Behind the Headlines Israel and News Leaks
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Behind the Headlines Israel and News Leaks

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There seems to be a virtual consensus these days that never since the establishment of Israel have American ties to the Jewish State been more ideal. This is the side of the coin that Israeli officials and some in the Jewish community hasten to point out lest anyone should misinterpret their distress at the recent spurt of highly publicized investigations into alleged illegal activities by Israel in this country.

Accordingly, the disclosure last week that law enforcement authorities were investigating an alleged Israeli attempt to illegally obtain American technology for the production of cluster bombs brought not only an angry denial from Israel, but a warning that the raising of the subject threatened to “cloud the good relations between the U.S. and Israel.”

Questions were aired about motivations for the leaks, and there were suggestions from Jerusalem that sources in the Justice Department and the U.S. Customs Service were seeking to drive a wedge between Washington and the Jewish State.

“I have the impression that several factors within the United States are uncomfortable with the nature of U.S. -Israeli relations,” Abba Eban, chairman of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Israel Radio. His suspicions were reportedly echoed by senior Israeli officials who have regarded a series of accusations against Israel played out through the media rather than through diplomatic channels as part of a deliberate effort to undermine U.S.-Israeli ties.


Sources within and outside the American Jewish community offer a variety of conjectures about the roots of this series of irritants to an American-Israeli relationship that is otherwise flourishing. They range from ignorance about the foreign policy ramifications of the accusations and of the manner in which they have been disclosed, to a deliberate effort by midlevel officials to ruin Israel’s reputation.

Some attribute the development to what they see as over-zealousness on the part of some law enforcement authorities who are less concerned with foreign relations than with a bloated sense of their own responsibility. One source suggested that “personal considerations of publicity” could be involved as well.

These sources, however, appear to agree that whatever the motivation, the officials involved have been all too eager to pick up a phone and leak sensational “scoops” to the news media about their suspicions of Israeli misconduct in this country.


The Israeli government, for example, had barely got word last week that a new investigation was underway, when CBS TV evening news disclosed that subpoenas and search warrants had been issued for employes of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Procurement Mission in New York and for several U.S. companies suspected of efforts to illegally export technology to Israel.

The timing of the investigation and manner of its disclosure could hardly have contributed more to the suspicions of some that an orchestrated attempt by individuals in the Justice Department and Customs was being made to embarrass the Jewish State and cause tension between Washington and Jerusalem.

It followed a string of allegations in the press by anonymous Justice Department officials that the espionage activities of navy analyst Jonathan Pollard were part of a large-scale, government-authorized Israeli spying operation in the U.S. and suggestions that Israel had misled American authorities whom they had promised full cooperation.

The State Department and White House have continued to assert that Israel has extended its full cooperation in the case and that the spy ring did not extend beyond the four Israelis mentioned in the indictment of Pollard as unindicted co-conspirators.


The cluster bomb investigation also followed the arrest in Bermuda last April of a retired Israeli General, Avraham Bar-Am, who was among a group of people of various nationalities accused of attempting to smuggle $2 billion in American weapons to Iran. Bar-Am, who two years previously resigned from his position as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces manpower branch amid allegations of improper conduct, reportedly maintained that the Israeli defense establishment was aware of his activities.

Officials here have not accused Israel of any involvement in the arms smuggling case. But one journalist who has followed these cases closely told the JTA that none of the investigating authorities with whom she had spoken “could believe this wasn’t sanctioned” by the Israeli government. Israel has vigorously denied any connection.

Just as the Pollard case was unraveling last December, news broke of another investigation into the alleged illegal export of U.S. military technology to Israel. In that case, which concerned chrome-plating technology for tank cannon barrels, a correspondent and camera crew for the NBC evening news accompanied Customs authorities as they conducted a search of one of the companies suspected of involvement in the alleged illegal scheme.

Sources concerned about the recent series of leaks and publicity point to the tank barrel search as a clear example of an investigation that was designed from the beginning as a high-publicity case.


But James Polk, the NBC investigative reporter who covered the case, indicated in a telephone interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that his foreknowledge of the raids was not the result of any plan on the part of Customs to get publicity for the case. Asked if someone had actually called to advise him of the imminent search, he said “that didn’t happen.”

“Part of the investigative reporting for television is anticipating what’s going to happen and keeping one’s ear to the ground,” Polk observed. “No one told us we could go along. In fact I don’t know how happy people were that we were there,” he added, recalling there had been “rumblings” from the Customs Service about the crew’s presence at the site.

Similarly, Rita Braver, the CBS correspondent who reported on the cluster bomb case last week, maintained that suggestions of a deliberate effort by the law enforcement authorities to publicize the case are “not true.”

“I don’t think, as far as I can tell, there was anyone in the Administration who was real thrilled that this story got out,” Braver told the JTA.

With respect to the arms smuggling investigation, NBC found out about the case by following up rumors form a mistaken source, according to Polk, who covered the arrests.

