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By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: White House (Image: Public domain)
Donald Trump seems to have a strange idea of what constitutes friends. Consider who his friends are among other foreign leaders: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, etc.
Even the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump even called on his friend to not allow Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) to visit Israel.
It doesn't seem that strange until learning that Israel was accused of planting surveillance devices near the White House and in other places around Washington, DC.
At some point since Trump took office, the government concluded that Israel was behind planting the cell-phone surveillance devices, according to three former senior U.S. officials.
This is where it gets interesting, as Trump didn't call Israel out for this. He's accused former President Barack Obama of ordering the FBI to spy on his 2016 campaign, but he has said nothing publicly about Israel planting surveillance devices near the White House, and there doesn't seem to have been any consequences either.
These "StingRay" devices, known formally as international mobile subscriber identity-catchers or IMSI-catchers, fool cell phones into giving their locations and other identifying information by mimicking cell towers. They can also grab the call content and data use.
One of the former officials even said it's believed the devices were intended to spy on Trump, his aides, and associates. It's not clear whether this was a successful mission.
However, it's known that Trump is not one to pay attention to security protocols. He's been known to use an insecure cell phone to communicate with friends and confidants.
It was reported in The New York Times last October that Chinese spies were often listening to his calls. He blasted the story, saying, it was "so incorrect, I do not have time here to correct it."
According to a letter that the director of the Department of Homeland Seurity's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Christopher Krebs, wrote in May 2018, the devices had been discovered but weren't yet connected to Israel.
The FBI and other agencies working on the case, based on a forensic analysis, felt confident that Israeli agents had planted the devices. This is according to several former officials who served in top intelligence and national security posts.
Typically, the FBI's counterintelligence division examines 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," according to one of the former officials.
The FBI often relies on the National Security Agency and sometimes the CIA as well in these types of investigations. The DHS and Secret Service also aided in this particular investigation.
A former senior intelligence official said, "It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible."
Elad Strohmayer, an Israeli Embassy spokesperson denied they planted the devices, stating, "These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn't conduct espionage operations in the United States, period."
A current senior Trump administration official said the administration doesn't "comment on matters related to security or intelligence."
A former senior intelligence official explained that after the FBI and other government agencies concluded that Israel was responsible for the surveillance devices, the Trump administration did nothing to punish or even admonish Israel.
"The reaction ... was very different than it would have been in the last administration," added the official. "With the current administration, there are a different set of calculations in regard to addressing this," noting, "I'm not aware of any accountability at all."
A former senior Trump administration official also made mention that the information gleaned from this surveillance goes farther than conversations with top officials, as he also regularly communicates with confidants Steve Wynn, Sean Hannity, and attorney Rudy Giuliani.
"The people in that circle are heavily targeted," added the official, also explaining that information from anyone else who regularly talks to him, even his friends and informal advisers, "would be so valuable in a town that is like three degrees of separation like Kevin Bacon."
"The Israelis are pretty aggressive" when gathering intelligence, explains a former senior intelligence official. "They're all about protecting the security of the Israeli state, and they do whatever they feel they have to to achieve that objective."
The Chinese, who have been known to conduct intelligence operations in the U.S. as well, were also considered to have planted the devices, but it was determined to be unlikely based on an analysis of the devices.
While foreign espionage can be common in Washington, not many countries have the ability or budget for the StingRay devices that were found, leading to fingers pointing more toward Israel. These devices cost more than $150,000 each.
Professionals do take note of Israeli intelligence, but they have been known to make mistakes. Yet still, U.S. officials are taken aback at times by the emboldened spying.
"There were suspicions that they were listening in," reports a former official, based on Israelis flaunting detailed knowledge "that was hard to explain otherwise."
"Sometimes it was sort of knowledge of our thinking. Occasionally, there were some turns of phrase like language that as far as we knew had only appeared in drafts of speeches and never been actually used publicly, and then some Israeli official would repeat it back to us and say, 'This would be really problematic if you were to say X," continued the official.
It's noted that the U.S. regularly gathers intelligence on Israeli leaders as well. Regarding the recent devices found near the White House, a former senior U.S. intelligence official noted it raised security concerns, then quipped, "On the other hand, guess what we do in Tel Aviv?"
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