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.
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 miniature surveillance devices, colloquially known as “StingRays,” mimic regular cell towers to fool cellphones into giving them their locations and identity information. Formally called international mobile subscriber identity-catchers or IMSI-catchers, they also can capture the contents of calls and data use.
The devices were likely intended to spy on President Donald Trump, one of the former officials said, as well as his top aides and closest associates — though it’s not clear whether the Israeli efforts were successful.
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.
That analysis, one of the former officials said, is typically led by the FBI’s counterintelligence division and involves examining the devices so that they “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.” For these types of investigations, the bureau often leans on the National Security Agency and sometimes the CIA (DHS and the Secret Service played a supporting role in this specific investigation).
“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” said a former senior intelligence official.
An Israeli Embassy spokesperson, Elad Strohmayer, denied that Israel placed the devices and said: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”
A senior Trump administration official said the administration doesn’t “comment on matters related to security or intelligence.” The FBI declined to comment, while DHS and the Secret Service didn’t respond to requests for comment.
After this story was published, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that Israel was behind the devices. “We have a directive, I have a directive: No intelligence work in the United States, no spies,” he said in a gaggle with reporters. “And it’s vigorously implemented, without any exception. It [the report] is a complete fabrication, a complete fabrication.”
But former officials with deep experience dealing with intelligence matters scoff at the Israeli claim — a pro forma denial Israeli officials are also known to make in private to skeptical U.S. counterparts.
One former senior intelligence official noted that after the FBI and other agencies concluded that the Israelis were most likely responsible for the devices, the Trump administration took no action to punish or even privately scold the Israeli government.
“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 former senior intelligence official criticized how the administration handled the matter, remarking on the striking difference from past administrations, which likely would have at a very minimum issued a démarche, or formal diplomatic reprimand, to the foreign government condemning its actions.
“I’m not aware of any accountability at all,” the former official said.
Among professionals, the Israeli intelligence services have an especially fearsome reputation. But they do sometimes make mistakes and are “not 10 feet tall like you see in the movies,” a former senior intelligence official noted.
“The Israelis are aggressive intelligence collectors, but they have sworn off spying on the U.S. at various points and it’s not surprising that such efforts continue,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former coordinator of counterterrorism at the Obama State Department and now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth.
Benjamin, who emphasized that he was not aware of the FBI’s investigation into the cell-phone spoofing, recalled once meeting with a former head of Mossad, the premier Israeli intelligence agency, when he was out of office. The first thing the former Mossad official told Benjamin was that Israel didn’t spy on the U.S.
“I just told him our conversation was over if he had such a low estimate of my intelligence,” Benjamin said.
Israeli officials often note in conversations with their American counterparts — correctly — that the U.S. regularly gathers intelligence on Israeli leaders.
As for Israel’s recent surveillance of the White House, one of the former senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged it raised security concerns but joked, “On the other hand, guess what we do in Tel Aviv?”
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.”