In the search for hostages, U.S. is Israel’s key intelligence partner

In World


The daring and deadly hostage rescue that Israeli military forces mounted in Gaza last Saturday relied on a massive intelligence-gathering operation in which the United States has been Israel’s most important partner.

Since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, the United States has ramped up intelligence collection on the militant group in Gaza and is sharing an extraordinary amount of drone footage, satellite imagery, communications intercepts and data analysis using advanced software, some of it powered by artificial intelligence, according to current and former U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials.

The result is an intelligence-sharing partnership of rare volume, even for two countries that have historically worked together on areas of mutual concern, including counterterrorism and preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

In interviews, Israeli officials said they were grateful for the U.S. assistance, which in some cases has given the Israelis unique capabilities they lacked before Hamas’s surprise cross-border attacks. But they also were defensive about their own spying prowess, insisting that the United States was, for the most part, not giving them anything they couldn’t obtain themselves. That position can be hard to square with the obvious failures of the Israeli intelligence apparatus to detect and respond to the warning signs of Hamas’s planning.

The U.S.-Israel partnership is, at times, tense. Some U.S. officials have been frustrated by Israel’s demand for more intelligence, which they said is insatiable and occasionally relies on flawed assumptions that the United States might be holding back some information.

In a briefing with reporters at the White House last month, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington “has provided an intense range of assets and capabilities and expertise.” Responding to a May 11 Washington Post report, Sullivan said that the intelligence is “not tied or conditioned on anything else. It is not limited. We are not holding anything back. We are providing every asset, every tool, every capability,” Sullivan said.

Other officials, including lawmakers on Capitol Hill, worry that intelligence the United States provides could be making its way into the repositories of data that Israeli military forces use to conduct airstrikes or other military operations, and that Washington has no effective means of monitoring how Israel uses the U.S. information.

The Biden administration has forbidden Israel from using any U.S.-supplied intelligence to target regular Hamas fighters in military operations. The intelligence is only to be used for locating the hostages, eight of whom have U.S. citizenship, as well as the top leadership of Hamas — including Yehiya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the Oct. 7 attacks, and Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing. The State Department in 2015 designated both men as terrorists. Three of the eight U.S. hostages have been confirmed dead, and their bodies are still being held in Gaza, according to Israeli officials.

This article is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former U.S. and Israeli officials in Washington, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Most of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence operations.

The United States provided some of the intelligence used to locate and eventually rescue four Israeli hostages last week, The Post has reported. The information, which included overhead imagery, appears to have been secondary to what Israel collected on its own ahead of the operation, which resulted in the deaths of more than 270 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, making it one of the deadliest single events in the eight-month-old war.

Before the Oct. 7 attacks, the U.S. intelligence community did not consider Hamas a priority target, current and former officials said. That changed almost immediately following the group’s attacks on Israel, which killed more than 1,200 civilians and soldiers and netted upward of 250 hostages.

Personnel from the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) began working alongside CIA officers in the agency’s station in Israel, according to U.S. officials. And personnel from the Defense Intelligence Agency began meeting with their counterparts in the country “on a daily basis,” one U.S. official said.

The State Department also sent a special hostage envoy who met publicly with Israel’s lead official overseeing hostage rescue efforts. FBI agents also are working in Israel to investigate Hamas attacks on U.S. citizens and assisting in hostage recovery efforts.

In the first weeks of the war, Israeli officials in charge of locating the hostages in the densely populated Gaza Strip requested specific information from the United States to help bridge gaps in what they knew from their own sources, current and former U.S. and Israeli officials said. This included specific pieces of information, as well as technologies and expertise for analyzing large volumes of imagery and overlaying different images to create more detailed pictures, including in three dimensions, of the terrain in Gaza.

They provided some “capabilities to us that we never had before Oct. 7,” said one senior Israeli official, who declined to provide details. But a second senior Israeli official indicated that the United States has provided highly detailed satellite imagery that Israel lacks.

Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, stressed that U.S. forces did not participate in the mission to rescue the four hostages. “There were no U.S. forces, no U.S. boots on the ground involved in this operation. We did not participate militarily in this operation,” Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. He noted that “we have generally provided support to the [Israel Defense Forces] so that we can try to get all of the hostages home, including the American hostages who are still being held.”

In addition to intelligence, that support has consisted of members of JSOC, the elite Special Operations force which has deep experience in hostage rescues. Members of the group have been working in Israel, in partnership with U.S. intelligence officers, since shortly after the war began, U.S. officials said.

In October, JSOC forces in the region were prepared to deploy in Gaza to rescue U.S. citizens that Hamas was holding, said current and former U.S. officials familiar with planning for what would have been an exceptionally dangerous mission.

“If we managed to unilaterally get information that we could act on, and we thought we could actually get U.S. people out alive, we could act, but there was genuinely very little information specifically about U.S. hostages,” one official said.

The details of the rescue operation, which was prepared by members of JSOC based in Cyprus, were previously reported by journalist Jack Murphy on his Substack, “The High Side.”

