WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said Thursday that he does not believe a report that Israel was likely behind the placement of devices in the vicinity of the White House that can capture cellphone calls.
“I don’t believe that, no, I don’t believe the Israelis were spying on us. I really would find that hard to believe,” Trump told reporters at the White House after being asked about the report.
The Politico news outlet reported Thursday that the FBI had determined Israel was responsible for the placement of cellphone surveillance equipment near the White House and at other sensitive locations in Washington, DC.
“My relationship with Israel has been great,” Trump said, listing some of his pro-Israel accomplishments. “Anything is possible,” he conceded, “but I don’t believe it.”
Earlier Thursday a senior US official also denied the report.
The story “is completely false. Absolutely false. I checked,” Noga Tarnopolsky, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, quoted the senior administration official as saying.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials swiftly rejected the accusation as a “blatant lie.” Netanyahu said it was absolutely false, without “a scintilla” of truth.
“There is a longstanding commitment, and a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the US. This directive is strictly enforced without exception,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read.
Also, an Israeli spying operation against the United States government on American soil would represent a dramatic departure from decades-old Israeli policy, a former intelligence official said.
According to Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser, that was not a pro forma denial by a government caught doing something it shouldn’t, but a true description of Israeli policy.
“Can I tell you from personal knowledge that it’s not happening today? No. Could someone have lost it completely in some upper echelon of the government? I don’t know. But based on everything I know, it’s totally false,” Freilich told The Times of Israel.
A former senior US official with knowledge of the alleged Israeli operation told Politico it was assumed that the devices were installed to spy on US President Donald Trump and his top aides, although it was unclear whether the attempt was successful.
According to Freilich, who served for more than two decades in the Israeli defense establishment, a decision was made in Israel following the Jonathan Pollard scandal to avoid spying on the United States.
In 1985, Pollard, then an intelligence analyst for the US Navy, was arrested and charged with spying for the Israeli Mossad intelligence service. He pleaded guilty a year later and served a total of 30 years in prison before his release in 2015. The incident remains a source of contention between Israeli and American intelligence services in what is otherwise considered one of the closest defense relationships in the world.
“Pollard was an aberration, and after him it was decided that this should never happen again,” Freilich said.
The former deputy national security adviser, who served in the position from 2000 to 2005, said the potential diplomatic blowback from a botched operation would represent a significant disincentive for carrying out such a mission.
“If you can’t afford to get caught, you don’t do it,” Freilich said.
However, he added that the nature of the Israeli-US relationship — in which Jerusalem is more dependent on Washington — means that this does not prevent American intelligence services from investigating their Israeli counterparts.
“The US is spying on Israel all the time. But there’s a small difference. When we give the US $4 billion a year and prevent sanctions and lots of other anti-American resolutions from being passed at the UN Security Council, then maybe we can start spying on the US,” he said.
“As a general rule, it’s probably true that everyone is spying on everyone. But [Israel spying on the US] in Washington? No,” he said.
According to the Politico report, which was based on conversations with three former senior US officials with knowledge of the case, the small devices, known as “StingRays,” fool cellphones into revealing their location and identifying information by mimicking a cell tower. A “detailed forensic analysis” by the FBI was said to have revealed that the devices were planted by Israel.
“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” a former US senior intelligence official said.
On Thursday afternoon, the author of the Politico story, Daniel Lippman, said he stood by the report, despite the unequivocal denials by the Israeli government.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz categorically denied that Israel conducts spy operations in the US.
“The US and Israel share a lot of intelligence information and work together to prevent threats and strengthen the security of both countries,” Katz said.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, said the report was “fake news spiced with anti-Semitism.”
The alleged cellphone interception reported Thursday is not the first instance of reported spying between the two close allies in recent years.
In 2014, an NSA document was leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, in which the American intelligence service accused Israel of spying on the United States.
“The Israelis are extraordinarily good [Signals Intelligence] partners for us,” the NSA document said, as reported in Newsweek, “but on the other [hand], they target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems.”
The year before, Netanyahu condemned as “unacceptable” revelations that the US and UK had targeted the email address of his predecessor Ehud Olmert. Documents also leaked by Snowden and published by the Guardian revealed that the email account was in use by Olmert while he was in office.
The documents also said that a 2013 National Intelligence Estimate on cyber threats “ranked Israel the third most aggressive intelligence service against the US” behind only China and Russia.
Agencies contributed to this report.