The Cable

Dem Lawmaker Dismisses U.S. Warnings of Israeli Espionage

U.S. intelligence officials have a blunt warning for lawmakers, including California Democrat Brad Sherman: allowing Israelis to enter the United States without visas could make it easier for Jerusalem to spy on American soil. Sherman says Israel should be allowed into a visa waiver program anyway. 

"I support it," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in an interview. "And I'm knowledgeable about all the arguments on either side."

For years, Israel has requested entrance into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows the citizens of foreign nations to enter the United States and stay for 90 days without having to secure a visa at a U.S. consulate. The request had been held up due to a number of concerns, including statistics showing that Israel bars significant numbers of American -- especially those of Arab descent -- from entering the country.

But in recent months, members of the U.S. intelligence community have briefed lawmakers on a new concern: Israel's entrance into the program would exacerbate the ongoing problem of aggressive Israeli espionage in the U.S. According to Hill sources, the interagency briefings were led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in conjunction with the State Department and the Justice Department.

Sherman, who attended a classified briefing on the subject, said excluding Israel from the program due to espionage concerns made little sense.

"America spies on just about everybody," he said. "And we have counter-espionage folks who operate on the assumption that everybody's trying to spy on us."

He argued that barring countries from the visa program does little to prevent espionage because foreign spies could easily gain access to a tourist visa if needed. "I've gotten lots of briefings on lots of subjects, and certainly no one has convinced me that the Paraguayan intelligence service would have any difficulty getting a tourist visa for one of its operatives," he said, using the South American country as an arbitrary example.

Arab-American groups, who've long argued that Israel shouldn't be allowed into the waiver program because of allegedly discriminatory visa policies, consider the espionage concerns another reason not to support a visa waiver exemption bill.

"I think Congressman Sherman is completely out of touch with other policymakers, his constituents and our own State Department," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. 

Sherman said he's unsurprised by criticisms of his position -- adding that he's received attacks that he places Israeli interests over American ones before -- a charge he denies. 

"There are anti-Israel people out there and anti-Semites out there who say Brad Sherman is Jewish so we shouldn't trust him," said Sherman. "I've dedicated the last 18 years of my life at least to American security and that'll never be good enough for the anti-Semites."

Word of the U.S. concerns about Israeli spying efforts burst into the public view in recent weeks following dueling reports in Roll Call and Newsweek. "No other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do," read the report. The stories cited renewed concerns about the snooping, especially in the area of industrial espionage.

Israel has rejected those accusations. "As former head of (Israeli military) intelligence, I wasn't allowed to spy in the United States whatsoever," said Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon during a press conference on Thursday. "And as defense minister I don't allow to spy in the United States whatsoever."

Besides Sherman, other supporters of an Israeli visa waiver have kept quiet about whether the espionage warnings have changed their positions on the legislation.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), a co-sponsor of Sherman's Visa Waiver for Israel Act, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who authored a non-binding resolution in support of Israel's entrance into the program last year, also did not respond to requests for comment. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a vocal supporter of adding Israel to the list, also refused to weigh in.

In the House of Representatives, the committee with jurisdiction over the Israel waiver issue is the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Goodlatte declined to weigh in on the subject of spying, despite the fact that he's been briefed by officials on the topic, but said he remained opposed to carving out an exemption for Israel until it gets into compliance with U.S. immigration rules. "Once Israel satisfies these requirements, I would warmly welcome their participation in the program, so that we can further bolster the strong relationship between our countries," he said in a statement.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, is poised to take up the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, a legislative grab bag of pro-Israel provisions, but it remains unclear if the bill's final language will admit the Jewish state into the visa waiver program, a move that would anger prominent U.S. Islamic groups.

"If Congress does not drop its proposed Israel visa waiver exemption it will affirm Israel's treatment of U.S. Muslims and Arabs as second-class citizens," Robert McCaw, the government affairs manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.

Getty Images

The Cable

It's Not the Cold War Yet

You could be forgiven for thinking the Cold War has returned with a vengeance, what with the United States imposing sanctions on Moscow and big-power envoys like Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, regularly hurling Syria- and Ukraine-related insults at each other across the horseshoe-shaped U.N. Security Council table.

But while the United States has suspended some military-to-military cooperation exercises with Russia and has threatened to take steps designed to further isolate Moscow on the world stage, the former superpower rivals are finding ways to get along, working together to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorism from Tehran to Tashkent and collaborating on an international campaign to halt mass atrocities in places like South Sudan. At the United Nations, said one senior U.N.-based diplomat, "it's business as usual" with the Russians. "They have not tried to be more of a pain than usual," he said.

In April, for instance, Russia led an effort to hold up a Western-backed plan to impose sanctions on former senior officials in the violence-stricken Central African Republic, raising concerns that Moscow might be retaliating against the West for its stance on Ukraine. But Moscow dropped its objections after receiving assurances from African governments that they backed the measure.

Barack Obama's administration and the government of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin are also continuing to cooperate on arguably the most important issue facing the United States and its top allies: Iran's nuclear program.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week that the ongoing talks designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis are difficult and have no guarantee of success, but stressed that Russia isn't holding up a deal, a point that was echoed by senior U.S. officials.

"Up to now, the difficulty we have with the Russians [over Ukraine] and so on have no bearing on the negotiations," Fabius told a small gathering of American reporters over croissants, fruit salad, and orange juice at the Sofitel hotel in Washington on Tuesday, May 13. "We are together."

