The Israeli spy agency has snubbed the United States. Can we restore confidence?

WASHINGTON – The cable sent this year by the outgoing CIA officer in charge of setting up spy networks in Iran reverberated throughout t...


WASHINGTON – The cable sent this year by the outgoing CIA officer in charge of setting up spy networks in Iran reverberated throughout the intelligence agency’s headquarters in Langley, officials said: to rebuild it.

Israel has helped fill the gap, officials say, with its robust operations in Iran providing the United States with reliable intelligence flows on Iran’s nuclear activities, missile programs and support for militias in the region.

The intelligence services of the two countries have a long history of cooperation and operated in virtual lockdown mode during the Trump administration, which approved or participated in numerous Israeli operations in its shadow war against Iran.

That changed after the election of President Biden, who promised to restore nuclear deal with Iran which Israel has so vigorously opposed. In the spring, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli Prime Minister, even cut back on intelligence sharing with the United States because he did not trust the Biden administration.

The challenge for both countries – as the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, meets Mr. Biden at the White House Thursday – will be whether they can restore that confidence even if they pursue conflicting programs on Iran. The Biden administration favors a diplomatic approach, echoing and building on the 2015 nuclear deal, while Israeli officials say only force can stop Iran from building an atomic bomb.

A key goal for Bennett will be to determine whether the Biden administration will continue to support Israel’s covert operations against Iran’s nuclear program, senior Israeli officials have said.

Israeli officials hope that any new deal with Iran will not limit such operations, which in the past have included the sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

The White House meeting comes just weeks after CIA director William J. Burns traveled to Israel to meet his counterpart, David Barnea, as well as Mr. Bennett, a sign of the importance of cooperation intelligence for bilateral relations.

“The sharing of intelligence and operational activities between Israel and the United States is one of the most important topics on the meeting’s agenda,” said Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, former director of the meeting. Israeli military intelligence. “Israel has developed unique intelligence gathering capabilities in a number of enemy countries, capabilities that the United States has not been able to develop on its own and without which its national security would be vulnerable. “

In his meeting with Mr. Biden, Mr. Bennett’s hand will be strengthened by the fact that the United States has become more dependent on Israel for information about Iran. The United States has other sources of information, including wiretapping by the National Security Agency, but it lacks the in-country spy network that Israel has.

The risk of such dependence became evident in April when Israel set off explosives in Iran’s Natanz nuclear power plant.

Mr. Netanyahu had ordered his national security officials to reduce the information they were passing on to the United States about planned operations in Iran, US and Israeli officials said.

And on the day of the attack, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency Mossad gave the United States less than two hours’ notice, according to US and Israeli officials, far too short for the U.S. United States is evaluating the operation or asking Israel to cancel it.

Israeli and US officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operations.

Israeli officials said they took the precautions because the Americans leaked information about certain Israeli operations, a charge denied by US officials. Other Israeli officials said the Biden administration had been inattentive to their security concerns, too focused on reviving the Iran nuclear deal from which President Donald J. Trump had withdrawn.

In Washington, many US officials said they believed Mr. Netanyahu was simply reiterating his grudge against the Obama administration, which brokered the nuclear deal with Iran.

The last-minute notification of Operation Natanz was the most vivid example that Israel had changed its procedures since the Trump presidency.

Senior officials in the Biden administration said the Israelis, at least in spirit, had violated a long-standing unwritten agreement to at least notify the United States of covert operations, giving Washington a chance to to oppose it.

Mr Burns called his counterpart, Yossi Cohen, the Mossad leader, expressing concern over the snub, according to people briefed on the call.

Mr Cohen said the late notification was the result of operational constraints and uncertainty as to when Operation Natanz would take place.

For US-Israeli intelligence relations, this was another sharp turnaround.

Relations had deteriorated during the Obama era.

The Obama White House, fearing that Israel would release information, has kept the existence of negotiations with Iran a secret from Israel, a former Obama administration official said. Israeli intelligence learned from meetings from own sources.

Mr. Netanyahu was also convinced that US spy agencies were watching him, according to a former Israeli official.

Under the Trump administration, cooperation has reached new heights.

When the Mossad stole Iran’s nuclear archives in 2018, the only foreign officials informed in advance were Mr. Trump and his CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Israeli officials used the documents to convince Mr. Trump that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program, and Mr. Trump cited them when he withdrew from the nuclear deal months later, a major victory for Mr. Netanyahu.

“It was a smart use of intelligence,” Netanyahu told The New York Times in 2019.

Iran has denied that it is seeking a nuclear weapon, but records have shown that Iran had a nuclear weapons program as recently as 2003. According to US intelligence officials, no evidence has emerged that the program continued.

In meetings with senior Trump administration officials in late 2019 and early 2020, Mr. Cohen presented a new Iranian strategy, advocating aggressive covert operations aimed at sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities and killing key personnel to force the ‘Iran to agree to a stricter deal.

Israel has launched a wave of covert operations, keeping the Trump administration abreast of a series of cyber and bombings on Iranian nuclear installations and on assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, after the US election but before Mr Biden took office.

The two countries also cooperated on two operations in 2020: a US operation for kill the head of the Iranian paramilitary force Quds, Major General Qassim Suleimani, and an Israeli operation to kill an al-Qaeda leader who had taken refuge in Tehran.

Mr Pompeo, who went on to serve as Secretary of State, said there had not been a more significant relationship in his four years in the Trump administration than that the CIA had with the Mossad.

“The two organizations really lived through a moment, an important moment in history,” he said in an interview in June.

But the heat of the Trump years quickly gave way to colder relations this year. The Biden administration’s announcement of its plan to return to the Iran nuclear deal and repeated delays in visits by Israeli intelligence officials to Washington have deepened skepticism about the new administration in Israel.

Mr. Cohen has sought to restore relations with the United States in his final months as Mossad leader, a senior Israeli official said.

On his last visit to Washington in April, just over two weeks after the Natanz bombing, he met with CIA officials and Mr. Biden, promising a more transparent intelligence relationship. Mr. Burns gave him a warm welcome and an award for fostering the close partnership between the Mossad and the CIA

“You have people in both intelligence organizations who have had a very long relationship,” said Will Hurd, a former CIA officer and former member of the House Intelligence Committee. “There is a closeness and an ability to potentially iron out some of the issues that may arise on the part of leaders. “

Mr. Netanyahu’s departure from the prime minister’s office was arguably just as important in restarting relations between the two spy stores.

Mr Bennett says he wants to open a new chapter in relations with the White House, and has promised a more constructive approach.

But the Mossad is already plan more covert operations in Iran. The question for the Biden administration is who is acceptable and when, General Zeevi Farkash said.

“The United States and Israel must jointly identify the red lines so that if Iran crosses them, Israel can act to prevent it from achieving military nuclear capability,” he said.

Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman reported from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The Israeli spy agency has snubbed the United States. Can we restore confidence?
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