The US government has concluded that Israel was likely behind Mysterious Surveillance Equipment placed near the White House, and other sensitive locations, Politico reported, citing three former senior US officials.
The miniature surveillance devices, colloquially known as “StingRays,” mimic regular cell towers to fool cellphones 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.
Prior to October 2018, Homeland Security had discovered evidence of surveillance but had no way to tie it to a specific foreign actor.
The Department of Homeland Security officials shared their findings with relevant federal agencies, according to a letter a top Department of Homeland Security official, Christopher Krebs, wrote in May 2018 to Sen. Ron Wyden.
Most recently, based on forensic analysis carried out by the FBI and other security agencies working on the investigation, it was allegedly discovered that Israeli agents were behind the placement of the StingRays.
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.”
An unnamed Trump administration official said that they wouldn’t provide a comment, the same goes for FBI and other security agencies.
Politico furthermore reported that after publishing the story, US President Donald Trump said that it he wouldn find it “hard to believe” that Israel was behind it.
“I don’t think the Israelis were spying on us,” Trump said. “My relationship with Israel has been great…Anything is possible but I don’t believe it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also denied after publication 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 according to Politico’s sources, who are former US intelligence officials with “deep experience” said that it was definitely Israel behind it, but the Trump administration simply refused to take action against it.
“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.”
According to the sources, in addition to Trump himself, many of his aides and close friends and acquaintances were possible spying targets, but this current administration would take no action against Israeli surveillance activities.
“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 achieve that objective.”
China was also suspected, but in contrast to past incidents of alleged spying, weren’t directly accused without evidence, and that is because according to the sources, the methodology seemed unlikely to be coming from Beijing.
“You can often, depending upon the tradecraft of the people who put them in place, figure out who’s been accessing them to pull the data off the devices,” a source explained.
One of Politico’s sources expressed his surprise that no action was being taken, saying that in the past many in the presidential administration were shocked as how Israel had knowledge of internal US policy that was to be kept private.
“There were suspicions that they were listening in,” the former official said, based on his Israeli counterparts flaunting a level of detailed knowledge “that was hard to explain otherwise. Sometimes it was sort of knowledge of our thinking. Occasionally there were some turns of phrase like language that as far as we knew had only appeared in drafts of speeches and never been actually used publicly, and then some Israeli official would repeat it back to us and say, ‘This would be really problematic if you were to say X,’” said the former official.
Naturally, the US also gathers intelligence on Israeli leaders, but usually, the US applies quite the double standard on issues such as this.
If the report by Politico is true, this is yet another example of how wide-ranging and endless Washington’s current support for Tel Aviv is.