Lawmakers and staffers on two House committees are concerned that admitting Israel to a program that eases entry of foreigners into the United States would increase the risk of Israeli espionage, congressional aides say.
For several years, Israel has sought admission into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which comprises 38 nations whose citizens may enter the United States and remain for 90 days without first obtaining approval for a visa at a U.S. consulate.
Until now, U.S. officials have said they have refused Israel’s entry into the program only because the Jewish state does not meet specific requirements for inclusion, including a rate of refusal for Israelis seeking U.S. visas no higher than 3 percent and reciprocal courtesies for U.S. citizens visiting Israel.
Several senators are pushing a bill that would effectively waive those requirements for Israel.
But this is the first time congressional aides have indicated that intelligence and national security concerns also are considerations in weighing Israel’s admission into the Visa Waiver Program.
“The U.S. intelligence community is concerned that adding Israel to the Visa Waiver program would make it easier for Israeli spies to enter the country,” a senior House aide said.
Several congressional aides said that members of the intelligence community, as well as officials from the State and Homeland Security departments, expressed those concerns in a classified briefing to lawmakers and staffers on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over visa issue.
Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., “has heard reservations from the intelligence community about allowing Israel into the visa waiver program because of concerns that it would allow in Israeli spies,” a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide said.
Judiciary staffers conveyed those concerns to the Foreign Affairs Committee, aides from the Foreign Affairs panel said.
A U.S. official confirmed the Goodlatte briefing, saying officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI and the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive took part.
The intelligence community’s worries about Israeli spying come as several senators are trying to revive a measure (S 462) — authored by California Democrat Barbara Boxer and called the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act — that includes a provision that would bring Israel into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
The bill, a top priority of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations panel last year because the visa provision would exempt Israel from providing reciprocal privileges to American citizens visiting there, based on Israeli security concerns,.
Israel sometimes denies entry to U.S. citizens traveling to Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, particularly Americans of Arab descent or those considered politically sympathetic to the Palestinians. Israeli officials deny any discrimination.
According to several congressional aides, Boxer, a member of Foreign Relations, is now working with panel chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip and chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that deals with civil rights issues, to craft different language for the visa provision that would allow a markup.
A companion bill (HR 938), authored by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, passed the House last year, but it included only a non-binding resolution saying Israel should be included in the Visa Waiver Program and a provision requiring the administration to report to Congress on related developments.
Earlier this year, the State Department reported that the refusal rate for Israelis seeking U.S. visas rose to 9.7 percent, an 80 percent jump over 2012 rates.
Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York has called on the State Department “to end its widespread, arbitrary practice of denying young Israelis tourist visas,” and other pro-Israel lawmakers also have pressed the administration for answers about the number of Israelis refused visas.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded to such complaints last month by pointing out that Israelis are still overwhelmingly granted entry.
“Over 90 percent of Israeli applicants for tourist visas to the United States are approved,” she said. She noted that for young Israelis, particularly those who have just finished their military service and for whom a trip abroad is a rite of passage, the approval rate is more than 80 percent.
The sensitive issue of possible Israeli spying on its closest ally cropped up earlier this month with reports that the Obama administration was considering the release of jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of a complex move meant to keep U.S.-led Middle East peace talks from collapsing.
Pollard, who has served 29 years of a life sentence, was a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who provided Israel with reams of highly classified documents. After his imprisonment, Israel promised not to operate spies in the United States.
Over the past decade, however, Israel has been involved in several espionage cases. In 2008, Ben-Ami Kadish, a former U.S. army mechanical engineer, pleaded guilty to passing secrets to Israel in the 1980s. Kadish let Israelis copy documents about nuclear weapons, a modified version of the F-15 warplane and the U.S. Patriot missile defense system. Kadish, who was 85 when arrested, avoided prison and paid a $50,000 fine.
In 2006, a former Pentagon analyst received a 12-year sentence for giving classified information on Iran to an Israeli diplomat and two pro-Israel lobbyists.
In 2011, top Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan disclosed that he worked as an Israeli spy for years, setting up and operating dozens of companies in the United States and overseas that helped Israel obtain plans and parts for its nuclear weapons program.
The FBI’s discovery that one of his companies was used to ship nuclear triggers to Israel without proper licenses resulted in the 1985 indictment of an executive who was involved. But the Reagan administration dropped its charges against Milchan.