The remarks came as the world's great powers entered talks this week in Vienna on the fate of Iran's nuclear program that would see the United States and other countries -- including Russia -- lift their crippling economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran dismantling large swaths of its nuclear infrastructure and curtailing its quest for a bomb.

Despite early reports that a deal might be in sight, Fabius and other Western diplomats cautioned that obstacles remain -- for instance, there is no agreement on the scale of Iran's acceptable enrichment capability -- and that considerable work is still required to guarantee that any final deal be implemented by Iran. Fabius said that the deal would need to include measures that ensure Iranian compliance, claiming that Iran and North Korea have previously backslid on pledges to scale back their nuclear programs. That would require that the International Atomic Energy Agency be given far greater scrutiny over Iran's nuclear program, he said, and that any easing of sanctions be reversible. "We don't want to be trapped," he said.

"I cannot make a forecast about the final outcome," he said. If there were an agreement, Fabius added, "it would be at the last moment."

Fabius did not detail precisely how Moscow was being helpful in the closed-door negotiations, but diplomats say that its decision not to do anything to undermine the talks has been helpful.

Western diplomats had expressed concerns that their confrontation with Russia over Ukraine might spill over into the Iran talks, complicating an already difficult negotiation process. For now, those worries have yet to materialize. Diplomats said they were pleased that Russia has been privately and publicly pressing both sides to close a deal. Before the talks began this week, Russia's chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, urged Tehran to be flexible, encouraging its leadership to grant the Iranian negotiating team, headed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, sufficient authority to close a deal. "We hope the leadership in Tehran has given the entire delegation … the instructions making it possible to move forward," he said.

The cooperation reflects the importance Washington, Moscow, and key European governments place on preventing their diplomatic rifts over Ukraine and Syria from spinning out of control and undermining efforts to manage more critical crises in places like Iran and North Korea, where their interests more closely align. "There is tension and damage to the U.S.-Russian dialogue in a lot of areas but on some of the core issues they continue to cooperate," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "Preventing a nuclear-armed Iran by means of a comprehensive diplomatic deal is fundamentally in Russia's interest, too. They are not going to lash out at the United States in ways that fundamentally harm their interests."

Russia's cooperation on Iran, however, does not extend to Ukraine and Syria, issues on which Russia has shown no signs of reversing its annexation of Crimea and remains firmly in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's camp. If anything, Russia has grown "more adamantly pro-Syrian than they ever have been," said one senior U.N. diplomat, noting that Moscow remains committed to preventing the West from imposing penalties on the Assad regime for blocking humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians.

U.S. and other Western diplomats are carefully examining Russia's diplomatic behavior for signs that the diplomatic damage may spread. One European diplomat noted that his government is conducting a study to determine how much damage Russia could inflict on the international political and diplomatic system if it decided to resort to the kind of blocking diplomatic tactics it deployed during the Cold War, a period marked by diplomatic paralysis at the United Nations.

In recent years, U.S. and Russian diplomats have overcome their differences to work together to resolve a wide range of problems that threaten their interests, including combating piracy in Africa, countering Islamic extremists -- including al Qaeda and the Taliban -- from Afghanistan to Mali to Syria, and putting out smaller-scale brush fires across the African continent. They have proved adept at absorbing the blows wrought by big-power clashes over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Russia's conquest of two Georgian provinces, and its latest meddling in Ukraine, where it has annexed the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea and stirred up unrest in eastern Ukraine.

"The striking thing about the Security Council in the post-Cold War period is that you have these blowups, and the council, by necessity, moves on," said David Bosco, the author of a book on the U.N. Security Council and a Foreign Policy columnist. "I think council members have gotten quite good at compartmentalizing."

Still, Bosco said that Russia, which has the power to veto Security Council actions, retains considerable power to undermine U.S.-backed initiatives at the United Nations. "If they decide to move this up a notch, they could get in the way of an awful lot of stuff that the council does without seriously damaging their own interests," he said.

But Moscow would pay a heavy price if it tried to bring the international organization to its knees, not least because its power at the United Nations serves Russian interests. As one of five Security Council members with veto power, Russia exercises enormous influence over the U.N.'s role in managing the world's political crises. For instance, Russian companies dominate the U.N.'s $1 billion-a-year commercial aircraft leasing business, supplying U.N. peacekeeping missions with transport planes and helicopters. Shutting down U.N. peace operations would dry up those contracts. It would also alienate key constituencies, particularly African governments, that are keen to see an active U.N. peacekeeping role.

If Russia were looking to play the role of diplomatic spoiler, Africa provides a variety of potential targets. The United States and France are currently spearheading efforts in the U.N. Security Council to confront mass atrocities in several countries in Africa, including in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Russia has also expressed disagreement with U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on South Sudan's warring parties. Speaking at a May 2 Security Council meeting on South Sudan, a senior Russian diplomat, Alexander Pankin, blasted Washington for coddling the pro-Western government in South Sudan, even as it engaged in wide-scale atrocities. He also dismissed calls by U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, to impose sanctions on South Sudanese combatants, saying the measures "never have been an effective instrument for achieving political settlements to conflicts."

"We must note that the current events in South Sudan are just the latest sad result of the fanciful scheming of Juba's main partners, who have sought to hide the truth and cover up for their stooges," he said.

Despite the tough rhetoric, U.N. Security Council diplomats say that Russia has actually been open to considering Western and African proposals to send more peacekeepers to South Sudan and to rewrite the U.N.'s mandate so it can focus its energies more on protecting civilians than supporting the South Sudanese government's institutions. "I don't want to fixate on sanctions; there is a great deal of unanimity," said one council diplomat. "I don't think there are any major divisions."

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images