US spy planes reveal Israel's secrets

Mid-East ally is subject to secret surveillance, reports Robert Fisk in Washington
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The Independent Online
A United States Awacs electronic intelligence gathering aircraft flies up the Israeli-border with Jordan every day, "hoovering-up" the radio traffic of its closest Middle East ally. Washington says nothing about the flights - nor their purpose: to spy on the Israeli army and air force, to find out if their public statements on violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their bombing raids on Lebanon accord with the Israeli military communications swept by the US air crews flying out of Saudi Arabia.

Hebrew-speaking crewmen even record the radio traffic of Israeli army units inside the occupied West Bank, noting the exact words of Israeli commanders when they report on confrontations with Palestinian stone-throwers - as well as air-to-air communication by Israeli pilots flying bombing or reconnaissance flights over Lebanon. Full reports of the Israeli radio traffic are routinely forwarded to Washington.

The existence of the Airborne Warning and Control System (Awacs) flights is known to Israel, although US officials have hitherto suggested that their mission is to monitor Iraqi and Jordanian military communications rather than Israeli forces. Israeli intelligence operatives, however, have long been aware that the United States military-trained Hebrew speakers at its language school at Fort Meade, Maryland.

So nervous were the Americans that Israel might object to its spy-flights - a sure sign of the fear of the powerful Israel lobby - that Hebrew courses at Fort Meade were originally referred to as "Special Arabic."

Hebrew is now taught openly to Awacs crews at the Defense Languages Institute at Monterey, California, which also employs around 100 Arab scholars from Lebanon, Syria and the Gulf, as well as Iraq.

The Awacs missions have been in operation along the Israeli border for at least 12 years; former crewmen say that Israel's military communications have been monitored ever since Israeli aircraft attacked the USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering vessel that was bombed on 8 June 1967, as it listened to Israeli radio traffic off the Egyptian coast at the height of the Six Day War. The Israelis killed 34 American sailors and wounded another 171 in the attack.

The Israeli assault - described by their then military commander Yitzhak Rabin as a "mistake" - left the US navy deeply suspicious of Israel's motives and intentions in the Middle East. The Liberty, according to intelligence officials in Washington, was listening in to Israel's strategic weapons site in the Negev desert in an attempt to predict whether it would launch nuclear strikes against Egypt.

But Israel probably does not need to worry too much about America's eavesdropping. "The USS Liberty incident was never far from our minds," a former Awacs linguist - who flew out of the US-built airbase at Dhahran - told The Independent. "We listened to everything that came out of Israel, just hoovered them up. We would listen to their radio messages from individual Israeli units on the streets of Nablus or Gaza. And we'd hear them say that they'd killed a Palestinian during a riot - even though the Israelis would say officially that they didn't kill anyone. We reported all this back to Washington. Then, after a while, we found that Washington didn't want this information. We realised we were wasting our time. The information wasn't used."

According to the same source, US Awacs monitors taped all Israeli radio traffic during the 1986 Palestinian intifada. "Our linguists had a bonanza," he said. "The Israelis would say they hadn't killed anyone but we would have heard them say `three dead'. They were lying publicly. We'd turn round Gaza and then go north up the Jordanian border and then turn back south-east again. We were even listening to the Israeli navy."

The Awacs missions have not always been welcomed by the Saudis. Even before the 1991 Gulf War, the Saudis would refuse permission - without reason - for the Awacs to take off. US monitors flew on super-secret RC- 135 reconnaissance missions during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and some quickly learned that their government had long-term ambitions to base intelligence-gathering operations in Saudi Arabia. A US Air Force colonel told one Awacs monitor in October of 1990 that "we've been trying for years to establish a base here, and now that we're here we're not leaving until they physically throw us out."

Last year, a bomb attack on a US base in Dhahran left 19 American servicemen dead and another 500 wounded. The Saudis themselves bought an RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, sending its crew for training at Greenville, Texas.

"Because most of the airplane was filled with Arabic linguists, and we had the capability to intercept communications from quite a distance, it was almost hopeless trying to convince them [the Saudis] that we would not be listening to `host country' communications," the former Awacs crew member said. The Saudi government did in fact let us fly a few missions over their country during the Iran-Iraq war, but each one involved an incredible amount of diplomatic wrangling, and we never knew until the day of the mission whether or not we were going to be able to take off."