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.