Israel’s secret agents in the USA and their FBI trackers
By Scott Shane, New York Times
WASHINGTON – When Shamai K. Leibowitz, an F.B.I. translator, was sentenced to 20 months in prison last year for leaking classified information to a blogger, prosecutors revealed little about the case. They identified the blogger in court papers only as “Recipient A.” After Mr. Leibowitz pleaded guilty, even the judge said he did not know exactly what Mr. Leibowitz had disclosed.
“All I know is that it’s a serious case,” Judge Alexander Williams Jr., of United States District Court in Maryland, said at the sentencing in May 2010. “I don’t know what was divulged other than some documents, and how it compromised things, I have no idea.”
Now the reason for the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the Obama administration’s first prosecution for leaking information to the news media seems clear: Mr. Leibowitz, a contract Hebrew translator, passed on secret transcripts of conversations caught on F.B.I. wiretaps of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Those overheard by the eavesdroppers included American supporters of Israel and at least one member of Congress, according to the blogger, Richard Silverstein.
In his first interview about the case, Mr. Silverstein offered a rare glimpse of American spying on a close ally.
He said he had burned the secret documents in his Seattle backyard after Mr. Leibowitz came under investigation in mid-2009, but he recalled that there were about 200 pages of verbatim records of telephone calls and what seemed to be embassy conversations. He said that in one transcript, Israeli officials discussed their worry that their exchanges might be monitored.
Mr. Leibowitz, who declined to comment for this article, released the documents because of concerns about Israel’s aggressive efforts to influence Congress and public opinion, and fears that Israel might strike nuclear facilities in Iran, a move he saw as potentially disastrous, according to Mr. Silverstein.
While the American government routinely eavesdrops on some embassies inside the United States, intelligence collection against allies is always politically delicate, especially one as close as Israel.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation listens in on foreign embassies and officials in the United States chiefly to track foreign spies, though any intelligence it obtains on other matters is passed on to the C.I.A. and other agencies. The intercepts are carried out by the F.B.I.’s Operational Technology Division, based in Quantico, Va., according to Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence writer who describes the bureau’s monitoring in a book, “Intel Wars,” scheduled for publication in January. Translators like Mr. Leibowitz work at an F.B.I. office in Calverton, Md.
Former counterintelligence officials describe Israeli intelligence operations in the United States as quite extensive, ranking just below those of China and Russia, and F.B.I. counterintelligence agents have long kept an eye on Israeli spying.
For most eavesdropping on embassies, federal law requires the F.B.I. to obtain an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret at a federal courthouse in Washington. If an American visiting or calling an embassy turns up on a recording, the F.B.I. is required by law to remove the American’s name from intelligence reports, substituting the words “U.S. person.” But raw transcripts would not necessarily have undergone such editing, called “minimization.”
Mr. Silverstein’s account could not be fully corroborated, but it fits the publicly known facts about the case. Spokesmen for the F.B.I., the Justice Department and the Israeli Embassy declined to comment on either eavesdropping on the embassy or Mr. Leibowitz’s crime. He admitted disclosing “classified information concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States,” standard language for the interception of phone calls, e-mails and other messages by the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency, which generally focuses on international communications.
Mr. Leibowitz, now in a Federal Bureau of Prisons halfway house in Maryland, is prohibited by his plea agreement from discussing anything he learned at the F.B.I. Two lawyers who represented Mr. Leibowitz, Cary M. Feldman and Robert C. Bonsib, also would not comment.
Mr. Silverstein, 59, writes a blog called Tikun Olam, named after a Hebrew phrase that he said means “repairing the world.” The blog gives a liberal perspective on Israel and Israeli-American relations. He said he had decided to speak out to make clear that Mr. Leibowitz, though charged under the Espionage Act, was acting out of noble motives. The Espionage Act has been used by the Justice Department in nearly all prosecutions of government employees for disclosing classified information to the news media, including the record-setting five such cases under President Obama.
Mr. Silverstein said he got to know Mr. Leibowitz, a lawyer with a history of political activism, after noticing that he, too, had a liberal-minded blog, called Pursuing Justice. The men shared a concern about repercussions from a possible Israeli airstrike on nuclear facilities in Iran. From his F.B.I. work from January to August of 2009, Mr. Leibowitz also believed that Israeli diplomats’ efforts to influence Congress and shape American public opinion were excessive and improper, Mr. Silverstein said.
