Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Is the United States Spilling Its Allies’ Secrets?

by Elliott Abrams
November 1, 2013


The news of the last few weeks has been filled with complaints that the United States is electronically spying not only on enemies but on allies as well. As I wrote in a previous blog post, if we have in fact targeted the cell phones of leaders of friends and allies, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, we should stop. Yes, the world is a dangerous place and gentlemen do read each others’ mail, but deliberately targeting the leader of an ally such as Germany is wrong and stupid. And especially so given the risk, these days, that such conduct will leak and damage important allied relationships.

Spying this way on allies is bad enough. Revealing their secrets to the press is even worse. Yet we have a pattern of doing this when it comes to Israel, and the most recent example came on October 31.

Earlier this past week a Syrian military base in Latakia was hit, and apparently an important quantity of missiles meant for delivery to Hezbollah were destroyed. There was speculation about the attack, including suggestions that Israel rather than Syrian rebels conducted it. But Israel remained mum, as it always does. It believes that its security is greatly enhanced by such silence, in part because bragging about these attacks might well humiliate Hezbollah or Assad and push them into some kind of retaliation. It is for this reason that Israel sought absolute American and Israeli official silence after its attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Indeed Israel still to this day, six years later, does not officially acknowledge that it conducted that attack. The United States remained silent about that attack until the danger of retaliation was thought to be gone.

But once again this week American officials told the press that Israel was responsible for an attack on Syria as soon as it occurred.

Here is the CNN story:

Israeli warplanes struck a military base near the Syrian port city of Latakia this week, an Obama administration official told CNN on Thursday. An explosion at a missile storage site in the area was reported in the Middle Eastern press, but an attack has not been confirmed by the Israeli government. The target, according to the Obama administration official, was missiles and related equipment the Israelis felt might be transferred to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. The official declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information.

U.S. officials did this as recently as July, as a New York Times story reported:

Israel carried out an air attack in Syria this month that targeted advanced antiship cruise missiles sold to the Syria government by Russia, American officials said Saturday. The officials, who declined to be identified because they were discussing intelligence reports, said the attack occurred July 5 near Latakia, Syria’s principal port city.

And we did it in May:

A series of powerful explosions rocked the outskirts of Damascus early Sunday morning, which Syrian state television said was the result of Israeli missile attacks on a Syrian military installation. If true, it would be the second Israeli airstrike in Syria in two days and the third this year…An American official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports, said the targeted shipment consisted of Iranian-made Fateh-110s

There is a pernicious pattern here, and other examples could be cited. Add this to the NSA revelations, and the United States seems to be aggressive in stealing the secrets of some close allies and aggressive in ignoring the interests of allies by conveying intelligence information to the press. The continuing leaks about what Israel has been doing are dangerous and damaging. Israel is acting where we are not, enforcing red lines when we have failed to do so, and assuming risks we have refused to take. We act as a poor ally if we repeatedly and indeed recklessly increase the risk to Israel by treating sensitive information as fodder for the press.

Post a Comment 20 Comments

  • Posted by David Wasser

    Why would the US want to expose Israel’s actions publicly like this? I can’t figure out a logical reason for it.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    There is no good reason. It seems to me carelessness—inattention to anyone’s interests but one’s own.

  • Posted by Aziz

    Type your comment in here…its a democracy as you always talk about. But u r against because it involved Isreal otherwise u wouldn’t care at all.
    You r more Israeli than them.
    U need to be balanced and logical.
    Lucky Israel to have one like u.

  • Posted by Bruce

    The argument is otiose: whether or not a US administration official spilt the beans, the media is bound to eventually discover that the Israelis did it. Now you wouldn’t have the media shut up just to advantage Israel, would you? If Israel does these things, it must expect them to surface. Doing stuff and not admitting it but to hatch chickens that will one day come home to roost, whether it’s a nuclear arsenal or striking Syrian sites or practicing cyberwarfare/assassination in Iran. If you don’t want it to come out, don’t do it. Also, Israel has so often embarrassed this American administration, maybe it’s now payback time.

  • Posted by Noga

    It’s hard to believe this is due to mere carelessness. It seems to be a direction, a wink/nudge sort of signal that intends to distance the US from Israel’s actions. It is one more dot joining the other dots that point to that intent.

  • Posted by Noga

    Bruce: Your argument challenges my understanding that a leak from the inner circles of the US administration is by no means the same as a media research and conjecture information. Abrams was speaking about a leak from an authoritative source in the administration. There is nothing in what he says the implies a will to suppress media freedom. How come you are conflating the two? Are they interchangeable in your mind?

  • Posted by Enzo Nahum

    Call me paranoid, but with Obama’s track record I feel authorized to speculate that It was his and his administration’s cronies deliberate intention to damage Israel and send it a stern warning not to interfere with his appeasement talks with Syria.
    I beg to differ from Mr. Abrams generous contention that”… It seems to me carelessness—inattention to anyone’s interests but one’s own…”. Obama is malicious and vengeful. He cannot abide with the fact that Israel wants freedom of action and is not a vassall of the Obama’s administration. Remember when his officials leaked to various media outlets that Israel was preparing to strike Iran, that the attack would be carried out from Kazakhstan etc? Were these also product of carelessness? Certainly not, they were just malicious actions to tie the hands of Israel’s government.

  • Posted by Grandpa

    Enzo has it right.It’sdeliberate. Wake up people-he’s not Israel’s friend-Just the opposite.

  • Posted by George Weiss

    I agree with Enzo Nahum that the US is deliberately trying to damage Israel’s ability to act. However, it will backfire when Isrel ahs to decide about Iran. They will try to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities. This will embroil the US and the entire region, including the Arab gulf states. Why is the US doing this. Because our foreigh n policy is misled by people who do not know the Middle East and think everyone has good intentions if only given the chance.

