Israel accused of planting mysterious spy devices near the White House

The likely Israeli spying efforts were uncovered during the Trump presidency, several former top U.S. officials said.
Illustration of spying devices in D.C.

The U.S. government concluded within the last two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cell-phone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, D.C., 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 miniature surveillance devices, colloquially known as “StingRays,” mimic regular cell towers to fool cell phones into giving them their locations and identity information. Formally called international mobile subscriber identity-catchers or IMSI-catchers, they also can capture the contents of calls and data use. 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.

President Trump is reputed to be lax in observing White House security protocols. POLITICO reported in May 2018 that the president often used an insufficiently secured cell phone to communicate with friends and confidants. Nick Note: Not lax he is just a plain old simple FUCKUP!

The New York Times subsequently reported in October 2018 that “Chinese spies are often listening” to Trump’s cell-phone calls, prompting the president to slam the story as “so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it.” (A former official said Trump has had his cell phone hardened against intrusion.) By then, as part of tests by the federal government, officials at the Department of Homeland Security had already discovered evidence of the surveillance devices around the nation’s capital, but weren’t able to attribute the devices to specific entities. The officials shared their findings with relevant federal agencies, according to a letter a top DHS official, Christopher Krebs, wrote in May 2018 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). 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 Central Intelligence Agency (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. 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.” A senior Trump administration official said the administration doesn’t “comment on matters related to security or intelligence.” The FBI declined to comment, while DHS and the Secret Service didn’t respond to requests for comment. 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,” said the former official. Beyond trying to intercept the private conversations of top officials — prized information for any intelligence service — foreign countries often will try to surveil their close associates as well. With the president, the former senior Trump administration official noted, that could include trying to listen in on the devices of the people he regularly communicates with, such as Steve Wynn, Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani. “The people in that circle are heavily targeted,” said the former Trump official. Another circle of surveillance targets includes people who regularly talk to Trump’s friends and informal advisers. Information obtained from any of these people “would be so valuable in a town that is like three degrees of separation like Kevin Bacon,” the former official added. That’s true even for a close U.S. ally like Israel, which often seeks an edge in its diplomatic maneuvering with the United States. “The Israelis are pretty aggressive” in their intelligence gathering operations, said a former senior intelligence official. “They’re all about protecting the security of the Israeli state and they do whatever they feel they have to to achieve that objective.”So even though Trump has formed a warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and made numerous policy moves favorable to the Israeli government — such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal and heavily targeting Iran with sanctions — Israel became a prime suspect in planting the devices. As for Israel’s recent surveillance of the White House, one of the former senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged it raised security concerns but joked, “On the other hand, guess what we do in Tel Aviv?”