Spy Stories, This Time in Politico

It  is an unfortunate Washington reality that stories about US intelligence breaches are often exploited to charge Israel with spying on the United States, or otherwise compromising US security. A story in Politico is the latest example, charging – without any obvious evidence – that Israel was responsible for planting cell site simulators that would allow cellphone calls in Washington, DC to be tracked and intercepted. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, issued categorical denials that Israel had planted such devices, or spied on the US in other ways either. And Los Angeles Times reporter Noga Tarnopolsky tweeted that a “senior administration official” termed the charge “absolutely false. Completely false. I checked.

The Politico article, Israel accused of planting mysterious spy devices near the White House, by Daniel Lippman, charges that:

The U.S. government concluded within the past two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, according to three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.

Lippman further claims that:

Based on a detailed forensic analysis, the FBI and other agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the former officials, several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts.

But Lippman seems confused about whether the devices in question were ever recovered – he implies they were by referring to devices “found near the White House,” but elsewhere in the article he refers to “evidence of the devices,” meaning signals picked up from the alleged devices, rather than the devices themselves.

Lippman also refers to a May 2018 letter on the issue of cellphone spying from a senior Homeland Security official to Senator Ron Wyden, but he deceptively keeps from his readers that the letter admits attempts to find out more about the devices resulted in false positives:

[Homeland Security] conducted a limited pilot project that deployed sensors in the National Capitol Region (NCR) in order to identify and better understand potential IMSI catcher activity. An IMSI is a unique identification number used to recognize a mobile device on any cellular network, and IMSI catcher technology can be used to monitor and track cellular communications and devices as they communicate with networks. The technology can be used for both lawful and unlawful purposes. While the … pilot did observe anomalous activity that appeared consistent with IMSI catcher technology within the NCR … [we have] neither validated nor attributed such activity to specific entities, devices or purposes. It is my understanding that relevant law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies conducted further investigation and determined that some detected signals were emanating from legitimate cell towers.

(Letter from Christopher Krebs to Senator Ron Wyden, May 22, 2018; emphasis added)

So at least some of the supposedly rogue cell towers weren’t rogue at all! And others could have been legitimately placed by local or federal law enforcement agencies (the DC police are known to use the devices), or could have been on the grounds of foreign embassies, which are known to use the technology extensively. Indeed, according to a recent CBS report:

Like other major world capitals … Washington is awash in unauthorized interception devices … Every embassy “worth their salt” has a cell tower simulator installed …

The Politico story thus seems to be yet another example of “former senior officials” with an ax to grind using a credulous reporter to get in their digs at Israel. Previous examples of exactly this phenomena include:

Spy Stories

AP “Israeli spying” Story an “Urban Myth” According to Justice Department

New Questions Raised on CBS Spy Report

In Rafi Eitan Obit, New York Times Casts Unproven Uranium Allegation As Fact

Unless further evidence is released showing that the devices were actually recovered, along with conclusive proof tying them to Israel, there is no more reason to believe the Politico story than its discredited predecessors.