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Israeli intelligence services spying on U.S. powerbrokers is not surprising, writes Cole, but "the US does give Israel $3 billion a year of tax payer money in addition to billions worth of trade benefits, so it is a little rude of them to repay Washington this way." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Looks Like Israel Was Caught Spying on Capitol Hill Cell Phones and Trump Was Fine With It

If you were in FBI counterintelligence and you found Israeli StingRays all over downtown DC and you told the president about it and he blew you off, you’d really have no further option but to go to the press.

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

Daniel Lipmann at Politico dropped the bombshell that mysterious electronic spying devices placed throughout Washington, D.C. and close to the White House and the Capitol were traced by the FBI to Israel.

The Israelis deployed StingRay mobile identity-catchers, devices that are mistaken for cell towers by cell phones, allowing them to capture the contents of calls and the mobile browser activity.

Lipmann says that the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division subjected the devices to extensive forensic tests, looking at where the components came from, how old they were, and considering who would have access to them, and the trail led inexorably to Israel. The FBI got help from the Department of Homeland Security and the Central Intelligence Agency (the latter for the overseas element in the forensic analysis, since the CIA is not supposed to operate domestically).

The news is concerning because such insider knowledge on the Israelis’ part would allow them to counter US foreign policy initiatives they disliked early in the process.

It has to be admitted up front that the US NSA intensively spies on US allies, as well, so Israel hasn’t done anything unusual here. Trump, moreover, is so addled that he just uses an ordinary cell phone out in the internet open, and so probably has 95 countries listening in on him.

On the other hand, the US does give Israel $3 billion a year of tax payer money in addition to billions worth of trade benefits, so it is a little rude of them to repay Washington this way.

The Israelis rather comically denied the allegations on the grounds that they never spy on the United States. Not only do we know that the Israelis intensively spy on the US government, including on the Pentagon, but they actually spy even on ordinary US citizens, as Al Jazeera’s investigation showed:

The reason that the story was broken to Lipmann by three intelligence insiders is that they were disturbed that the Trump administration was apprised of their findings and did absolutely nothing about them. Trump is alleged to have said that he didn’t believe the Israelis are spying on him. That makes you wonder what they might have on him from having spied on him.

If you were in FBI counterintelligence and you found Israeli StingRays all over downtown DC and you told the president about it and he blew you off, you’d really have no further option but to go to the press.

Only, Lipmann’s article likely will have no big impact, either, on politics. Israel is teflon in American politics. Trump once boasted that his fans were so loyal that he could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and they’d still back him. This may or may not be true of Trump, but it is definitely true of Israel. About a year and a half ago the Palestinians in Gaza started protesting being locked up in the world’s largest open-air prison. The Israeli army was permitted by PM Binyamin Netanyahu to adopt new rules of engagement whereby Israeli snipers were permitted to simply shoot down unarmed protesters who got within a certain distance of the border fence.

The United Nations reports that in the first year of the protests,

    “Between 30 March 2018 and 22 March 2019, 195 Palestinians, including 41 children, were killed by Israeli forces in the “Great March of Return” demonstrations, including during the weekly protests near the perimeter fence, protests against the naval blockade at the beach, and the night activities near the perimeter fence. 28,939 Palestinians were injured, including 25 per cent wounded by live ammunition in these GMR demonstrations. There was one Israeli force fatality…”

The Israeli snipers shoot down journalists, medics, women, children, who are unarmed and far enough away from the barbed wire fence to pose no danger to the Israeli military. They protesters are being murdered and severely injured in cold blood. These are over 30,000 discrete war crimes.

And like Trump supporters, many Israel boosters are fine with murder. In fact, virtually the entire US political establishment is fine with it.

So if Washington isn’t even upset about the shooting of small children in cold blood, how likely are they to be upset about Trump’s phone calls being listened in on?

The explanation is simple, which is that Israel boosters give big money to political campaigns and Jewish Americans (some proportion of which are pro-Israel) are an important voting bloc in swing states.

Lipmann’s story generated no YouTube clips by any major news organization. True, Fox Cable News did a segment, but it was about the Israeli denials.

Lipmann’s story will be quietly buried, because no politician wants to risk sticking her head up and having it guillotined.

The only reason for the leaks I can think of is that the counter-intelligence folks think that at least the full range of US security and intelligence agencies will be aware of Israel’s activities and of the StingRays, and might be able quietly to take counter-measures.

© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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