Middle East Monitor / September 23, 2019
A recent report on the US news site Politico revealed that in 2017, US intelligence agencies discovered several cell phone interception devices near the White House. They concluded that Israel had most likely installed these “StingRay” spying devices, in an attempt to listen in on President Donald Trump’s phone calls.
The Politico report was based on three good (albeit anonymous) sources, people whom the site characterised as former senior US officials with knowledge of the affair. It was denied by Israel. However, this was not remotely credible, for reasons I will return to below.
The article explained that Trump has been lazy about protecting his conversations, and often talks over open lines. This would allow the devices to intercept the contents of his calls and texts.
“Based on a detailed forensic analysis,” wrote Politico reporter Daniel Lippman, “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.” A former senior intelligence official told Lippman that, “It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible.”
A senior Trump administration official, the FBI and other US spy agencies declined to comment on the record. After Politico published the story, Trump told reporters: “I don’t think the Israelis were spying on us… My relationship with Israel has been great… Anything is possible but I don’t believe it.”
According to the report, when the Trump administration was alerted in 2017 to the discovery of the blatant Israeli spying operation, officials did nothing. “There were no consequences for Israel’s behaviour,” Politico explained.
These revelations may be shocking to many people. They comes as no surprise whatsoever, though, to anyone familiar with the reality of Israeli spying on its supposed Western allies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s laughable denial of the report – “I have a directive: No intelligence work in the United States, no spies” – is in clear contradiction to the long, proven history of Israeli spying in and on America.
The main target of Israeli intelligence operations in the US has actually been ordinary American civilians, usually those who campaign in solidarity with Palestinian human rights, and against Israeli abuses of those rights. These operations stretch back decades. In 1969, for example, the Anti-Defamation League infiltrated a convention of the Organisation of Arab Students, which was campaigning for Palestine. Freedom of information releases show that the FBI suspected Israeli involvement in this operation; at the very least, the ADL report was likely “furnished to an official of the government of Israel due to the extremely close ties between [the] ADL and Israel.”
The anti-Palestine lobby’s operations against American citizens on behalf of Israel continue, right up to the present day. However, as this latest revelation shows, the Israelis and their lackeys also spy on the highest US officials, including the President himself.
What was their objective? The US already shares some intelligence with Israel, and funds the state to the tune of more than $3 billion every year (that’s $8 million every day). Why would Israel bite the hand that feeds it like this?
As The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah has explained, the Israelis may have had many different motives for targeting Trump in particular, not least of which was the hope that they may have heard embarrassing material that could then be used against him to their own advantage. But the simple answer is, because they could; because over decades, there have been no political consequences for Israel’s repeated and aggressive spying operations on the US government.
Documents released by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor turned whistle-blower Edward Snowden in 2013 showed that Israel was considered by American counter-intelligence agencies to be one of the worst threats of all. It was up there with the “priority targets” of counter-intelligence: “China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel.”
Perhaps the most notorious case of Israeli spying on the US government involved Jonathan Pollard, a US naval intelligence officer who sold crucial documents to Israel, which then passed many of them on to the Soviet Union. Pollard was arrested in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. He was released in 2015 by the then US President, Barack Obama.
After Pollard was exposed, Israel made a pledge not to spy inside the United States. Netanyahu’s statement about his supposed “directive” is a reference to that promise. Everything we now know about the facts of Israel’s spying in the US since then shows that this is a broken promise.
So far, Pollard has not been permitted to leave the US for Israel, as he intends, although Israel is pushing for this to happen. If he ever does get there, no doubt he will receive a hero’s welcome. That is how important its spying operations in the US are for Israel.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East