World / November 2, 2023

Why Israel Slept

The long catalogue of intelligence failures that allowed Hamas to stage its brutal surprise attack on October 7 begins at The Venetian, Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas resort.

James Bamford
The Venetian resort in Las Vegas
Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nev. (Andia / Universal Images Group via Getty)

A future film about Israel’s massive October 7 intelligence failure might be titled All Quiet on the Gaza Front. For months if not years, members of Hamas had covertly plotted their breakout from Gaza, long referred to as Israel’s open-air prison for Palestinians. As if designed by Orwell and Kafka, Gaza subjects its 2.3 million inhabitants to endless surveillance of their voices, faces, and movements; they are trapped in a labyrinthine maze of fences, checkpoints, and humiliation. Pretending to accept their wrenched conditions as model prisoners, they lulled their Israeli overlords to focus their attention elsewhere.

“For more than a decade,” noted The Washington Post in 2021,

when analysts described the strategy utilized by Israel against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, they’ve used a metaphor: With their displays of overwhelming military strength, Israeli forces were “mowing the grass.” The phrase implies the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and their supply of crude but effective homemade weapons are like weeds that need to be cut back. Such tactics have faced significant criticism from international human rights groups, often due to the disproportionate number of deaths caused by Israeli forces, compared to those caused by Palestinian militants during conflict.

By 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was content that his military’s deadly rockets, assassination drones, and snipers were keeping the grass neatly mowed in Gaza. He therefore decided to turn his attention toward launching a new front in his war against the Palestinians. This one, however, would be covert. Its target: the growing numbers of noisy and irritating Americans who dared to protest his government’s brutal occupation.

The shift began behind closed doors in The Venetian Resort, a neon nirvana on the Las Vegas strip. In a back conference room not far from the imitation Italian gondolas and the faux St. Mark’s Square, attendees of the June 2015 conclave were instructed to avoid leaks. “All proceedings,” they were told, “shall remain strictly confidential.” The invitation warned that that they must agree “not to discuss the events of the conference with media before, during and after” the meeting. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Once the doors were closed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the gathering in a letter read by the host—and owner of the Venetian—multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson. “Greetings from Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said. “Delegitimization of Israel must be fought, and you are on the front lines,” he informed them, adding that “the Israeli government is committed to launching assertive and innovative programs and to joining you and many others around the world to combat the lies and slander that are leveled against us.” Ironically, despite the insistence on secrecy, details of the meeting quickly leaked to the newspaper The Forward and Netanyahu’s remarks were later released by the Israeli government.

Key targets of Netanyahu’s second front in the United States were the Americans taking part in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a dedicated and growing assortment of college students and human rights supporters scattered across the country armed with Twitter followings as bullhorns. Their goal: to rally the world to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until it ends its brutal, racist, and illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. The organization modeled itself after the successful worldwide nonviolent campaign against South African apartheid.

Among the movement’s supporters was the late South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, who along with Nelson Mandela had long battled the white apartheid government in Pretoria. During an emotional address and press conference in Boston in 2007, Tutu called Israel “worse” than South African apartheid in some respects, including the illegal use of “collective punishment” of Palestinians. He also criticized the government for its brutality and its “gross violation of human rights.” Mandela was likewise outraged by Israeli apartheid—as well as the country’s key role in supporting South African apartheid and undermining the global boycott against it. “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” he said during an address in Pretoria at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

Netanyahu’s greatest fear was that as a result of the growing strength of the BDS movement, the American public would finally begin seeing Israel in the same light that many people in the rest of the world, and even in Israel, saw it: as a brutal apartheid state. The more Israel’s atrocities came to light, the more the BDS movement gained strength around the country. On the same weekend that Adelson’s secret task force was forming in Las Vegas, an Associated Press news article noted, “In boardrooms and campuses, on social media and in celebrity circles, momentum seems to be growing for a global pressure campaign on Israel. The atmosphere recalls the boycotts that helped demolish apartheid South Africa a quarter century ago…. Increasingly prominent is the so‑called ‘BDS’ (boycott-disinvestment-sanctions) movement, run by Palestinians and leftist activists from around the world.”

