September 13, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sept 11, 2019. PHOTO: AFP
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday (Sept 12) denied a media report that Israel spied on cell phones in the vicinity of the White House – and US President Donald Trump said he believed him.
Speaking on a trip to Russia, Mr Netanyahu said there was no eavesdropping on cell phones around the US presidency because he had forbidden spying against the United States.
“I have a directive: no intelligence connection in the United States, no spying,” he said. “It’s rigorously enforced without any exception. It’s a complete fabrication.”
Online news outlet Politico reported that US officials believe Israelis were most likely to be behind several so-called stingray scanners, which mimic cell phone towers to intercept nearby calls and text messages, that were discovered in downtown Washington in 2017.
Several former national security officials told Politico that forensic analysis on the devices by the FBI and other agencies tied them to Israeli agents.
“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,” Politico wrote.
Mr Trump, who calls himself the most pro-Israel president in US history, told reporters at the White House that he doesn’t believe the allegations.
“I don’t think the Israelis were spying on us. I would find that hard to believe,” he said.
Earlier, Israel’s foreign and intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said the country “does not conduct any espionage missions in the United States”.
“The United States and Israel share between them a great deal of intelligence information and work together to prevent threats and to strengthen the security of the two states,” he said.
Stingrays are formally known as international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, devices able to monitor and track cellular device communications as they interact with networks.
They are increasingly used by police in criminal investigations to intercept cell phone activity by suspects, and have become a focus of controversy for their use without warrants.
Two years ago an unknown number of the devices were discovered inside Washington during a Department of Homeland Security test project investigating the risk posed by the devices.
Their discovery included “locations in proximity to potentially sensitive facilities like the White House,” DHS said in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden in May 2018.
But those responsible for putting them in place were never identified.
They could have been potentially useful at the time in monitoring Trump, who was known to use an unsecured cell phone for phone calls and text messages.