There was a time, not long ago, that an unspoken truth was shared by the international community: All countries, even close allies, spy on one another.
This was especially true during the Cold War. The United States spied on Russia, but it also spied on France. The Soviet Union spied on the United States, but it also spied on East Germany. The information gained with this kind of espionage is one of the primary reasons the Cold War remained cold.
And then there was an unwritten rule among allies: Spying should be handled quietly and outside of public view. If the cloak-and-dagger game became public, it broke the omertà that governed international spies.
"If custom (in such matters) had been followed," one U.S. official told the Washington Post in 1995 when France publicly accused the United States of espionage, prompting the removal of an American diplomat, "the (French and American) intelligence agencies would have worked out a quiet accommodation."
However, Edward Snowden’s revelations threw this rationale (one that NSA defenders have tried to employ multiple times) out the window. Each instance of ally-on-ally spying has created a very public mini-scandal.
The latest comes from Israel. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel in an article dated August 3, during the failed nine-month peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli intelligence tapped Secretary of State John Kerry’s unencrypted phone some time last year. The magazine warned that the "[r]evelations of the eavesdropping could further damage already tense relations between the U.S. government and Israel."
A CIA spokesperson declined to comment on the new allegation, as did the State Department. However, according to an expert on the Middle East and a former CIA officer, this kind of spying should surprise no one.
"I can’t believe that John Kerry would be naive enough to think that Israel isn’t going to try to get … information," said Lindsay Moran, a former CIA clandestine service officer. "Everyone sort of knows the deal."
Daniel Kurtzer, who has been the U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, said: "It’s commonly known that when you’re using an open phone, the expectation is that someone is going to try to listen in on it. The secretary of state knows it. The Israelis know it," added Kurtzer, who now teaches Middle Eastern studies at Princeton.
"You have to speak personally or use secure communications on both ends. This is a non-story."
But in the post-Snowden world, it’s not. The former NSA contractor fundamentally broke the spy game: If matters of espionage, particularly among allies, were discovered, they were dealt with quietly. Now, such indiscretions are a very public mess. The media treats each new revelation of "friendly" spying as a potentially devastating blow to international relations.
In this case, it might just be that. Relations between Israel and the United States have hit a low. For nearly a year, Kerry and the White House have been repeatedly at odds with Jerusalem.
This might explain why Kerry’s efforts to mediate a peace deal were so feckless. His actions angered much of the Israeli political establishment, culminating with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding that the State Department not second-guess his actions. The Israeli media has also jabbed at Kerry, calling him everything from a "nebbish" to "embarrassing."
This revelation is just part of an ongoing cat-and-mouse espionage game. Documents leaked by Snowden showed that in 2009 the NSA spied on Ehud Barak, who was Israel’s defense minister; his chief of staff, Yoni Koren; and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Israelis have also been caught in the act, most notably when Jonathan Pollard was convicted for passing American intelligence to Israel.
Pollard’s release reportedly was part of an earlier peace deal circulated in April. That deal fell apart.
American-Israeli relations survived those scandals; it remains to be seen if they will survive this one. The incident shows just how much Snowden has flipped the plot: Espionage among friends now has the potential to damage even the strongest of alliances.
"All of the hullabaloo after Snowden, to me it seems like it’s blown out of proportion," Moran said. "I don’t think the Snowden revelations should have been a huge surprise to our allies. Any intelligence service would be foolish not to try to obtain as much secret info as they can."
"If we have a well-placed source," Moran added, "we would be foolish not to use it."