Hence Netanyahu’s move to counter the protesters with lots of money to buy political power in Washington to create laws making it a crime to boycott Israel. The group at the Venetian would make up what would become Adelson’s Army, a task force of Gulfstream warriors (since so many of them owned private jets). The objective was the launch of a political and psychological war targeting Americans on behalf of Israel.

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Before the night was over, the group had raised upwards of $50 million for Netanyahu’s war inside the United States; tens of millions more would covertly come from the Israeli government through a variety of hidden fronts and shell organizations. At the same time the Las Vegas gathering was taking place, Netanyahu was meeting with his top national security and intelligence officials. He told them they would receive at least $30 million from the government for the campaign, and with the help of Adelson’s group and others possibly as much as $900 million.

There was a reason the Adelson task force formally demanded pledges of secrecy before, during, and after the meeting. Once they closed the door at the Venetian, they opened the door to potential criminal prosecution as agents of a foreign power, a very serious offense punishable by up to a decade in prison. According to 18 USC § 951: “Whoever, other than a diplomatic or consular officer or attaché, acts in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Attorney General…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both…. For purposes of this section, the term ‘agent of a foreign government’ means an individual who agrees to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official.”

Yet that, in fact, was precisely what Netanyahu was proposing.

Within a few months, Netanyahu’s war began. Key Jewish donors in the United States were secretly approached with a proposal by Psy-Group, an Israeli psychological warfare firm with close connections to Mossad. Code-named “Project Butterfly,” the proposal outlined a clandestine operation within the “theater of action,” as the company referred to the United States. Its purpose was to damage specific Americans and US organizations associated with the boycott movement. It would develop ways to disrupt their activities, lead them to be falsely investigated by the authorities, and run a hidden media influence campaign against them.

According to its secret internal operations plan, Project Butterfly was aimed at “executing intelligence and influence efforts” against Americans by creating an “infrastructure for narrative warfare— alternative messaging and negative platforms.” In other words, by creating fake news outlets, phony Facebook personas and posts, and other forms of information warfare, Psy Group’s goal was to deliberately deceive the American public about Israel and its actions against the Palestinians.

To accomplish these goals, the group was seeking $2.5 million for the operation’s first year of a three-year plan and promised it would conduct its activities in utmost secrecy. All links to the donors would be hidden and none of the actions would be traceable to Jews or Israelis. The importance of the operation and its closeness to Netanyahu can be seen in Project Butterfly’s top officials. Among them was Netanyahu’s former deputy director of Mossad and director general of the Ministry of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, Ram Ben-Barak, who was the project’s strategic adviser. Comparing the effort against the American boycotters to “a war,” he said, “you don’t kill them but you do have to deal with them in other ways.”

Those “other ways” were outlined in the Project Butterfly operational plan: “The Butterfly initiative uses PSY’s proprietary intelligence-gathering and influence techniques to destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within,” it said, referring to the United States. In addition to spying on innocent Americans, the group created fake news outlets in an Orwellian effort to brand the nonviolent boycotters and their supporters as “terrorists.” According to Psy-Group’s Project Butterfly operations plan, the covert Israeli organization “achieved high-impact results against targeted individuals” while making sure its own activities are “not connected to Israel.”

The actions included efforts to destroy the reputations of students and faculty, subjecting people to unwarranted investigations, and charges of “persecution,” that is, endless phony accusations of “antisemitism,” as well as false and slanderous accounts provided to national cable and broadcast news organizations. Among the accomplishments, as outlined in the secret operations plan:

• Damage to target’s standing/reputation (bad reviews, fall in support, etc.)

• Cancellation or disruption of events

• Online and offline echoing of “persecution” by targets

• Inquiries/Investigations commenced

• Lawsuits filed/threats to sue

• Media coverage and masked PR (i.e., not attributable to us)

In charge of Netanyahu’s secret war in the United States was Gilad Erdan, then head of the highly secret Ministry of Strategic Affairs and now Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. His deputy was Sima Vaknin-Gil, a reserve brigadier general. In a talk to a group of Israeli-Americans in Washington, Vaknin-Gil outlined another high-tech spying tool Israel was secretly using to target Americans within the US. In her talk, she said that Israel was waging its covert war so that the “narrative in the world won’t be that Israel equals apartheid.” Thus, the ministry needed to quickly silence the growing boycott movement and its messengers, before what happened in apartheid South Africa happened to apartheid Israel.

