In contrast to other instances of foreign spying, however, President Donald Trump’s administration has not rebuked Israel, and there were no consequences for the regime’s behavior, Politico reported on Thursday, citing three former senior US officials with knowledge of the matter.
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, Presstv Reported.
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.
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.”
The report said that in May 2018, officials at the US Department of Homeland Security discovered evidence of the surveillance devices around the US capital, but weren’t able to attribute the devices to specific entities.
However, based on a detailed forensic analysis, the FBI and other intelligence agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the report.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement on the report, calling the accusation “a blatant lie.”
A spokesperson for Israel’s embassy in Washington, Elad Strohmayer, also denied that Israel placed the devices. “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period,” he said.
But former US officials with deep experience dealing with intelligence matters scoff at the Israeli claim.
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, adding, “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 least issued a formal diplomatic reprimand to the foreign government condemning its actions.
“I’m not aware of any accountability at all,” said the former official.
It was not the first time Israel has been accused of spying against its close ally. In 1986, Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American citizen and US Navy analyst, was found guilty of espionage on behalf of Israel.
Pollard was sentenced to life in prison but freed in 2015 by then President Barack Obama. His spying activities continue to be a source of discomfort for US officials, with the US government refusing his request to immigrate to Israel.
The full scope of Pollard’s activities have never been fully disclosed.
Pollard has been described by former US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger as one of the most damaging spies ever to operate in the United States.
Unconfirmed accounts over the years suggest that Pollard, who worked at the US Naval Intelligence Center for Counter Terrorism in Maryland, handed files to the Israelis, including documents relating to Arab troops, the Palestine Liberation Organization and alleged chemical and biological warfare programs conducted by Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The latest spying accusations come despite Trump’s close ties with Netanyahu. The US president has made numerous policy moves favorable to Israel, such as moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian territory of Golan Heights, and withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear agreement.