Charges by a mysterious CIA official that Israel recruits religious American Jews to spy on the United States has sparked outrage from several Jewish leaders and a call for a public CIA response.
The allegations were aired Sunday night on the CBS news show “60 Minutes” focusing on the case of Adam Ciralsky, a former CIA attorney who claims he was fired because of his ethnicity.
In the report, correspondent Leslie Stahl said “a high-level CIA official” stated that “the Israeli government has a program of recruiting Americans who are religious Jews” to spy on America.
Asked by Stahl if that means “any religious Jew who has any kind of intelligence clearance is now suspect,” the man described as “Mr. X” replied: “I suspect that’s probably true.”
Agudath Israel of America, which represents Orthodox Jews, is calling on the CIA “to issue at its very highest levels a clear and unqualified rejection of the assertions.”
“The harm caused by this statement is incalculable,” Agudah executive vice president for government public affairs David Zwiebel wrote in a letter sent Tuesday night to CIA director George Tenet.
“It not only reflects the classic anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty and stereotype of Jew as untrustworthy outsider, it fosters that canard and stereotype. And when those singled out for suspicion are [readily identifiable] religious Jews … the danger of harmful fallout is compounded further still.”
Zwiebel called on Tenet to “publicly disassociate yourself personally, and the CIA as an entity, from this official’s statement.
“Your silence at this time will be understood as an unmistakable confirmation of this outrageous assertion that has been broadcast across the United States.”
Asked to respond to Agudah’s request, a CIA spokesman told The Jewish Week the agency would not be commenting at all about the “60 Minutes” report.
However, Jewish leaders said the report raises questions about the CIA and its Jewish employees, and also about Mr. X.
“I want to know the identity of this man, where does he get his information from, and how serious [the alleged Israel spy operation] is,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“What I find curious about it is that such a serious charge would be made by some functionary hiding his identity,” he said.
But Foxman, whose agency was contracted by the CIA last year to provide ongoing ethnic sensitivity training to agency personnel, said anti-Semitic behavior exists in America’s intelligence community.
“Look, the intelligence community comes together every time the Pollard issue is raised in an almost unbelievable manner,” he said, referring to convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Naval intelligence employee serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. “From time to time you see evidence there is this paranoia about Jews and Israel.”
Neal Sher, the attorney for Ciralsky, went further, saying that “there’s no doubt in my mind there are elements in the CIA where anti-Semitism runs deep, and that there are people there who are convinced that Israel is engaged in trying to recruit American Jews.”
But Sher said he doesn’t believe the allegations. “These are the same people [CIA officials] who thought the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was an ammunitions depot,” he said, referring to the mistaken U.S. bombing last year.
In Israel, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Barak refused to comment on the recruitment allegations. An Israeli government spokesman in the U.S. declined to comment, saying that “our government does not respond to anonymous charges.”
Another Israeli official said that Israeli was burned in the Pollard affair and is unlikely to repeat that mistake by trying to recruit amateurs to spy on its best ally.
Several Jewish activists familiar with the major defense and intelligence agencies said there is a pattern of anti-Semitism inside the CIA, but also argued that the agency’s current leadership has taken significant steps toward combating it.
“It’s there, but not necessarily on a day-to-day basis,” one activist with ties to the intelligence establishment said after the Ciralsky story surfaced last year. “There is a tendency to believe American Jews will put Israel first. It’s legitimate for these agencies to wonder how far that nationalist side of our interest goes. It’s not legitimate to make sweeping judgments about Jews being unreliable or disloyal.”
Indeed, Mr. X told “60 Minutes” that he believes the CIA is overreacting in its actions against Jewish employees. He said “so-called evidence” presented against a number of Jewish individuals who supposedly are spying for Israel is “very, very flimsy” and that some people have been fired or had their security clearances revoked based on suspicion and without solid evidence.
However, the anonymous official told Stahl that the Israeli recruiting effort has been successful.
“We believe that there have been numerous documented instances in which the Israelis have successfully recruited U.S. persons to spy for them,” Mr. X said.
One source told The Jewish Week that other employees and potential employees — including Asian Americans — are not scrutinized as closely as Jews. In the wake of recent revelations of Chinese spying, some agencies are regretting that laxity.
Meanwhile Sher said Ciralsky, a 28-year-old Milwaukee native, intends to sue the CIA for firing him and stripping him of his security privileges “because of his actions as a Jew.”
The CIA counters it fired Ciralsky after he failed two polygraph tests and showed “a lack of candor” about possible links with Israeli intelligence.
In a statement, the CIA said Tenet remains confident that anti-Semitism was not a factor in the agency’s dealings with Ciralsky. It also said that Tenet will not tolerate anti-Semitism or any other form of discrimination at the agency.
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.