To those ends, General Vaknin-Gil issued a stark warning. “In order to win,” she said, “we must use tricks and craftiness.” They would include threats, intimidation, harassment, covert influence operations, troll farms, fearmongering, blacklists, and espionage. The key was turning thousands of Americans into clandestine Israeli agents to spy on and carry out the operations against their fellow citizens. Secrecy, emphasized Vaknin-Gil, was therefore critical. “We are a different government working on a foreign soil, and we have to be very, very cautious,” she said.

Then she outlined plans to set up a sophisticated covert intelligence unit to spy on Americans involved in the boycott movement and take action against them. According to Vaknin-Gil: “Ambiguity is part of our guidelines, that’s why I’m not going to say anything too much about each one of the legs. The first one is intel, intelligence, or data, or information. What we’ve done is mapped and analyzed the whole [boycott] phenomena globally. Not just the United States, not just campuses, but…labor unions and churches. We started to establish a project called Israel Cyber Shield. This is actually a civil intelligence unit that collects, analyzes, and acts upon the activists in the BDS movement, of its people, organizations, or events. And we give it everything we collect. We are using the most sophisticated data system, intelligence system in the Israeli market.”

Israel Cyber Shield, therefore, was a clandestine Israeli intelligence organization designed to spy not just on American students but also Christian churchgoers and labor unionists. And it was the recipient of Israel’s massive intelligence resources. Once its targets were identified, according to Vaknin-Gil, the ministry then “acts upon” them using covert operations. Key was hiding all Israeli government links to the operation and its targeting of Americans.

Around the same time, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs budgeted another $570,000 to create a computer and smartphone application that would turn thousands of Americans into a robotic army of Israeli trolls. Assigned “missions” from troll headquarters near Tel Aviv, they would hide their links to Israel and launch online attacks against their US targets, including critics of Israel, boycott supporters, and human rights activists.

“Call it a human ‘botnet,’” said journalist Josh Nathan-Kazis in the The Forward, who reports that “it has thousands of mostly U.S.-based volunteers who can be directed from Israel into a social media swarm.” “We work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, consult with them and manage joint projects,” said Yarden Ben-Yosef, the head of the troll farm. “The same with the intelligence agencies,” he added. “We talk with each other. We work together.”

Despite the enormous extent of Israel’s illegal covert operations within the US targeting innocent and unsuspecting Americans, the clandestine agents involved are granted virtual immunity from arrest by pressure on top politicians from wealthy and powerful pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. It is a situation that greatly frustrates many in the FBI. It means bureau personnel are constantly required to close their eyes when it comes to criminal activity by Israel.

According to I.C. Smith, a former top FBI counterintelligence officer, “Dealing with the Israelis was, for those assigned that area, extremely frustrating. The Israelis were supremely confident that they had the clout, especially on the Hill, to basically get [away] with just about anything.” Another former top intelligence official said, “You catch them red-handed, and they shrug and say, ‘Okay now, anything else?’”

At one point, as angry senior US intelligence officials were testifying about Israeli espionage in secret sessions before the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees, that frustration spilled out in public. “US intelligence officials trooped up to Capitol Hill to tell U.S. lawmakers considering visa waivers for Israelis that Jerusalem’s spying here had ‘crossed redlines,’” wrote Newsweek’s Jeff Stein. The extent of the spying was “quite shocking,” one staffer who was there told Stein, adding that he found the testimony “very sobering…alarming…even terrifying.” Others called it “unrivaled” and “unseemly,” and noted that “it has been extensive for years.” And a former staffer who attended a similar classified briefing exclaimed, “No other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do.”

Over the years, as Israeli intelligence increased its secret war on innocent Americans, it likewise paid less and less attention to Hamas. Relatively quiet behind the high walls and barbed wire in Gaza, they assumed that its members had become docile and submissive. A minor outbreak, and they would simply send in the guns and armored personnel carriers and “mow the grass.”

Early on the morning of October 7, Israelis paid a terrible price for that mistake.

James Bamford

James Bamford is a best-selling author, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and winner of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. His most recent book is Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America's Counterintelligence, published by Twelve Books.

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