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Israel denies report that it set up spying devices in Washington

President Trump welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in March.
President Trump welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in March. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — Israel on Thursday denied a report by the Washington-based news site Politico claiming that it had placed cellphone surveillance devices in sensitive locations around Washington, including near the White House.

According to the report, which cited three anonymous former senior U.S. officials “with knowledge of the matter,” the equipment — devices that mimic cell towers, fooling cellphones into giving them their locations and identity information — was discovered some time ago.

However, Israel has faced no reprimand or consequences for the alleged action, with the report suggesting the violation has been downplayed because of the exceptionally close ties between President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

The report comes at a sensitive time, with Israelis returning to the polls next week for a second general election this year and Netanyahu fighting to hold on to his office. It also comes in a week when Trump appears to be diverging from the Israeli leader’s unwavering narrative on Iran, indicating the possibility of meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

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Netanyahu has been fierce in his lobbying of Trump, urging him to pull out of the controversial 2015 nuclear pact with Iran and consistently pushing the United States to increase economic sanctions against its regional archenemy. 

Last week, Netanyahu spent a day in London, meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, to discuss, he said, Iranian entrenchment in the Middle East, particularly on Israel’s northern border.

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On Thursday, Netanyahu headed to Sochi, Russia, to meet with President Vladimir Putin. 

“We are operating on several fronts, 360 degrees, in order to ensure the security of Israel in the face of the attempts of Iran and its proxies to attack us, and we are working against them,” the Israeli leader said upon his departure. 

After the publication of the Politico report, Netanyahu called the claims “an absolute lie.”

“There is a long-standing commitment and a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the U.S.,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s bureau. “This directive is strictly enforced without exception.”

Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and intelligence, Israel Katz, also denied that Israel had installed listening devices in the United States.

“Israel does not conduct any spy operations in the United States,” he said in a statement. “The U.S. and Israel share a lot of intelligence information and work together to prevent threats and strengthen the security of both countries.”

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Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, wrote on Twitter that the report was “fake news spiced with antisemitism.”

“Israel’s policy for decades has unequivocally banned spying in the United States,” he wrote. “I find it very hard to believe that this policy has changed.”

Chuck Freilich, a former national security adviser in Israel and an analyst of U.S.-Israel relations, also said the report was probably false.

“There are ‘dramatic’ reports of Israeli spying in the U.S. every few years, when someone in the administration does not like Israel or an Israeli policy and tries to use lingering American suspicions, ever since Jonathan Pollard, to sabotage the relationship,” he said. “This is pure nonsense. Israel learned its lesson the hard way with Pollard and made a clear decision never to risk the relationship so severely again.” 

Pollard was a former U.S. Navy analyst who was found guilty of spying for Israel in the 1980s and spent three decades in jail. He was freed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, but his fate remains a source of discontent for Israelis, with the United States continuing to refuse his request to immigrate to Israel.

The full scope of Pollard’s activities has never been disclosed, but in a letter written by then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to the presiding judge in the case, Pollard was described as one of the most damaging spies ever to operate in the United States.

However, unconfirmed accounts over the years suggest that Pollard was never recruited as a spy but rather volunteered for the work after being introduced to an Israeli military officer in New York in 1984. He later told colleagues that he had been “cultivated” by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to spy on the United States.

The belief is that while he worked at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Maryland, Pollard handed files to the Israelis, including documents relating to Arab troops, the Palestine Liberation Organization and chemical and biological warfare programs conducted by Iraq, Libya and Syria.

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