Back in May 2018 I did a post about how foreign intelligence services appeared to have been trying to collect Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) by capturing the unsecured cell phone conversations from the President’s and other elected and appointed officials in DC’s unsecured cell phones. My post was the result of reporting from Wired that DHS had confirmed that unauthorized cell-site simulators, commonly known as stingrays, had been found around DC. Politico had also just reported that the President was using two unsecured cell phones, one for calls with his friends and outside advisors and the other for posting tweets. According to Politico’s reporting from May 2018, neither phone is equipped with “sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications, according to two senior administration officials – a departure from the practice of his predecessors that potentially exposes him to hacking or surveillance”.
And now, thanks to new reporting from Politico we know who was behind this: Israel! (emphasis mine)
he U.S. government concluded within the past two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, according to three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.
But unlike most other occasions when flagrant incidents of foreign spying have been discovered on American soil, the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior, one of the former officials said.
The devices were likely intended to spy on President Donald Trump, one of the former officials said, as well as his top aides and closest associates — though it’s not clear whether the Israeli efforts were successful.
Based on a detailed forensic analysis, the FBI and other agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the former officials, several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts.
That analysis, one of the former officials said, is typically led by the FBI’s counterintelligence division and involves examining the devices so that they “tell you a little about their history, where the parts and pieces come from, how old are they, who had access to them, and that will help get you to what the origins are.” For these types of investigations, the bureau often leans on the National Security Agency and sometimes the CIA (DHS and the Secret Service played a supporting role in this specific investigation).
“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” said a former senior intelligence official.
There are two parts to this operational security breakdown and counterintelligence nightmare. The first is a President who refuses to follow even the most basic rules for maintaining operational security and the second is a client state, Israel, which treats its patron, the US, as if it is a hostile foreign power. The Israelis, of course, are denying that they did this (emphasis mine):
An Israeli Embassy spokesperson, Elad Strohmayer, denied that Israel placed the devices and said: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”
After this story was published, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that Israel was behind the devices. “We have a directive, I have a directive: No intelligence work in the United States, no spies,” he said in a gaggle with reporters. “And it’s vigorously implemented, without any exception. It [the report] is a complete fabrication, a complete fabrication.”
But former officials with deep experience dealing with intelligence matters scoff at the Israeli claim — a pro forma denial Israeli officials are also known to make in private to skeptical U.S. counterparts.
One former senior intelligence official noted that after the FBI and other agencies concluded that the Israelis were most likely responsible for the devices, the Trump administration took no action to punish or even privately scold the Israeli government.
“The reaction … was very different than it would have been in the last administration,” this person said. “With the current administration, there are a different set of calculations in regard to addressing this.”
The former senior intelligence official criticized how the administration handled the matter, remarking on the striking difference from past administrations, which likely would have at a very minimum issued a démarche, or formal diplomatic reprimand, to the foreign government condemning its actions.
“I’m not aware of any accountability at all,” the former official said.
The administration’s failure to hold the Israelis accountable for this SIGINT collection operation only encourages them, as well as other foreign actors – from allies and partners to hostile competitors – to conduct similar operations in the future. It also places others at risk. Anyone who is in contact with the subjects of the collection themselves become targets for collection. So all those people the President is talking to on the phone at night in the residence or who he meets with for golf or other social events at his properties every weekend and all the people in professional and personal contact with the people around the President in and out of government who can influence him on issues pertaining to Israel and Israel’s interests become targets. You may not know where Rudy Giuliani or Lou Dobbs or whomever the President had lunch with at his golf club last Sunday are right now, but the Israelis definitely do. They also know who they’ve been talking to on the phone, having dinner with, etc. The same goes for all of Jared and Ivanka’s friends and those of everyone else in the White House and the Executive Office of the President who may be working on something of interest to Israel or just close to the President.
The administration’s encouragement of Bibi’s bad behavior, as well as going all in on Bibi’s and Ron Dermer’s, his senior political advisor and ambassador the the US, strategy to make Israel a partisan issue in the US may continue to provide short term gain for Bibi and Israel. In the long term, however, it makes it inevitable that a future Democratic president is going to have to put Bibi and Israel back in their place. Given Bibi’s attempts to write the vast majority of Jewish Americans out of Judaism, aided and abetted by some American and Israeli Jews who are now making the argument that there are religious Jews (the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox) and then there are the “born” Jews who aren’t really Jewish*, Bibi and Israel won’t be able to count on the majority of Jewish Americans to come to his and Israel’s defense when the reckoning comes. Bibi has once again sown the wind, the question is whether he will ever reap the whirlwind.
* This has to be the dumbest argument regarding who is and isn’t Jewish ever. Even more so since it is being made by Jews. It takes the worst portions of the anti-Semitic arguments that Jews are a race or ethno-nationality apart from all others and pushes all Jews who aren’t as devout ,or devout in a way that the person making the argument approves of, into the racial/ethno-national category. Jews who are devout, or devout in the way that the person making the argument approves of, count as actual Jews because they’re religious. So the good Jews are Jewish because Judaism is a religion and the good Jews are observing it correctly and that is the only thing that sets them apart from non-Jews. The bad Jews are Jews who aren’t really Jewish because Judaism is a race or ethno-nationality, the bad Jews are either not observing the religion correctly or at all, and therefore because they are racially Jewish they are set apart from everyone including Jews who are Jews because they are observant of Judaism, which is a religion.
I now have a headache!