Did Israel plant “stingrays” around the Beltway to intercept cell-phone transmissions by Donald Trump and his inner circle? That’s the claim made by a “former senior intelligence official” from the Trump administration to Politico, which claims to have confirmed it with other sources. According to Daniel Lippman, the US intel community have concluded that it’s part of an elaborate Israeli intel operation — but that doesn’t concern Trump much:
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 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 first question one might ask when reading this is … why? Not only is Trump regularly indiscreet about his thoughts and plans — especially on Twitter — he’s also closer to Israel than most of his predecessors. He and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are personal friends, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working closely with the Israelis on their issues with the Palestinians. The only potential blind spot for them would be Trump’s famously capricious approach to policy and any attempts to engage Iran, which Trump would almost certainly keep quiet from Israel in the planning stages. Even then, though, their legitimate access to Trump would probably serve them better than covert operations against their biggest patron and oft-times only ally.
Reading onward, the second question one might ask is … who?
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.
Wynn’s on the outs at the moment, presumably, while he’s dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Rudy Giuliani is, if anything, more indiscreet these days than Trump, although usually only on Trump’s legal matters. Sean Hannity has the top-rated prime-time talk show in the nation and isn’t exactly known for holding back, especially when it comes to talking about what Trump might have in mind. You don’t need Stingrays to collect that data; all you need is a DVR.
Still, nations conduct intelligence gathering on friends and foes alike, even those allies with whom their intel services work. The first rule in these situations is to deny it, and the second rule is to strenuously deny it:
— Noa Landau נעה לנדאו (@noa_landau) September 12, 2019
Netanyahu’s office shot down allegations his country was spying on U.S. soil as “a blatant lie.”
“There is a longstanding commitment, and a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the U.S.,” it said in a statement. “This directive is strictly enforced without exception.”
Er, sure. But there are at least a few reasons for some skepticism about this particular report. First off, Stingray tracking devices are hardly exotic, and are not at all limited to espionage work — at least not in the common understanding of it. The ACLU has been researching these devices for years, and last November reported that “75 agencies in 27 states and the District of Columbia that own stingrays.” Those were only the agencies that they could confirm. (Everyone else was following Rules 1 & 2, apparently.) Among just the federal agencies identified with their use was naturally the FBI, which has the writ for domestic intel collection. But it also includes the NSA, three branches of the military, the National Guard, and the IRS, which has no particular need to collect “intelligence” in the common sense of the word. Finding Stingrays in DC sounds like shooting fish in a barrel, with or without the Israelis.
Next, the timing of this report is awfully curious. Netanyahu’s standing for election next week and his relationship with the Trump administration is a big part of his appeal. It’s an odd time for US intelligence sources to leak this information to the press. One has to wonder what the motive for the leak was, especially since the previous administration had a history of interfering in Israeli elections. The parallels here are at least curious, especially given the somewhat contentious relationship between the US intel community and Trump.
In other words, while one can treat Netanyahu’s claim of zero intel operations in the US with some skepticism, we can also treat Politico’s sources with a significant level of skepticism as well. Someone has an agenda behind this leak, perhaps more than one, and it’s not to protect us from the Israelis.