WASHINGTON — The CIA station chief opened the locked box containing the sensitive equipment he used from his home in Tel Aviv, Israel, to communicate with CIA headquarters in Virginia, only to find that someone had tampered with it. He sent word to his superiors about the break-in.
The incident, described by three former senior U.S. intelligence officials, might have been dismissed as just another cloak-and-dagger incident in the world of international espionage, except that the same thing had happened to the previous station chief in Israel.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that, even in a country friendly to the United States, the CIA was itself being watched.
In a separate episode, according to another two former U.S. officials, a CIA officer in Israel came home to find the food in the refrigerator had been rearranged. In all the cases, the U.S. government believes Israel's security services were responsible.
Such meddling underscores what is widely known but rarely discussed outside intelligence circles: Despite inarguable ties between the U.S. and its closest ally in the Middle East and despite statements from U.S. politicians trumpeting the friendship, U.S. national security officials consider Israel to be, at times, a frustrating ally and a genuine counterintelligence threat.
In addition to what the former U.S. officials described as intrusions in homes in the past decade, Israel has been implicated in U.S. criminal espionage cases and disciplinary proceedings against CIA officers and blamed in the presumed death of an important spy in Syria for the CIA during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency's Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East, according to current and former officials. Counterintelligence is the art of protecting national secrets from spies. This means the CIA believes that U.S. national secrets are safer from other Middle Eastern governments than from Israel.
Israel employs highly sophisticated, professional spy services that rival American agencies in technical capability and recruiting human sources. Unlike Iran or Syria, for example, Israel as a steadfast U.S. ally enjoys access to the highest levels of the U.S. government in military and intelligence circles.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the sensitive intelligence and diplomatic issues between the two countries.
The counterintelligence worries continue even as the U.S. relationship with Israel features close cooperation on intelligence programs that reportedly included the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked computers in Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities. While the alliance is central to the U.S. approach in the Middle East, there is room for intense disagreement, especially in the diplomatic turmoil over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"It's a complicated relationship," said Joseph Wippl, a former senior CIA clandestine officer and head of the agency's office of congressional affairs. "They have their interests. We have our interests. For the U.S., it's a balancing act."
The way Washington characterizes its relationship with Israel is also important to the way the U.S. is regarded by the rest of the world, particularly Muslim countries.
U.S. political praise has reached a crescendo ahead of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's scheduled meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Their relationship spans decades, since their brief overlap in the 1970s at the Boston Consulting Group. Both worked as advisers for the firm early in their careers before Romney co-founded his own private-equity firm. Romney said in a speech this past week that Israel was "one of our fondest friends," and he criticized Obama for what he called the administration's "shabby treatment" of the Jewish state.
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