'What tiger?'

For years, Israel has been busy collecting sensitive information about the US. Why has it been above suspicion, wonders Mohamed Hakki in Washington

Mohamed HakkiThere is an old Russian joke about Russia's frustration in its negotiations with China. Former Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev goes hunting with Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung during his visit to China. Both see a tiger. Mao takes aim at the tiger, but misses. Krushchev then shoots and kills the tiger. The two leaders' aides then carry the tiger back to the guest house. When the party arrives back in Beijing, Krushchev turns to Mao and asks, "Where's the tiger?" Mao says, "What tiger?" Frustrated, Krushchev recaps the day's events. "You remember we went out hunting?" Yes. "And you shot at the tiger we saw, and missed?" Yes. "And I took a shot and got him?" Yes. "Then, where's the tiger?" To which the same answer came back: "What tiger?"

Something very similar is happening between Israel and its benefactor, the United States. In December, several reports on the Fox news network covered the sensitive issue of Israel spying on America. One question loomed large: did Israel know anything about 11 September that it did not share with the US?

More than 60 Israelis have reportedly been arrested or detained in the US, either under the new anti-terrorism law or for immigration violations. Some were active Israeli military; some failed polygraph questions when asked about surveillance activities in the US. It may be that there is no reason to believe that Israel was involved in the 11 September attacks, but investigators are leaving open the possibility that Israeli Intelligence might have gathered information about the attacks that was not shared with the US. A highly-placed investigator said there are "tie-ins", but refused to elaborate, saying that evidence linking detained Israelis to 11 September is classified.

Numerous classified documents obtained by Fox news indicate that even prior to 11 September, more than 140 Israelis had been arrested in a secret and extensive investigation into suspected espionage by Israelis in the US. The documents reveal that investigators from numerous government agencies are part of a working group that has been compiling evidence on Israeli espionage since the mid-1990s. These documents detail hundreds of incidents in cities and towns across the country that investigators say, "may well be an organised intelligence gathering activity."

Part of these investigations focus on a group of Israeli art students from the University of Jerusalem and Bazala Academy. The documents obtained by Fox news indicate that these students are thought to have "targeted and penetrated military bases." The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and dozens of government facilities may also have been breached, as well as "secret offices" and the unlisted private homes of law enforcement and intelligence personnel. The documents show that the majority of suspects questioned stated they had served in military intelligence and were familiar with electronic surveillance intercepts and explosive ordinance units.

Another part of the investigation has resulted in the detention and arrests of dozens of Israelis selling toys at American mall kiosks. The detentions were reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post last month and the carts vanished.

Yet another report focuses on the Israeli-based private communications company, Amdocs, where a number of those 60 detained suspects worked. Most directory assistance calls and virtually all call records and billing in the US are done for the telephone companies by Amdocs Ltd, which has contracts with the 25 largest phone companies in the US -- and more worldwide. It is virtually impossible to make a call on a land line without generating an Amdocs record. Through Amdocs, it would be possible to keep ahead of investigators by knowing who they are calling.

In 1999, the Maryland-headquartered National Security Agency issued a top-secret report warning that records of calls in the United States were ending up in foreign hands -- Israel, in particular. Investigators do not believe calls are being bugged, but the data about who is calling whom and when is very valuable in itself.

One well-known spy scandal centred on foreign intelligence penetrating the Clinton White House in early 1997. The story re-emerged in late 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky tapes indicated that President Clinton had told her that their private telephone conversations are "monitored" by a foreign embassy. It is stunning that the president of the only superpower knows that he is being spied on without taking any measures either to declare it or stop it. This in itself speaks volumes about the nature of Clinton's relationship with Israel. The story returned yet again in May 2000, when it was claimed that Israeli telecommunications companies had penetrated the White House communications system. The companies named were the leading Israeli telecommunications company, Telrad, and -- you guessed it -- Amdocs.

Perhaps the more interesting thing about all of these Israeli espionage cases is the reaction of the media, which seems to be complicit in the suppression of this information. Stories run on Fox about Israeli espionage have even been taken off the network's Web site. Carl Cameron, the investigative reporter who broke the story, is nearly losing his mind. On a C-span television programme, he lamented: "The biggest story of our time, of Israel spying on all branches of the government, on all our intelligence agencies -- in the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], the DEA and the White House itself, is not picked up by the leading newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post." Buried. Gone.

But this is not the first time that stories of Israeli spying on the US have been buried. In her excellent, brief and unparalleled study entitled "Spy, Steal and Smuggle," Claudia Wright detailed an unnerving record of Israel's spying on the US for years. This was in 1986, after the whole affair about Jonathan Pollard had erupted. Pollard, an American Jew, was convicted of spying for Israel.

In her report, Wright names names, incidents, history and contacts, in the most detailed and damning study of this subject so far. She also puts her finger on an important point: "To government investigators, who have been ordered by their superiors to drop or close cases involving Israel, the lesson of the Pollard case seemed to be that if the television cameras were invited to photograph the arrest, then there would have been a chance -- a slim one perhaps -- that a public prosecution and trial might result."

People forget that the whole essence of the Pollard case is that the guilty pleas ended any prospect of a trial and public exposure of the extent of the damage incurred by Pollard's espionage. Without a trial, Pollard's contacts in Israel and the high-ranking Americans who may have been involved in recruiting him -- and protecting him in his job at Navy intelligence -- remain unknown. A trial and subsequent media focus might even have led to the identification of "Mr X", an administration insider who is said to have given Pollard crucial information on where and how to find the ultra-secret information he provided the Israelis with.

Claudia Wright's words 16 years ago are even more relevant today: "Eight weeks after Pollard's arrest, the US media was preoccupied with Arab terrorism, not Israeli espionage, against America. The investigative reporters of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and other newspapers were reassigned, their stories unwritten or unpublished."

Espionage? What espionage?