War Stories

The Friendly Spook

Why allies spy on allies.

The world is much changed since Henry Stimson shut down the State Department’s cryptanalysis branch and sniffed, “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.” But what about friends’ mail—do we read it, too? That is, do nations spy on their allies? Do they do so routinely? And is everybody all right with that?

Yes, yes, yes, and—up to a point, apparently—yes.

The questions arise anew with reports that a Pentagon official named Larry Franklin is under suspicion for leaking classified documents to a lobbyist with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, who in turn slipped them to an Israeli diplomat. Spokesmen for AIPAC and the Israeli government deny the stories; FBI sources insist the probe is real and has been under way for over a year. To sharpen the intrigue, it turns out that Franklin works with Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, the high-level Pentagon officials who gained notoriety for their links to Israel and their fervent advocacy for war against Iraq.

Too little is publicly known as yet to make judgments about the Franklin case. The documents he allegedly leaked were about U.S. policy toward Iran. (Franklin was Feith’s Iranian desk officer.) The motive behind the leak, the contents of the documents, their level of classification, whether they contained intelligence information—these matters are for now unclear in the many news stories and analyses about the probe. (For a fine summary of these stories, see the last few days’ entries in Laura Rozen’s blog.)

Whatever the Franklin affair turns out to be (espionage? unauthorized disclosure of classified materials? a pathetic misunderstanding?), it marks but the latest chapter in a long saga of spies and allies.

Why do allies need to spy on each other? Can’t they just pick up the phone and ask each other what’s going on? Sometimes, yes; but sometimes, no.

Many allies enjoy a formal “intelligence liaison.” They share, trade, or consolidate assets and findings. During the Cold War, the nations of NATO had such arrangements. U.S.-Israeli relations were solidified after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel supplied the CIA with a massive cache of Soviet military hardware: tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery pieces, and so forth.

Yet there are times when allies don’t want to share. Consider the following situation: Countries A and B are allies. Countries B and C are friends or, at least, trading partners. Countries A and C are enemies. Country A might want to spy on its ally B in order to learn things about its enemy C.

The world is teeming with such relations.

The most notorious instance involved, again, Israel: the case of Jonathan Pollard. Pollard is serving a life sentence for leaking extremely classified information to Israel in the 1980s. The U.S. government has never revealed just what Pollard leaked, but Seymour Hersh offered a summary five years ago in The New Yorker. Intelligence officials gave Hersh a rundown because President Bill Clinton had promised right-wing Jewish groups—who were lobbying for Pollard’s release—that he would at least look into the case, and the intel officials were worried that Clinton might succumb to the pressure. To pre-empt such a move, they told Hersh just how serious Pollard’s indiscretions were. If Hersh’s report is true (and his sources on these matters tend to be excellent), the indiscretions were as serious as they can get: technical features of U.S. photo-reconnaissance satellites, operations of nuclear-missile submarines, details of the Strategic Air Command’s nuclear-war plan. Officers also told Hersh that the Israeli government had passed on some of these secrets to the Soviet Union in exchange for a more relaxed policy toward Jewish emigration.

Israel is the most high-profile case of an ally spying on an ally. (In their denials of involvement in the Franklin case, Israeli officials say that they would never do such a thing because they learned their lessons in the Pollard affair. Which “lessons” exactly is a subtler matter, of course.) But there are other, though less eye-popping, instances, and of course the spying goes both ways.

For instance, last year, in the run-up to the U.N. Security Council’s vote on the resolution to go to war against Iraq, the Guardian of Londonreported that the U.S. National Security Agency was tapping the telephones of the U.N. delegations from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea, and Pakistan—the “middle six” countries (as the Security Council’s temporary members were called) whose votes the Bush administration was desperately seeking.

The story didn’t cause as much of a stir as its reporters anticipated. There should have been no surprise about this. After all, the story’s third-to-final paragraph began, “While many diplomats at the UN assume they are being bugged …” Similar shrugs ensued when the NSA was reported to be tapping the telephone of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. What else is new? seemed to be even Annan’s reaction.

I had my own revelation about spying on allies in 1986, when Ronald Pelton, a former NSA communications officer, was tried for espionage. Pelton had sold the Soviet Union such sensitive secrets that they weren’t publicly revealed even during his trial. (He was sentenced to several life terms in prison.) Bill Casey and William Odom, the CIA and NSA directors at the time, issued a plea to all reporters: If you discover the secrets Pelton leaked, please come talk with us before publishing your story, because serious legal issues are at stake.

Newspaper lawyers take such pleas very seriously. At the time, I was the national-security reporter for the Boston Globe. So, when I found out what Pelton leaked, the Globe’s lawyers made the phone call. Within a couple of days, along with Walter Robinson (my co-author) and Steve Kurkjian (our Washington bureau chief), I went to meet Odom and the NSA’s legal counsel at a CIA hideaway office near the White House.

We showed Odom the story (which our lawyers had put on hold) and watched his face turn white as he read through it. The legal counsel turned a shade of red and told us that if we printed this story, we would face life in prison for violating the National Security Act.

The secret described how the United States intercepted communications sent from Soviet nuclear submarines back to their headquarters in Moscow. After Pelton’s leak, the Soviets changed the way their subs communicated, and a treasure-trove of intelligence information dried up. (Bob Woodward of the Washington Post also discovered the secret and apparently met with Odom or maybe with his pal Casey. Both papers printed stories that were so heavily edited as to be nearly unintelligible. A few years later, Woodward wrote the whole story, uncensored, in the first chapter of his book Veil. Since then, Operation Ivy Bells, as it was called, has been publicized quite a bit. For a pithy description, click here.)

During our meeting with Odom and his counsel on that sunny afternoon in June of 1986, I asked, “What’s the big deal? This isn’t a secret anymore. The Soviets know about it. The U.S. doesn’t even do this anymore. The operation was blown.”

Odom replied, rather sternly, “There are other countries in the world besides the Soviet Union. And they’re not all our enemies.”

I still remember the slight shiver that ran up my spine.