“When we first started working on that, our grapevine rumbling had something to do with Libyan authorities,” Polk said. He noted it was not until later that anyone was aware that the arms smuggling ring included a retired Israeli General. Polk said that uncovering the arms smuggling investigation involved “intensive pulling of teeth.”

Nevertheless, sources concerned about what they regard as a change in the manner in which suspicions of Israeli misconduct are handled, focus not only on the publicity but on the nature of the investigations themselves. They note that such allegations, where they have arisen in the past, have been handled through diplomatic channels and thus resolved quietly and amicably. Search warrants, subpoenas and grand juries were simply not a part of the procedure.

But one Administration source maintained that the recent series of investigations and the manner in which they have been conducted represent “the ordinary course that a criminal investigation takes.” He stressed that the string of cases reflect no animosity on the part of the officials concerned and that in fact there was “a great deal of sympathy” for Israel in those circles.

Journalists who have followed not only the recent cases concerning Israel but also a series of espionage investigations involving other foreign governments, suggested, in telephone interviews with the JTA, that the recent cases and accompanying publicity stem from two factors now working together. First, they noted, there has been a general change in the way suspicions of espionage or other violations of American law by foreign governments are handled.

“It’s not just Israeli cases. In the old days they didn’t prosecute any cases,” one journalist observed. He noted that a recent incident involving another friendly country — South Korea — resulted in indictments against members of Congress who were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for positions supportive of Seoul.


The other factor cited by journalists is what one correspondent characterized as “uniform dismay” in the Administration over Israel’s failure to inform investigators about the role of Col. Aviem Sella in the Pollard affair. Sella, who allegedly served as a chief liaison between Pollard and the Israelis involved in the espionage, was cited as an unindicted coconspirator in Pollard’s indictment.

Authorities, however, were not told of Sella’s role when a delegation interviewed other Israelis involved in the case last December in exchange for a promise of immunity from prosecution. The Israeli government has maintained that it first heard of Sella’s alleged involvement from the Pollard indictment.

Other sources close to the Departments of Justice and State maintain that in spite of a pervasive feeling in the Administration that Israel did not fully cooperate in the Pollard case, there has been a natural difference of opinion between the two agencies as to how the affair should be handled.

“The job of the Justice Department is to prosecute; the State Department’s job involves another consideration which is that they don’t want to upset relations with allies,” one correspondent pointed out.

Another source who has followed similar cases in the past recalled an investigation by the antitrust division of the Justice Department into oil company pricing which caused a media feud between the two agencies much like that which has marked the Pollard affair. In that case the State Department protested vehemently when Justice subpoenaed records of foreign operations in Saudi Arabia.

Some have suggested that the string of cases involving Israel and the manner in which they have been handled reflect a lack of control over law enforcement authorities, some of whom, for whatever motive, are working in conflict with basic U.S. foreign policy concerning American-Israeli relations.


Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee, told the JTA that he had recently taken up the issue with Administration officials.

“Some of us had talked with key officials in the White House, asking how this kind of thing can happen,” Bookbinder said. He said he was given some assurances that a review was being made of the procedure for pursuing these cases.

Bookbinder stressed he was convinced that at the highest levels the Administration is committed to strong bonds with the Jewish State. But he suggested there are some mid-level officials who have resisted this closer relationship with Israel because they feel it would be at the expense of relations with the Arab world.” Nevertheless, Bookbinder stressed, “the overwhelming majority is adhering to the basic policy of the Administration.”

In the case of the cluster bomb technology, however, sources familiar with the case maintain that the manner of the investigation did not appear to raise objections within the Administration. “I don’t think that (Israeli Ambassador) Meir Rosenne would have been called into the State Department on this if it weren’t interested in pursuing this,” the source observed.


Beyond their resentment about how government agencies have handled these cases, some sources have charged that the press is all too eager to break news of alleged Israeli misconduct before the public, but fails to follow up if the allegations are not borne out because such news would lack sensational value. One source noted that nothing more has been heard on the cannon barrel case precisely because no evidence of illegality had been found.

But the failure to back up allegations of illegal conduct are not considered as newsworthy as the allegations themselves, the source protested.

Polk, who has been following up on the cannon barrel case, said that the facts of the case were not disputed and that its outcome would rest on whether those facts are interpreted as amounting to a violation of American law. “If there are indictments, you’ll hear something about it,” Polk told the JTA.

Another correspondent maintained that if the press were consistently to cover both investigations that develop into something and ones that fizzle out, it would also have to pursue an embarrassing case which broke last year involving the illegal export of 800 krytrons — devices that can be used to trigger nuclear explosions.

Israel, which claimed it had been unaware that the krytrons were obtained illegally, returned those which the government said had not been used. Those that were not returned, according to the Israeli account, had either been used in non-nuclear research or disposed of as unusable. The case was not pursued in court because the American accused in the case, Richard Kelly Smyth, was out of the country when the indictment was issued and never returned.

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