  • Posted by Marc

    There is another possibility that CNN never really spoke to a White House official. It could have been conjured up by CNN. By saying that they were quoting a White House official, it deflects CNN making it up.

  • Posted by Nursecrd

    For those of you who have not figured it out, the BHO regime is the regime of liars and hypocrites. BHO talks out of one side of his mouth telling everyone that he supports Israel and in the next breath, stabs Israel in the back by his actions.

    BHO is not to be trusted. He is a disgusting liar. How America could have elected such a loser is beyond me. I am ashamed of being an American when we have such a jackass for president!!!

  • Posted by Richard Zuker

    If obama is israel’s ally how would he behave if it were an enemy
    Israel is going to soon have to tell americans that it will not deal with the us until obama is gone.
    Type your comment in here…

  • Posted by Arline Mathews

    It is all conjecture, we will never know why this and other leaks occured, however it remains seious anfd uncalled for.

    I suspect that it has to do with a balancing act thet we attempt to play, which is to do what the Saudi’s and the oil rich Persion Gulf nations want, and at the same time purport to be a friend of Israel.

    THe Israel’s were kind enough to shere their secrets with us as regards a system that intercept missiles while in mid air, which gave us a bit more security when we were being threatened by No. Korea. I understand, but don’t know for sure, that the secrets were then disclosed to others. Israel is treated like Cinderella the Step child.

  • Posted by Tozer

    The goal is to court the radical Muslim world and show them that the US can easily ditch Israel if it cooperates. What Obama is too arrogant to see is that the Persians see such “friendship” as being something it doesn’t need. Every time Israel is thrown under the bus America loses credibility in the Arab and Muslim world. Who can trust such friends?

  • Posted by Judie

    Yet President Obama, as well as his predecessors, has refused to release Jonathan Pollard who actions caused no deaths but has served longer than anyone else convicted of a similar crime. In addition, Israel, under US pressure, has released Palestinians convicted of murdering civilians.
    What hypocrisy.

  • Posted by Raymond in DC

    Tozer writes, “The goal is to court the radical Muslim world and show them that the US can easily ditch Israel if it cooperates.”

    If that’s the case, it shows the administration doesn’t realize this sends a very different message. If the US doesn’t stand even with Israel, why should they expect the US will stand with *them*? Folks in the region see the US abandoned long-time ally Egypt, while Russia is standing firm with Syria. Who looks like a more reliable ally?

    So is the US simply incompetent and obtuse, or acting deliberately? Consider some alternative interpretations:

    Theory 1: The “It’s not us” strategy is intended to demonstrate lack of hostility toward Arab and Muslim lands. Thus they indirectly deflect blame toward Israel when they insist after a hit on an Iranian nuclear scientist, “It wasn’t us.”

    Theory 2: The US is intent on seeing political Islam win as an alternative to jihadist Islam. So they provoke Syria into responding to these attacks. Israel ramps up attacks on Assad’s military infrastructure (which the US refrained from doing directly). Assad falls. And the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies wins.

    Theory 3: The US wants to restrict Israeli freedom of action, first in Syria, as a warning against action against Iran. Rather than having Israel’s back, the US shows it’s willing to put the knife there – a taste of what they’ll do if Israel acts against Iran and undermines US willingness to do a deal – however bad for Israel – with Iran.

    Theory 4: Much of the US security team is indifferent if not hostile toward Israel, and blame Israel for undermining their larger objectives in the Arab and Muslim world. So they’re quite happy to give Israel a slap and damage its interests when they can.

    It’s easy to proffer such theories, since this is one of the least transparent and most naive foreign policy teams we’ve ever seen. WE don’t know what they’re doing because THEY don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

  • Posted by Rosanne Smithe

    The Obama administration desperately wants Syria to attack Israel.

    Once the war broadens, guess who gets the blame.

  • Posted by Ruedi

    yes ! US are spilling secrets. US are not reliable , they always work in their own interests. (the same they did in the 2ND WW.) To freely on a big brother for protection is the greatest mistake for a small state !!!!!!!

  • Posted by David

    One possibility is that Obama and his organization have an agenda, one part of that being to destroy the U.S.A.’s military and nonmilitary relationships with current Allies. Such an agenda would also further distance the U.S.A. from new alliances or understandings with other countries.

    One other possibility is that Obama and his group don’t think any country other than the U.S.A. should use military force against another country and so they are punishing Israel by “Telling on them”.

    Take your pick or dream something up. I would like to read other scenarios. One of them has to be right.

  • Posted by ricardo

    We have a powerful recent history of acting imperiously “for the good of democracy”. Obama has “liberated” Libya & Egypt, and before him Bush the Boozer had done the same for Iraq & Afghanistan. You can see how many tens of thousands have been killed, and millions displaced, all to satisfy our determination to run the world according to the misplaced visions of our feckless leaders.

    Obama in particular has shown a clear animus toward Israel & Jews since long before he was in public office. He now is forced for political reasons to pretend this is not so, but the results of his hostility show up in various policy streams as he subtly continues his long-held prejudice. And his virulent biases then encourage other countries to act with considerable venom toward Israel. See Turkey, for example.

    Since the US population is largely – and justifiably – pro-Israel, Obama has been careful to pretend that he’s “got Israel’s back”. But he has emplaced a team of anti-Israel types in many of the critical foreign policy positions, and they are all working in many different ways to harm Israel. The tragic irony is that the US is losing power, much as did Britain after World War I. But by the time we are fully aware and understanding of how impotent we have become, team Obama could have done tremendous harm to Israel and other of our allies. Just wait until Iran has the bomb, and see how that affects US Middle East postures.

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