“I see him as an American patriot and a whistle-blower, and I’d like his actions to be seen in that context,” Mr. Silverstein said. “What really concerned Shamai at the time was the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran, which he thought would be damaging to both Israel and the United States.”
Mr. Silverstein took the blog posts he had written based on Mr. Leibowitz’s material off his site after the criminal investigation two years ago. But he was able to retrieve three posts from April 2009 from his computer and provided them to The New York Times.
The blog posts make no reference to eavesdropping, but describe information from “a confidential source,” wording Mr. Silverstein said was his attempt to disguise the material’s origin.
One post reports that the Israeli Embassy provided “regular written briefings” on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza to President Obama in the weeks between his election and inauguration. Another describes calls involving Israeli officials in Jerusalem, Chicago and Washington to discuss the views of members of Congress on Israel. A third describes a call between an unnamed Jewish activist in Minnesota and the Israeli Embassy about an embassy official’s meeting with Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, who was planning an official trip to Gaza.
Mr. Silverstein said he remembered that embassy officials talked about drafting opinion articles to be published under the names of American supporters. He said the transcripts also included a three-way conversation between a congressman from Texas, an American supporter of the congressman and an embassy official; Mr. Silverstein said he could not recall any of the names.
At his sentencing, Mr. Leibowitz described what he had done as “a one-time mistake that happened to me when I worked at the F.B.I. and saw things which I considered were violation of the law, and I should not have told a reporter about it.”
That was a reference to Israeli diplomats’ attempts to influence Congress, Mr. Silverstein said, though nothing Mr. Leibowitz described to him appeared to be beyond the bounds of ordinary lobbying.
Mr. Leibowitz, 40, the father of 6-year-old twins at the time of sentencing, seems an unlikely choice for an F.B.I. translation job. He was born in Israel to a family prominent in academic circles. He practiced law in Israel for several years, representing several controversial clients, including Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader convicted of directing terrorist attacks on Israelis, who Mr. Leibowitz once said reminded him of Moses.
In 2004, Mr. Leibowitz moved to Silver Spring, Md., outside Washington, where he was a leader in his synagogue. Mr. Silverstein said Mr. Leibowitz holds dual American and Israeli citizenship.
In court, Mr. Leibowitz expressed anguish about the impact of the case on his marriage and family, which he said was “destitute.” He expressed particular sorrow about leaving his children. “At the formative time of their life, when they’re 6 years old and they’re just finishing first grade, I’ll be absent from their life, and that is the most terrible thing about this case,” he said.
While treated as highly classified by the F.B.I., the fact that the United States spies on Israel is taken for granted by experts on intelligence. “We started spying on Israel even before the state of Israel was formally founded in 1948, and Israel has always spied on us,” said Mr. Aid, the author. “Israeli intercepts have always been one of the most sensitive categories,” designated with the code word Gamma to indicate their protected status, he said.
Douglas M. Bloomfield, an American columnist for several Jewish publications, said that when he worked in the 1980s for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group, he assumed that communications with the embassy were not private.
“I am not surprised at all to learn that the F.B.I. was listening to the Israelis,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a wise use of resources because I don’t see Israel as a threat to American security.”
Correction: September 7, 2011, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An article on Tuesday about a leak prosecution involving the disclosure of transcripts of F.B.I. eavesdropping on the Israeli Embassy in Washington gave an outdated location for the secret court that approves such wiretaps. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court moved to the federal courthouse in Washington in 2009; it is no longer at the Justice Department.
Leibowitz Leak Story in NY Times
I’ve kept silent till now about the publication of yesterday’s front page story in the NY Times about my collaboration with Shamai Leibowitz in leaking U.S. surveillance of a covert Israeli campaign to drum up hostility in this country toward Iran. I’ll have more to say about it by and by. Right now I’m just trying to absorb what’s happened. But suffice to say it’s been quite a whirlwind. Today alone, I was interviewed by the BBC World Service, AP, Hurriyet, Al Quds, Salon, Jerusalem Post and the Seattle Times. Though not, curiously enough, by Haaretz.
