NEW YORK — Days before a critical election in Israel, Politico reported the U.S. government concluded that Israel was “most likely” behind the placement of cellphone snooping devices purportedly found in the vicinity of the White House.
The wild claim does not cite any U.S. government agency but instead relies upon “three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter” who purport to know 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.”
The Israeli government has strongly denied the anonymously sourced allegations. A senior U.S. official was quoted as saying the Politico story “is completely false. Absolutely false. I checked.” President Trump himself said of the story: “I find that hard to believe.” Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Trump further said, “I don’t believe that. No, I don’t believe that the Israelis are spying on us.”
Putting aside the American and Israeli denials and the lack of any evidence that the U.S. made any such conclusion, a closer look at the actual story reveals glaring red flags.
The Politico story by Daniel Lippman charges:
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.
A reader needs to scroll down a full 28 paragraphs to arrive at the detail that such IMSI-catchers can also be made by “sophisticated hobbyists” or those willing to pay more than $150,000 for each device.
IMSI-catchers, which are often used by local police agencies to surveil criminals, can also be made by sophisticated hobbyists or by the Harris Corp., the manufacturer of StingRays, which cost more than $150,000 each, according to Vice News.
So we are to believe that technology behemoth Israel, with some of the most capable and proven minds in high-tech, risked blowing up its relationship with its closest and most important ally by recklessly planting physical spying devices near the White House that “can also be made by sophisticated hobbyists.” A simple Google search under “IMSI catcher” turns up less sophisticated devices for as low as $249.95 and countless websites describing how to make IMSIs.
The improbable plot gets even more absurd.
In September 2014, CNBC broke the story about a technology company that discovered “as many as 15 cellphone interception devices secretly operating in the nation’s capital, capable of illicitly identifying the movements of prominent people, recording audio from mobile phones, listening to calls and reading email.”
CNBC reported on the IMSI-catchers and even spent an afternoon driving around Washington with experts “whose devices registered several malicious attempts to probe the phones.”
The news agency related that they contacted the FBI and Department of Justice to seek comment on the discovery of the devices.
The CNBC reporter who authored the story, Eamon Javers, tweeted on Thursday that Politico’s Lippman “provides a likely answer to a mystery I first reported on back in 2014 – Who’s hacking DC’s cell phones?”
Lippman himself retweeted Javers’ tweet linking his 2014 article on IMSI-catchers in D.C. to Politico’s story citing former officials as claiming that Israel was operating such devices in America’s capital to spy on Trump.
So we are to believe that Israel risked spying on the Trump administration using devices that were not only planted in the open but similar to or even the same as the IMSI-catchers in D.C. first reported in the news media five years ago.
And, according to this outlandish narrative, Israel continued to deploy such easily discoverable devices for years even after CNBC revealed those attempts and publicly reported that it alerted the FBI about the IMSI-catchers. We are to further believe that Israel has been spying in D.C. using devices so unsophisticated that civilian experts cited by CNBC in 2014 discovered similar snooping attempts with just one afternoon drive around the Capital. Color me skeptical.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.