The Trump administration has concluded that Israel is responsible for the placement of cellphone surveillance equipment near the White House and at other sensitive locations in Washington, DC, Politico reported Thursday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly rejected the accusation as a “complete lie… Not a scintilla of truth.”
A former senior US official with knowledge of the matter said 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.
In contrast to other instances of foreign spying, Washington has declined to punish or rebuke Jerusalem on the matter, the report said.
According to the 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.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service played a role in the investigation, which may also have involved the NSA and CIA, Politico reported.
“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” a former US senior intelligence official said.
A former official said such investigations are typically spearheaded by the FBI’s counterintelligence division. The devices would be examined to “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,” the official said.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement on the report, calling the accusation “a blatant lie.”
“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,” the statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office read.
Netanyahu himself later dismissed the report. Landing in Sochi ahead of talks with Russian leaders, he called it “a complete lie. There’s not a scintilla of truth to it. Nothing.”
The report said the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government for the alleged spying attempt, neither publicly nor privately.
“The reaction … was very different than it would have been in the last administration,” a former US senior intelligence official said. “With the current administration, there are a different set of calculations in regard to addressing this.”
The former official criticized the administration’s approach to the matter. “I’m not aware of any accountability at all,” the official said.
“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.”
However, one former official noted that although it was worrying that Israel was allegedly spying on the US, “on the other hand, guess what we do in Tel Aviv?”
Foreign Minister Israel Katz issued a statement, denying categorically 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, former head of Military Intelligence, said the report was “fake news spiced with anti-Semitism.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in Washington, Elad Strohmayer, denied to Politico that Israel placed the devices in Washington, saying: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”
A senior Trump administration official said the White House doesn’t “comment on matters related to security or intelligence.” The FBI declined to comment to Politico on the story and the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Last year, it was reported that China was eavesdropping on calls between Trump and his powerful friends and confidants on his private cellphone.
Trump’s aides have warned him repeatedly that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies also routinely eavesdrop on the calls, The New York Times reported. But aides told the newspaper that Trump, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones.
The US president has two iPhones that were modified by the National Security Agency, and a third personal phone that remains unaltered.
The alleged cellphone interception reported Thursday is not the first instance of reported spying between the two close allies.
Jonathan Pollard, a former civilian US Navy analyst, was given a life sentence in 1987 for passing secrets to Israel. His imprisonment was a longtime point of tension in Israeli-US relations, with Israeli and Jewish leaders petitioning their US counterparts for years in order to secure his release.
In 2013, Netanyahu condemned as “unacceptable” revelations that the US and UK had targeted the email address of his predecessor Ehud Olmert. Documents leaked by whistleblower Edward 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.