From: "James Lucier" <James.Lucier () att net>
To: <declan () well com>
Date: Fri, 5 May 2000 18:34:45 -0400
FBI Probes Espionage at Clinton White House
A foreign spy service appears to have penetrated secret communications in
the Clinton administration, which has discounted security and intelligence
By J. Michael Waller and Paul M. Rodriguez
The FBI is probing an explosive foreign-espionage operation that could
dwarf the other spy scandals plaguing the U.S. government. Insight has
learned that FBI counterintelligence is tracking a daring operation to spy
on high-level U.S. officials by hacking into supposedly secure telephone
networks. The espionage was facilitated, federal officials say, by lax
telephone-security procedures at the White House, State Department and
other high-level government offices and by a Justice Department
unwillingness to seek an indictment against a suspect.
The espionage operation may have serious ramifications because the FBI has
identified Israel as the culprit. It risks undermining U.S. public support
for the Jewish state at a time Israel is seeking billions of tax dollars
for the return of land to Syria. It certainly will add to perceptions that
the Clinton-Gore administration is not serious about national security.
Most important, it could further erode international confidence in the
ability of the United States to keep secrets and effectively lead as the
world^Òs only superpower.
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 Division 5, however, isn^Òt just
what they have uncovered, which is substantial, but what they don^Òt yet
know, according to Insight^Òs sources interviewed during a year-long
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.
The directors of the FBI and the CIA have been kept informed of the
ongoing counterintelligence operation, as have the president and top
officials at the departments of Defense, State and Justice and the NSC. A
^Óheads up^Ô has been given to the House and Senate Intelligence
Committees, but no government official would speak for the record.
^ÓIt^Òs a huge security nightmare,^Ô says a senior U.S. official familiar
with the super-secret counterintelligence operation. ^ÓThe implications
are severe,^Ô confirms a second with direct knowledge. ^ÓWe^Òre not even
sure we know the extent of it,^Ô says a third high-ranking intelligence
official. ^ÓAll I can tell you is that we think we know how it was done,^Ô
this third intelligence executive tells Insight. ^ÓThat alone is serious
enough, but it^Òs the unknown that has such deep consequences.
A senior government official who would go no further than to admit
awareness of the FBI probe, says: ^ÓIt is a politically sensitive matter.
I can^Òt comment on it beyond telling you that anything involving Israel
on this particular matter is off-limits. It^Òs that hot.
It is very hot indeed. For nearly a year, FBI agents had been tracking an
Israeli businessman working for a local phone company. The man^Òs 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^Òs most sensitive telephone numbers, including the Bureau^Òs
^Óblack^Ô 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.
^ÓIt was a shock,^Ô says an intelligence professional familiar with the
FBI phone list. ^ÓIt called into question the entire operation. We had
been compromised. But for how long?
This discovery by Division 5 should have come as no surprise, given what
its agents had been tracking for many months. But the FBI discovered
enough information to make it believe that, somehow, the highest levels of
the State Department were compromised, as well as the White House and the
NSC. According to Insight^Òs sources with direct knowledge, other secure
government telephone systems and/or phones to which government officials
called also appear to have been compromised.
The tip-off about these operations ^× the pursuit of which sometimes has
led the FBI on some wild-goose chases ^× appears to have come from the
CIA, says an Insight source. A local phone manager had become suspicious
in late 1996 or early 1997 about activities by a subcontractor working on
phone-billing software and hardware designs for the CIA.
