Tuesday, May 9, 2000

In an explosive article published Friday, Insight Magazine’s J. Michael Waller and Paul M. Rodriguez warn of a “foreign espionage operation that could dwarf the other spy scandals plaguing the U.S. government” an operation involving the apparent, wholesale penetration by Israeli intelligence of secure telephone lines and networks serving the White House, State and Defense Departments and FBI, among other agencies.

Unfortunately, if Insight’s characterization of the scope of this sophisticated act of espionage is confirmed, it will be just the latest evidence that the Clinton-Gore administration is bequeathing to its successor a legacy of indifference to basic security procedures whose terrible costs may not be fully understood for years to come.

The following are among the most important portions of the 15,000-word article published on Insight’s web site on May 5:

• “More than two dozen U.S. intelligence, counterintelligence, law-enforcement and other officials have told Insight that the FBI believes Israel has intercepted telephone and modem communications on some of the most sensitive lines of the U.S. government on an ongoing basis. The worst penetrations are believed to be in the State Department. But others say the supposedly secure telephone systems in the White House, Defense Department and Justice Department may have been compromised as well.”

• “The problem for FBI agents in the famed [counterintelligence] Division 5, however, isn’t just what they have uncovered, which is substantial, but what they don’t yet know, according to Insight’s sources interviewed during a yearlong investigation by the magazine. Of special concern is how to confirm and deal with the potentially sweeping espionage penetration of key U.S. government telecommunications systems allowing foreign eavesdropping on calls to and from the White House, the National Security Council, or NSC, the Pentagon and the State Department.”

• “For nearly a year, FBI agents had been tracking an Israeli businessman working for a local phone company. The man’s wife is alleged to be a Mossad officer under diplomatic cover at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Mossad the Israeli intelligence service is known to station husband-and-wife teams abroad, but it was not known whether the husband is a full-fledged officer, an agent or something else. When federal agents made a search of his work area they found a list of the FBI’s most sensitive telephone numbers, including the Bureau’s ‘black’ lines used for wiretapping. Some of the listed numbers were lines that FBI counterintelligence used to keep track of the suspected Israeli spy operation. The hunted were tracking the hunters.”

• ” ‘The FBI uncovered what appears to be a sophisticated means to listen in on conversations from remote telephone sites with capabilities of providing real-time audio feeds directly to Tel Aviv,’ says a U.S. official familiar with the FBI investigation. Details of how this could have been pulled off are highly guarded. However, a high-level U.S. intelligence source tells Insight: ‘The access had to be done in such a way as to evade our countermeasures… . That’s what’s most disconcerting.’ ”

• ” ‘This is more than just a technical blunder,’ says a well-placed source with detailed knowledge of White House security issues. ‘This is a very serious security failure with unimaginable consequences.’”

The official Clinton-Gore line is that there is nothing to the Insight revelations. An unnamed “senior federal law enforcement official” was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “The FBI has all but closed an extensive investigation into allegations that Israeli spies penetrated the White House and other government telephone systems, finding no evidence of a breach … [after] more than a year of investigation failed to substantiate the allegations and … the FBI identified no one to arrest.” For its part, the Israeli government has issued a formal denial of the story declaring, “The State of Israel does not carry out any espionage of any kind against the United States or on its territory.”

One explanation for the disconnect between the detailed and seemingly well substantiated revelations of the Insight article and the disavowal offered by a “senior law enforcement official” is that the latter was not one of the very few individuals “read in” on this highly sensitive counterintelligence operation. If so, he like many other normally reliable sources in the relevant agencies may unwittingly be erring when they claim there is no fire amidst all this smoke.

Another factor may be the sheer mortification federal counterintelligence officials understandably feel about having to acknowledge that their own “black” numbers, used to monitor foreign intelligence operatives, were among the phone lines believed to have been compromised.

Clearly, the relevant congressional committees must immediately turn to the task of establishing the facts amidst these allegations and begin what will likely prove to be a very difficult and time-consuming job of assessing the damage. This inquiry must not be thwarted, slowed or otherwise compromised, however, because the alleged perpetrator is the intelligence service of one of the United States’ most important and valued allies, Israel. Israel’s implausible denial notwithstanding, the fact is that even friendly countries spy upon each other. While I am personally deeply committed to Israel’s security, as an American, I can only hope that the U.S. government has at least as thorough an awareness of the workings of the Israeli government as the latter appears to have of ours.

The obligation to prevent espionage against this nation wherever possible whether by allies or potential adversaries and, where it has occurred, to mitigate its harmful effects, demands that a no-holds-barred examination be conducted into the reported penetration of sensitive communications systems. In particular, this inquiry cannot be impinged upon by considerations such as the Clinton-Gore administration’s hope to secure untold billions in additional foreign aid and military assistance for Israel as a lubricant for its concessions in the so-called “peace process.”

Congress must also take on a larger task, however. In the remaining months of this session, the legislative branch owes the American people as full as possible an accounting of the cumulative damage done to U.S. national security by the Clinton-Gore administration’s seven-years of inattention to if not utter contempt for the most elementary of physical, personnel and information security practices. It is not enough to address in isolation the litany of bugged conference rooms, missing laptops, improperly “shared” intelligence, individuals with ties to Chinese intelligence granted access to the White House and high office in the Commerce Department, etc., etc., etc. The public is entitled to, and must have as it considers to whom to give a mandate for governance over the next four years, a full accounting of this ominous aspect of the Clinton legacy.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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