Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points" here.
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 Syrian President Bashar 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 storyreported: "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 National Security Agency 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.
From "Pressure Points" by Elliott Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.