The subcontractor was employed by an Israeli-based company and cleared for
such work. But suspicious behavior raised red flags. After a fairly quick
review, the CIA handed the problem to the FBI for follow-up. This was not
the first time the FBI had been asked to investigate such matters and,
though it was politically explosive because it involved Israel, Division 5
ran with the ball. ^ÓThis is always a sensitive issue for the Bureau,^Ô
says a former U.S. intelligence officer. ^ÓWhen it has anything to do with
Israel, it^Òs something you just never want to poke your nose into. But
this one had too much potential to ignore because it involved a potential
Seasoned counterintelligence veterans are not surprised. ^ÓThe Israelis
conduct intelligence as if they are at war. That^Òs something we have to
realize,^Ô says David Major, a retired FBI supervisory special agent and
former director of counterintelligence at the NSC. While the U.S. approach
to intelligence is much more relaxed, says Major, the very existence of
Israel is threatened and it regards itself as is in a permanent state of
war. ^ÓThere are a lot less handcuffs on intelligence for a nation that
sees itself at war,^Ô Major observes, but ^Óthat doesn^Òt excuse it from
For years, U.S. intelligence chiefs have worried about moles burrowed into
their agencies, but detecting them was fruitless. The activities of
Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard were uncovered by accident, but there remains
puzzlement to this day as to how he was able to ascertain which documents
to search, how he did so on so many occasions without detection, or how he
ever obtained the security clearances that opened the doors to such
secrets. In all, it is suspected, Pollard turned over to his Israeli
handlers about 500,000 documents, including photographs, names and
locations of overseas agents. ^ÓThe damage was incredible,^Ô a current
U.S. intelligence officer tells Insight. ^ÓWe^Òre still recovering from it.
Also there has been concern for years that a mole was operating in the NSC
and, while not necessarily supplying highly secret materials to foreign
agents, has been turning over precious details on meetings and policy
briefings that are being used to track or otherwise monitor government
activities. The current hush-hush probe by the FBI, and what its agents
believe to be a serious but amorphous security breach involving telephone
and modem lines that are being monitored by Israeli agents, has even more
serious ramifications. ^ÓIt has been an eye opener,^Ô says one
high-ranking U.S. government official, shaking his head in horror as to
the potential level and scope of penetration.
As for how this may have been done technologically, the FBI believes it
has uncovered a means using telephone-company equipment at remote sites to
track calls placed to or received from high-ranking government officials,
possibly including the president himself, according to Insight^Òs
top-level sources. One of the methods suspected is use of a private
company that provides record-keeping software and support services for
major telephone utilities in the United States.
A local telephone company director of security Roger Kochman tells
Insight, ^ÓI don^Òt know anything about it, which would be highly unusual.
I am not familiar with anything in that area.
U.S. officials believe that an Israeli penetration of that telephone
utility in the Washington area was coordinated with a penetration of
agents using another telephone support-services company to target select
telephone lines. Suspected penetration includes lines and systems at the
White House and NSC, where it is believed that about four specific phones
were monitored ^× either directly or through remote sites that may involve
numbers dialed from the complex.
^Ó[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,^Ô 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: ^ÓThe access had to be done in such a
way as to evade our countermeasures ^Å That^Òs what^Òs most disconcerting.
Another senior U.S. intelligence source adds: ^ÓHow long this has been
going on is something we don^Òt know. How many phones or telephone systems
we don^Òt know either, but the best guess is that it^Òs no more than 24 at
a time ^Å as far as we can tell.
And has President Clinton been briefed? ^ÓYes, he has. After all, he^Òs
had meetings with his Israeli counterparts,^Ô says a senior U.S. official
with direct knowledge. Whether the president or his national-security
aides, including NSC chief Sandy Berger, have shared or communicated U.S.
suspicions and alarm is unclear, as is the matter of any Israeli response.
^ÓThis is the first I^Òve heard of it,^Ô White House National Security
Council spokesman Dave Stockwell tells Insight. ^ÓThat doesn^Òt mean it
doesn^Òt exist or that someone else doesn^Òt know.^Ô
Despite elaborate precautions by the U.S. agencies involved, say
Insight^Òs sources, this alleged Israeli intelligence coup came down to
the weakest link in the security chain: the human element. The technical
key appears to be software designs for telephone billing records and
support equipment required for interfacing with local telephone company
hardware installed in some federal agencies. The FBI has deduced that it
was this sophisticated computer-related equipment and software could
provide real-time audio feeds. In fact, according to Insight^Òs sources,
the FBI believes that at least one secure T-1 line routed to Tel Aviv has
been used in the suspected espionage.
The potential loss of U.S. secrets is incalculable. So is the possibility
that senior U.S. officials could be blackmailed for indiscreet telephone
talk. Many officials do not like to bother with using secure, encrypted
phones and have classified discussions on open lines.
