It didn’t take long for the United States to distance itself from Israel’s Jan. 28 drone attack on an Iranian weapons factory in the city of Isfahan. Just a few hours later, U.S. officials leaked to the New York Times that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had carried out the strike, making sure to stress the Biden administration had no involvement whatsoever.
By contrast, Israel still hasn’t taken credit for the attack. According to former intelligence officials in both countries, the apparent urgency with which the Americans fingered Israel, plus several other Iran-related developments, points to renewed tensions between the CIA and Mossad over Biden administration efforts to revive the 2015 Iran’s nuclear deal, even as the two countries hold joint military exercises meant to warn Tehran not to develop a nuclear weapon.
The episode sheds fresh light on the close but contradictory ties between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, one of the most complicated relationships in the shadowy world of international espionage. On one hand, Mossad and CIA officers share intelligence and even coordinate some field operations, reflecting Israel’s status as a close and trusted U.S. ally. At the same time, the two spy services disagree sharply over Iran’s intentions. And despite fervent Israeli denials, former U.S. officials say the Mossad still runs aggressive intelligence-gathering operations in the United States that present thorny political challenges for U.S. officials.
“It can be a very valuable relationship,” a former senior CIA official told SpyTalk on condition of anonymity, citing the extensive network of spies the Mossad maintains across the Middle East and its intelligence-sharing arrangement with the CIA. To illustrate, he recalled a high-level meeting in 2007 with Mossad officials at CIA headquarters in Virginia. There, the U.S. agency’s leadership learned for the first time that Syria had secretly built a nuclear reactor capable of producing the fuel needed for a nuclear weapon.
“They came to the United States with the information and with photographs and laid it all out for us. We sat there with our eyes incredibly wide-open because that was something we knew nothing about until they brought it to our attention,” the former senior official said with an embarrassed laugh. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Soon after the briefing, Israeli warplanes bombed and destroyed the reactor.
The Mossad also reportedly tipped off the CIA on the Damascus hideout of Hezbollah’s military mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and diplomats in two Beirut bombings in 1983, as well as scores of Israelis in Lebanon and Argentina. The two agencies teamed up and killed Mughniyeh in 2008 with a bomb concealed inside the spare wheel of an SUV as he walked by.
But even though the Mossad and the CIA have worked as partners, “that foreign partner also can be collecting against us,” the senior CIA official added. “So there can be value in a relationship, but there are always counterintelligence concerns as well.”
Indeed, former U.S. intelligence officials say the Mossad still ranks among the most active foreign intelligence services operating in the United States, where it routinely seeks to recruit informants. The agency targets those who can provide political insight into where U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East is heading, as well as economic intelligence so Israel’s high-tech sector and defense industries can compete with their U.S. counterparts, the former officials say.
According to published reports, the Mossad’s stateside operations also include trying to lure U.S. political, military and business officials to deliver lectures or attend conferences in Israel, where local agents size up their vulnerabilities for recruitment. These local agents also have reportedly targeted CIA station chiefs in Israel, breaking into their Tel Aviv homes and tampering with the sensitive communication equipment they used to communicate with CIA headquarters in Virginia.
Israeli officials adamantly deny their agents spy on the United States. But former intelligence officials, as well as those who worked at the White House and State Department, say these denials are laughable. Still, most of these officials spoke on condition of anonymity, underscoring the political sensitivities involved in discussing Israel’s alleged espionage in the United States. Israel enjoys strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers have little tolerance for complaints about such a valuable U.S. ally.
Some U.S. officials are careful to emphasize that Israel’s espionage activities in the United States are no different than those of other friendly countries. “They’re all trying to collect intelligence here,” a former U.S. official said. “The Israelis are no different.” A 2007 NSA intelligence report pilfered by Edward Snowden named Israel a top espionage threat to the U.S.