Western alliance had faced down the Soviet threat. But that was partly because of its industrial prowess, and the attention of spy services focused on finding out what advances their allies might be have developed. Stealing secrets, as the Israelis knew (and know), can speed up industrial development. In Germany and other European countries, the CIA directed its efforts toward industrial espionage.

In his 1993 book “Friendly Spies,” Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution examined Japanese, French, South Korean and Israeli economic espionage directed against America. Washington, however, was as much perpetrator as target. In 2000, the French, for example, complained that the CIA was using a signals intelligence program called Echelon to spy on European corporations.

But Washington, as usual, steadfastly denied it. Former CIA director — and current defense secretary — Robert M. Gates claimed, in effect, that America was an innocent: “I can assure you that no American intelligence agency conducts industrial espionage against foreign companies to advantage U.S. companies,” Gates said at the time. “What we do is support the efforts of our own government, and that information is not shared with American companies.”

Gates went on to state that it was China, Russia, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Argentina and other countries that were engaged in such naughty practices. France, he said, was probably the “most egregious offender.” Indeed, French intelligence had recruited agents at IBM and Texas Instruments.

Today, spying continues — whether it’s Taiwan seeking access to military secrets or Israel seeking to keep tabs on the U.S. Or the U.S. trying to keep tabs on Israel (After Pollard was exposed as a spy in 1985, then-Republican Sen. David F. Durenberger said that the CIA had had its own spy in Israel).

But the problem for a country with as close a relationship to Washington as Israel has, isn’t that it has spies. The real problem is when it suborns American Jews, of all people, to act on its behalf. Nothing could be more calculated to damage Israel’s relations with its most important ally, for it evokes the old canard of dual loyalty.

Still, friend or foe, the desire to look behind the curtain and see what’s happening has always tempted nations — even if Washington. has sometimes been loath to admit it. So tempting is spying, some nations don’t simply snoop on their friends, but also even closer to home: their own citizens.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of “They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons.”

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