Which brings the story back to some obvious questions involving the
indiscreet telephone conversations of the president himself. Were they
tapped, and, if so did they involve national-security issues or just
matters of the flesh? Monica Lewinsky told Kenneth Starr, as recounted in
his report to Congress, that Lewinsky and Clinton devised cover stories
should their trysts be uncovered and/or their phone-sex capers be overheard.
Specifically, she said that on March 29, 1997, she and Clinton were
huddled in the Oval Office suite engaging in a sexual act. It was not the
first time. But, according to Lewinsky as revealed under oath to the
investigators for the Office of Independent Counsel, it was unusual
because of what the president told her. ^ÓHe suspected that a foreign
embassy was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories,^Ô the
Starr report says. ^ÓIf ever questioned, she should say that the two of
them were just friends. If anyone ever asked about their phone sex, she
should say that they knew their calls were being monitored all along, and
the phone sex was just a put on.^Ô
In his own testimony before a federal grand jury, Clinton denied the
incident. But later ^× much later ^× he admitted to improper behavior and
was impeached but not convicted. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber
Wright found him to have obstructed justice. Curiously, Starr never
informed Congress whether the Lewinsky tale was true. For that matter,
according to Insight^Òs sources, Starr never bothered to find out from
appropriate agencies, such as the FBI or the CIA, whether the monitoring
by a foreign government of the president^Òs conversations with Lewinsky
Insight has learned that House and Senate investigators did ask questions
about these matters and in late 1998 were told directly by the FBI and the
CIA (among others) that there was no truth to the Lewinsky claim of
foreign tapping of White House phones. Moreover, Congress was told there
was no investigation of any kind involving any foreign embassy or foreign
government espionage in such areas.
But that was not true. In fact, the FBI and other U.S. agencies, including
the Pentagon, had been working furiously and painstakingly for well over a
year on just such a secret probe, and fears were rampant of the damage
that could ensue if the American public found out that even the remotest
possibility existed that the president^Òs phone conversations could be
monitored and the president subject to foreign blackmail. To the FBI
agents involved, that chance seemed less and less remote.
The FBI has become increasingly frustrated by both the pace of its
investigation and its failure to gain Justice Department cooperation to
seek an indictment of at least one individual suspected of involvement in
the alleged Israeli telephone intercepts. National security is being
invoked to cover an espionage outrage. But, as a high law-enforcement
source says, ^ÓTo bring this to trial would require we reveal our methods
of operation, and we can^Òt do that at this point ^Ö the FBI has not made
the case strong enough.^Ô Moreover, says a senior U.S. policy official
with knowledge of the case: ^ÓThis is a hugely political issue, not just a
^ÑYou^Òve Got the Crown Jewels^Ò
If spies wanted to penetrate the White House, a facility widely considered
the most secure in the world, how might it be done? For that matter, how
might any agency or department of government be penetrated by spies?
^ÓActually, it^Òs pretty easy if you know what you^Òre doing,^Ô says a
retired U.S. intelligence expert who has helped (along with other
government sources) to guide Insight through the many and often
complicated pathways of government security and counterespionage.
Access to designs, databases, ^Óblueprints,^Ô memos, telephone numbers,
lists of personnel and passwords all can be obtained. And from surprising
sources. Several years ago this magazine was able to review from a remote
site information on the supposedly secret and inaccessible White House
Office Data Base, or WHODB (see ^ÓMore Personal Secrets on File @ the
White House,^Ô July 15, 1996).
Despite the spending of additional millions to beef up security when the
White House installed a modern $30 million computerized telephone system a
few years ago, communications security remains a big problem. Whatever the
level of sophistication employed, there are soft underbellies that raise
significant national-security problems. And potential for espionage, such
as electronic intercepting of phone calls, is very great.
Calls to or from the White House dealing with classified information are
supposed to be handled on secure lines, but it doesn^Òt always happen.
Sometimes, according to Insight^Òs sources, despite the existence of
special phones at the White House and elsewhere to handle such calls, some
don^Òt use them or only one side of the call does. An Insight editor
recently was allowed for demonstration purposes to overhear a conversation
placed over an unsecured line involving a ^Óclassified^Ô topic.
Carelessness always has been a problem, but former and current FBI special
agents say that under the Clinton administration the disregard for
security has been epidemic. Many officials simply don^Òt like the bother
of communicating on secure phones.
