A report from Spiegel Online says that calls made by US Secretary of State John Kerry last year during the Middle East peace talks were intercepted by Israeli intelligence and at least one other intelligence service. The calls were not made on encrypted equipment, but rather ordinary phones using regular satellite communications.
SPIEGEL has learned from reliable sources that Israeli intelligence eavesdropped on US Secretary of State John Kerry during Middle East peace negotiations. In addition to the Israelis, at least one other intelligence service also listened in as Kerry mediated last year between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states, several intelligence service sources told SPIEGEL. Revelations of the eavesdropping could further damage already tense relations between the US government and Israel.
During the peak stage of peace talks last year, Kerry spoke regularly with high-ranking negotiating partners in the Middle East. At the time, some of these calls were not made on encrypted equipment, but instead on normal telephones, with the conversations transmitted by satellite. Intelligence agencies intercepted some of those calls. The government in Jerusalem then used the information obtained in international negotiations aiming to reach a diplomatic solution in the Middle East.
In the current Gaza conflict, the Israelis have massively criticized Kerry, with a few ministers indirectly calling on him to withdraw from peace talks. Both the US State Department and the Israeli authorities declined to comment.
Only one week ago, Kerry flew to Israel to mediate between the conflict parties, but the Israelis brusquely rejected a draft proposal for a cease-fire. The plan reportedly didn’t include any language demanding that Hamas abandon its rocket arsenal and destroy its tunnel system. Last year, Kerry undertook intensive diplomatic efforts to seek a solution in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but they ultimately failed. Since those talks, relations between Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been tense.
Anything noteworthy said by Kerry over a non-encrypted device would represent negligence on his part. That’s why I just can’t imagine those intercepts containing anything of real value. Perhaps the calls contained hints of Kerry’s state of mind, and maybe even his characterizations of some of the principles involved. But anything concrete, like revealing negotiating positions or fall back positions probably didn’t happen.
Still, the idea of an ally listening in to conversations by a high ranking American official is unsettling, if not surprising. The outrage over American spying on Germany, for instance, is a lot of hot air. To think that a foreign intelligence service, friend or foe, would forgo the opportunity to listen in to unencrypted phone conversations of a national leader is hard to imagine. Can you imagine a SIGINT agency of a foreign government saying “We can’t eavesdrop on these conversations from our ally because it would be unethical”?
Lord Palmerston famously said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” That may be taking realpolitik to its extreme, but its a valid concept up to a point. There’s a lot of information floating around out there and intel agencies wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t try to grab it.
As far as we know, Israel did not try to crack any of the encrypted calls Kerry made during his diplomacy. And it’s an open question what advantage, if any, Israel got by listening in to Kerry’s cellphone calls. The US government should complain about the breach but any protests should be pro forma.
It’s hard to see how this is a big deal, despite Spiegel’s efforts to make a splash.