Haaretz’s first Hebrew language report said that Shamai worked for the Defense Department! Its headlinepredictably focussed on the fact that the U.S. was spying on Israel (shocking!) instead of on the real story, which was that Israel’s diplomats were finding out who was naughty and nice to Israel in the U.S. Congress in order to prepare for a possible run-up to a war against Iran. When you think about the fact that Israel’s leading so-called liberal newspaper couldn’t be bothered to hear my own perspective on the story, it’s well, almost dumbfounding.
The far-right pro-Israel blogosphere is shreying for blood saying I should be prosecuted for obstructing justice. Even Dan Sieradski, who prides himself on being quite a radical snarkily amplifies the right wingers, saying he hopes I have a good lawyer. I’ll tell you what Dan, you tell me who your lawyer is and then I’ll tell you who my lawyer won’t be. And sorry fellas, the government has known for almost two years what I did with the documents. Not to mention, it would quite something to prosecute a journalist for publishing a leaked document. If they did it would close down political reporting in this country for quite some time.
My BBC World Service interview on The World Today program with Max Pearson is here (audio) [http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Silverstein-BBC-interview.mp3]. Thanks to those readers who helped locate it.
UPDATE: Finally, I want to make crystal clear that Shamai Leibowitz has played no role in my current decision to make this matter public. Until yesterday, I had had no contact with him whatsoever since well before he was indicted.
Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
If any one ever needed any justification for FBI spying on the official Israeli governmental presence in this country (diplomats and covert agents included) they need look no farther than today’s news that a former senior White House scientist, spied on behalf of Israel’s major aerospace defense contractor (the Israeli equivalent of Boeing or Martin Marietta), earning several hundred thousand dollars in the process:
A former senior government scientist who held the highest security clearances pleaded guilty to espionage on Wednesday and agreed to a 13-year prison term for selling top-secret information on military satellites and other technology to an F.B.I. agent posing as an Israeli spy.
The scientist, Stewart D. Nozette, 54, who worked at the White House in 1989-90 and helped lead the search for water on the moon, was not charged with spying for Israel.
But Dr. Nozette consulted for a state-owned Israeli company, identified in the Israeli news media as Israel Aerospace Industries, from 1998 to 2008. The company paid him a total of $225,000 for answering technical questions it posed monthly, according to court documents.
The report calls Nozette one of the highest ranking U.S. scientists ever to be caught trying to spy for a foreign power. And it certainly is no accident that the foreign power in this case is Israel, since an internal CIA survey found Israel’s intelligence operations in this country to be third most intrusive behind Russia’s and China’s. That’s some pretty august company if you ask me.
Let those Israelis beating their breast asking “is this the way allies treat each other” stop the wailing and gnashing of teeth. The type of surveillance operation in which Shamai Leibowitz worked in the FBI is critical in order to stop precisely this sort of betrayal of U.S. interests. And lest anyone argue there is a qualitative difference between the military secrets stolen by the Israelis and the activities uncovered by Leibowitz’ leaked material–there is. But the difference is a matter of degrees and not of magnitude.
Giving Israel our secret satellite technology is certainly a severe breach, but an attack on Iran, facilitated to some degree by Israel’s diplomatic community is equally serious if not more so.
Another nugget Scott Shane included in his report is this information which leads one to believe that there is almost no difference between Israeli defense companies and Israeli intelligence:
In September 2009, the undercover F.B.I. agent called Dr. Nozette and arranged to meet him at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where the agent said he worked for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Dr. Nozette replied, “Good. Happy to be of assistance,” according to the statement of facts. The scientist told the agent, “I thought I was working for you already.”
UPDATE: A reader, Shmuel pointed out a nuance I missed in my original post. Nozette was trying to spy for Israel, but actually he was caught by a counter-intelligence sting before he did so. However, it is also noted in the Times report that Nozette already served as a paid consultant to Israeli Aerospace Industries. Apparently the work he did for them was, in his mind, little different that what he expected to do for the “Mossad” agent who approached. So one has to ask whether Nozette was already betraying U.S. secrets even before he was caught.