WASHINGTON — The CIA station chief opened the locked box containing the sensitive equipment he used from his home in Tel Aviv, Israel, to communicate with CIA headquarters in Virginia, only to find that someone had tampered with it. He sent word to his superiors about the break-in.
The incident, described to the Associated Press by three former senior U.S. intelligence officials, might have been dismissed as just another cloak-and-dagger incident in the world of international espionage, except that the same thing had happened to the previous station chief in Israel.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that, even in a country friendly to the United States, the CIA was itself being watched.
Such meddling underscores what is widely known but rarely discussed outside intelligence circles: U.S. national security officials consider Israel to be, at times, a frustrating ally and a genuine counterintelligence threat.
In addition to what the former U.S. officials described as intrusions in homes in the past decade, Israel has been implicated in U.S. criminal espionage cases and disciplinary proceedings against CIA officers and blamed in the presumed death of an important spy in Syria for the CIA during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency's Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East, according to current and former officials. Counterintelligence is the art of protecting national secrets from spies. This means the CIA believes that U.S. national secrets are safer from other Middle Eastern governments than from Israel.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the sensitive intelligence and diplomatic issues between the two countries.
The counterintelligence worries continue even as the U.S. relationship with Israel features close cooperation on intelligence programs that reportedly included the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked computers in Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities.
"It's a complicated a relationship," said Joseph Wippl, a former senior CIA clandestine officer and head of the agency's office of congressional affairs. "They have their interests. We have our interests. For the U.S., it's a balancing act."
An Israeli spokesman in Washington, Lior Weintraub, said his country has close ties with the United States.
"Israel's intelligence and security agencies maintain close, broad and continuous cooperation with their U.S. counterparts," Weintraub said. "They are our partners in confronting many mutual challenges. Any suggestion otherwise is baseless and contrary to the spirit and practice of the security cooperation between our two countries."
The CIA declined comment.