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Sources and Methods: The Betrayal of an Intelligence Partner

Vanity Fair‘s Howard Blum has done an excellent, long form piece of journalism that finally shed’s light on exactly what the President did when he betrayed the Israelis and told Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak about their anti-ISIS intelligence mission.

The covert mission into the forbidden plains of northern Syria was a “blue and white” undertaking, as Israel, referring to the colors of its flag, calls ops that are carried out solely by agents of the Jewish state.

Yet—and this is an ironclad operational rule—getting agents in and then swiftly out of enemy territory under the protection of the nighttime darkness can be accomplished only if there is sufficient reconnaissance: the units need to know exactly where to strike, what to expect, what might be out there waiting for them in the shadows. For the mission last winter that targeted a cell of terrorist bombers, according to ABC News, citing American officials, the dangerous groundwork was done by an Israeli spy planted deep inside ISIS territory. Whether he was a double agent Israel had either turned or infiltrated into the ISIS cell, or whether he was simply a local who’d happened to stumble upon some provocative information he realized he could sell—those details remain locked in the secret history of the mission.

The sources agree, however, that the teams got in and out that night, and, even before the returning choppers landed back in Israel, it was confirmed to the jubilant operatives that the audio intercept was already up and running.

Now the waiting began. From an antenna-strewn base near the summit of the Golan Heights, on Israel’s border with Syria, listeners from Unit 8200 monitored the transmissions traveling across the ether from the target in northern Syria. Surveillance is a game played long, but after several wasted days 8200’s analysts were starting to suspect that their colleagues had been misinformed, possibly deliberately, by the source in the field. They were beginning to fear that all the risk had been taken without any genuine prospect of reward.

Then what they’d been waiting for was suddenly coming in loud and clear, according to Israeli sources familiar with the operation: it was, as a sullen spy official described it, “a primer in constructing a terror weapon.” With an unemotional precision, an ISIS soldier detailed how to turn a laptop computer into a terror weapon that could pass through airport security and be carried on board a passenger plane. ISIS had obtained a new way to cause airliners to explode suddenly, free-falling from the sky in flames. When the news of this frightening ISIS lecture arrived at Mossad’s headquarters outside Tel Aviv, officials quickly decided to share the field intelligence with their American counterparts. The urgency of the highly classified information trumped any security misgivings. Still, as one senior Israeli military official suggested, the Israeli decision was also egged on by a professional vanity: they wanted their partners in Washington to marvel at the sort of impossible missions they could pull off.

They did. It was a much-admired, as well as appreciated, gift—and it scared the living hell out of the American spymasters who received it.

I highly recommend you click over and read the whole thing, however, I’d like to highlight just one or two more of the important portions of Blum’s reporting. Back in January I wrote:

Last week Yediot Ahronot reported, now confirmed by Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post, that Israel’s Intelligence Community has itself been warned to be careful sharing and transferring information and intelligence with the White House during the next Administration.  Now the Sunday Times of London and The Guardian are reporting that our British allies are very, very concerned.

The concern is that any information and intelligence shared after the transition  will wind up with the Russians and the Russians would likely provide it to the Iranians (and the unspoken bit here for the Israelis is the Iranians would share it with the Syrians and Hezbullah). That this information quickly leaked from the Israelis is not an accident or a coincidence. It was intended to leak in order to provide the same message to our other allies and partners: that anything shared with the incoming Administration’s White House team may wind up with Russia. Through the Israeli leak the US’s other allies, partners, and clients have now been warned. This includes the other four members of the Five Eyes Intelligence alliance, the rest of our NATO allies, and other allies and partners. They have all been put on notice that the US Intelligence Community thinks that the incoming President, Vice President, their strategy, policy, and communication advisors, the incoming National Security Advisor and his deputies, and the rest of the incoming White House team cannot be trusted with classified information.

This means that the US will have its ability to see and hear seriously restricted starting next Friday. We won’t be blind, as we’ll still have our own capability, but our vision will be significantly dimmed and our hearing significantly dulled. This will make managing and mitigating the foreign, defense, and national security problem sets that we are currently facing, let alone the ability to anticipate future ones, much more difficult. And this includes the ongoing Russian active measures, influence, and cyber operations directed at us, at our allies, and at our partners.

We are off the looking glass and through the map.

Blum’s reporting confirms that what was reported in other sources in January was accurate, but he provides new and important details.

It was against this reassuring backdrop of recent successes and shared history, an Israeli source told Vanity Fair, that a small group of Mossad officers and other Israeli intelligence officials took their seats in a Langley conference room on a January morning just weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump. The meeting proceeded uneventfully; updates on a variety of ongoing classified operations were dutifully shared. It was only as the meeting was about to break up that an American spymaster solemnly announced there was one more thing: American intelligence agencies had come to believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump, he declared without offering further specifics, according to a report in the Israeli press. Israel, the American officials continued, should “be careful” after January 20—the date of Trump’s inauguration. It was possible that sensitive information shared with the White House and the National Security Council could be leaked to the Russians. A moment later the officials added what many of the Israelis had already deduced: it was reasonable to presume that the Kremlin would share some of what they learned with their ally Iran, Israel’s most dangerous adversary.

Currents of alarm and anger raced through those pres­ent at the meeting, says the Israeli source, but their superiors in Israel remained unconvinced—no supporting evidence, after all, had been provided—and chose to ignore the prognostication.

But it is Blum’s conclusion that is the real chilling peace of his reporting:

“Trump betrayed us,” said a senior Israeli military official bluntly, his voice stern with reproach. “And if we can’t trust him, then we’re going to have to do what is necessary on our own if our back is up against the wall with Iran.” Yet while appalled governments are now forced to rethink their tactics in future dealings with a wayward president, there is also the dismaying possibility that a more tangible, and more lethal, consequence has already occurred. “The Russians will undoubtedly try to figure out the source or the method of this information to make sure that it is not also collecting on their activities in Syria—and in trying to do that they could well disrupt the source,” said Michael Morell.

What, then, was the fate of Israel’s agent in Syria? Was the operative exfiltrated to safety? Has he gone to ground in enemy territory? Or was he hunted down and killed? One former Mossad officer with knowledge of the operation and its aftermath will not say. Except to add pointedly, “Whatever happened to him, it’s a hell of price to pay for a president’s mistake.”

We are off the looking glass and through the map!