U.S. spies on Israel nukes, govt: official history

JERUSALEM Wed Dec 10, 2008 11:45am EST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States routinely spies on Israel to try to gather information on its assumed atomic arsenal and secret government deliberations, a new official history of Israel's intelligence services says.

While espionage by allies on their friends is not uncommon, it is rare that state-sponsored publications acknowledge it. Israeli-U.S. ties have been especially touchy in this regard since a U.S. Navy analyst, Jonathan Pollard, was jailed for life for treason in 1987 for passing classified documents to Israel.

According to "Masterpiece: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Israeli Intelligence," American spy agencies use technologies like electronic eavesdropping, and trained staff from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, for "methodical intelligence gathering."

"The United States has been after Israel's non-conventional capabilities and what goes on at the decision-making echelons," says the book in a chapter on counter-espionage written by Barak Ben-Zur, a retired Shin Bet internal security service officer.

Asked about the assertions, the U.S. embassy spokesman said only: "We don't comment on intelligence matters."

Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arms. Israeli officials refuse any comment on this under a longstanding "strategic ambiguity" policy.

While successive U.S. administrations have accepted this reticence, Israel's so-called "bomb in the basement" has been a worry for Washington -- especially during the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973, when fighting inflamed the wider Cold War.

Declassified Pentagon documents published in a 2004 book about then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimated that Israel had 80 nuclear warheads. Last May, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter put the number of Israeli bombs at around 150.

The issue has taken on new relevance recently given Western fears that Iran's nuclear program could have military designs -- despite denials by Tehran. Israel has vowed to prevent its arch-foe from getting the bomb, but some analysts believe Israel could instead build up an overt nuclear deterrence against Iran.

Contacted by Reuters, Ben-Zur declined to give operational details on how the United States might be spying on Israel. But he described such efforts as largely benign given the closeness of defense ties between Israel and the Bush administration.

"At the end of the day, the United States does not want to be surprised," he said. "Even by us."

Due out later this month, "Masterpiece" is published by the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center and includes prefaces by chiefs of Israel's military intelligence, the domestic Shin Bet and the Mossad spy service active abroad.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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