Last week’s successful hostage rescue relied on precise information about the captives’ location. That level of “actionable” intelligence is something Israel has lacked for years in Gaza, owing to an overreliance on technology and a failure to build a network of human spies on the ground. The paucity of human intelligence, in part, was responsible for Israel’s failure to detect and understand Hamas’s planning for the Oct. 7 attacks, current and former officials in the country said.

Recent efforts to locate the hostages have underscored the importance of human intelligence. In May, Israeli forces recovered the remains of some hostages after the interrogation of a Hamas fighter, who pointed soldiers to their location, Israeli officials said. Interrogations of prisoners captured since the war began have become an important component of the overall intelligence picture, officials said.

Israeli intelligence analysts also have found useful pieces of intelligence among the servers, computers, cellphones, notebooks and other documents recovered from Hamas hideouts or command posts, officials said. U.S. analysts have helped mine those sources for clues about hostage whereabouts, they noted. One senior Israeli official said that the fusion of information obtained from electronic and physical records with other sources of intelligence has helped Israel locate hostages during two rescue operations that preceded the one last week.

Before the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel blanketed Gaza in electronic surveillance, in some cases monitoring Hamas members via their phones. “We were up on every toilet in Gaza. If you were sleeping with your wife, we heard you,” said a former senior Israeli intelligence official.

But the intelligence apparatus also became overly reliant on technology to collect intelligence, while analysis atrophied, current and former Israeli officials said. Historically, the role of the military’s much-celebrated Unit 8200 was to collect information and share it with other elements of the Israeli intelligence community, one current and one former member said. Experts with the unit added their own analysis and point of view. The former member said he regularly interacted with his colleagues from Mossad and Shin Bet, respectively responsible for intelligence and state security.

“This has changed in recent years,” said the former member, who served in a senior leadership position. Unit 8200 used to make decisions on who received which piece of information. Now, he said, it has made a priority of developing new technology and contributing its intelligence haul to what’s known as “the pool,” a repository from which other intelligence elements can take information.

Other current and former officials echoed this critique, saying that Israel’s electronic spies forgot how to do basic intelligence functions. The community was awash in data, but lacking in analysis of it. “The system became spoiled,” the former member said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the IDF called those criticisms “false” and said they “harm the war effort of service members, who have been working for the past [eight] months, in both near and far arenas, to assist the forces on the ground, in the air and at sea, and to protect the people of Israel.”

Compounding the problem, Israeli officials had locked onto a “conceptzia,or fundamental conception that Hamas was more interested in getting rich and ruling Gaza than attacking Israel. The term — coined after the disastrous intelligence failure to anticipate the surprise 1973 Yom Kippur War — has become a shorthand in Israeli security circles for the strategic failure to recognize the true nature of the threat Hamas posed. Officials ignored what, in hindsight, seem like obvious warning signs, including military training maneuvers by Hamas fighters that senior leaders dismissed because they didn’t comport to the overarching theory about the group’s intentions.

“We thought Hamas wouldn’t dare attack,” a former senior intelligence official said. The Oct. 7 attacks have shattered that idea and made Hamas a top priority for Israel, as well as its partners in the United States.

Any intelligence the United States provides, or gives Israel direct access to, is only to be used for hostage-location efforts and tracking down Hamas leadership, U.S. and Israeli officials said. Israel is prohibited from using any U.S. information for targeting regular Hamas members in any military operations, including airstrikes.

The rules for how the intelligence is provided and used are spelled out in long-standing formal arrangements that are scrutinized by lawyers in the U.S. intelligence community, as well as new directives from the White House following the Oct. 7 attacks.

But practically speaking, Israel is on its honor not to use U.S.-supplied intelligence for proscribed purposes, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence-sharing relationship said. Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has questioned how administration officials can be sure that Israel isn’t using the intelligence it receives as part of its military campaign against Hamas, which has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

Crow, an Army combat veteran, co-authored legislation enacted last year requiring the director of national intelligence to notify Congress if intelligence that the United States gave another country results in civilian casualties.

“Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu is pursuing a failed strategy in Gaza. The terrible civilian toll, famine, and lack of a coherent strategy are deeply concerning,” Crow said in a statement to The Post. “I will continue to conduct robust oversight to ensure intelligence sharing is in line with U.S. interests.”

Some officials noted that the information concerning possible hostage locations could also have a dual purpose: Hostages will be surrounded by Hamas fighters, who are guarding them and using them as human shields. Some officials worry that the United States doesn’t have sufficient oversight to ensure that Israel isn’t using hostage intelligence as de facto targeting information for those lower-level Hamas members.

Israeli agencies “are very careful not to use what the U.S. gives them operationally if that’s not allowed,” said one serving member of Unit 8200, the signals intelligence organization. “Intelligence sharing with the United States is very good. There are direct relationships at the working level, and it’s important to preserve them.”

Harris reported from Washington, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Missy Ryan and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.



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