Alleged Israeli Spying and Current Espionage Law

By Stephanie Rosendorf – Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article stating that Israel spied on the United States/Iran nuclear talks in order to undermine President Obama’s position with the Republican-led Congress. The story quoted statements from anonymous “current and former U.S. officials.” Apparently, the White House found out about the alleged spying “when U.S. intelligence officials agencies intercepted messages among Israeli officials containing details that U.S. officials believed could have come only from the top-secret negotiations.”

Unsurprisingly, Israeli officials have denied the charges of spying on United States officials, and say that they obtained the sensitive information through surveillance on Iran and some of the United States’ allies. In fact, a senior official in the Netanyahu administration has called the allegations of spying “patently false.”

While certainly serving as more evidence of the growing tension between the White House and the Israeli Prime Minister, it is important to consider the legality, or illegality, of international espionage. Although virtually every country in the world has domestic espionage laws, according to international law experts, there are no laws against foreign spying. With regard to foreign espionage law, Emily Crawford of Sydney University’s Centre for International Law has stated thatthe“closest you come to any kind of international recognition of espionage is in the Geneva Convention” but this “only applies in times of armed conflict.”

Should there be international laws that forbid spying on other countries? Although the United States was allegedly on the receiving side of the spying this time, it is no secret that the U.S. has spied on other countries that are considered its allies. In 2013, documents released by Edward Snowden showed, among other things, that the National Security Administration had gathered “70.3 million recordings [that] were made of private French phone conversations in just one month.”At that time, a similar leak was made that showed that the U.S. had also spied on the Mexican president.“‘This practice is unacceptable, illegitimate and contrary to Mexican law and international law,’ Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department said in a statement.”

However, some U.S. officials deem the practice of spying as necessary in order to ensure national security. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, stated that seeking to discern the aims of foreign heads of state has long been a “basic tenet” for US spy agencies. In fact, according to media leaks from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency has listened in on the communications of dozens of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Additional reports have claimed that the United States has also infiltrated the U.N. video-conferencing network to eavesdrop on diplomatic missions in New York. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention and other international accords, the United States is prohibited from conducting covert operations at the United Nations and its associated foreign missions.

So, overall, can the United States really be upset that the Israeli government (assuming the allegations are actually true) spied on the talks with Iran in order to further promote its national security? Actually, is this alleged spying even new? Some say that this act of spying on U.S. and Iran negotiations is actually pretty “small in the grand scheme of things” because Israeli spying on America is so widespread that U.S. officials have labeled it “alarming and terrifying.” Hopefully, in the weeks and months to come (as well as years), the American people, as well as the international community, will be able to uncover the facts to distinguish from the myths surrounding espionage both domestic and international in scope.




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