In another instance, Insight was provided access to virtually every
telephone number within the White House, including those used by outside
agencies with employees in the complex, and even the types of computers
used and who uses them. Just by way of illustration, this information
allowed direct access to communications instruments located in the Oval
Office, the residence, bathrooms and grounds.
With such information, according to security and intelligence experts, a
hacker or spy could target individual telephone lines and write software
codes enabling the conversations to be forwarded in real-time for remote
recording and transcribing. The White House complex contains approximately
5,800 voice, fax and modem lines.
^ÓHaving a phone number in and of itself will not necessarily gain you
access for monitoring purposes,^Ô Insight was told by a senior
intelligence official with regular contact at the White House. ^ÓThe
systems are designed to electronically mask routes and generate secure
connections.^Ô That said, coupling a known phone number to routing
sequences and trunk lines would pose a security risk, this official says.
Add to that detailed knowledge of computer codes used to move call traffic
and your hacker or spy is in a very strong position. ^ÓThat^Òs why we have
so many redundancies and security devices on the systems ^× so we can tell
if someone is trying to hack in,^Ô says a current security official at the
Shown a sampling of the hoard of data collected over just a few months of
digging, the security official^Òs face went flush: ^ÓHow the hell did you
get that! This is what we are supposed to guard against. This is not
supposed to be public.^Ô
Indeed. Nor should the telephone numbers or locations of remote sites or
trunk lines or other sundry telecommunications be accessible. What^Òs
surprising is that most of this specialized information reviewed by
Insight is unclassified in its separate pieces. When you put it together,
the solved puzzle is considered a national-security secret. And for very
Consider the following: Insight not only was provided secure current phone
numbers to the most sensitive lines in the world, but it discovered a
remote telephone site in the Washington area which plugs into the White
House telecommunications system. Given national-security concerns, Insight
has been asked not to divulge any telephone number, location of
high-security equipment, or similar data not directly necessary for this
Concerning the remote telecommunications site, Insight discovered not only
its location and access telephone numbers but other information, including
the existence of a secret ^Óback door^Ô to the computer system that had
been left open for upward of two years without anyone knowing about the
security lapse. This back door, common to large computer systems, is used
for a variety of services, including those involving technicians,
supervisors, contractors and security officers to run diagnostic checks,
make repairs and review system operations.
^ÓThis is more than just a technical blunder,^Ô says a well-placed source
with detailed knowledge of White House security issues. ^ÓThis is a very
serious security failure with unimaginable consequences. Anyone could have
accessed that [back door] and gotten into the entire White House phone
system and obtained numbers and passwords that we never could track,^Ô the
source said, echoing yet another source familiar with the issue.
Although it is not the responsibility of the Secret Service to manage
equipment systems, the agency does provide substantial security controls
over telecommunications and support service into or out of the White
House. In fact, the Secret Service maintains its own electronic devices on
the phone system to help protect against penetration. ^ÓThat^Òs what is so
troubling about this,^Ô says a security expert with ties to the White
House. ^ÓThere are redundant systems to catch such errors and this was not
caught. It^Òs quite troubling.^Å It^Òs not supposed to happen.^Ô
Insight asked a senior federal law-enforcement official with knowledge of
the suspected Israeli spying case about the open electronic door. ^ÓI
didn^Òt know about this incident. It certainly is something we should have
known given the scope of what^Òs at stake,^Ô the official says.
Then Insight raised the matter of obtaining phone numbers, routing
systems, equipment sites, passwords and other data on the
telecommunications systems used by the White House: How hard would it be
for a foreign intelligence service to get this information? ^ÓObviously
not as hard as we thought,^Ô a senior government official said. ^ÓNow you
understand what we^Òre facing and why we are so concerned.^Ô
That^Òs one reason, Insight is told, the White House phone system is
designed to mask all outgoing calls to prevent outsiders from tracing back
into the system to set up taps. However, knowing the numbers called
frequently by the White House, foreign agents could set up listening
devices on those lines to capture incoming or outgoing calls. Another way
of doing it, according to security experts, is to get inside the White
House system. And, though it^Òs considered impossible, that^Òs what they
said about getting the phone numbers that the president uses in his office
and residence. Like trash, information is everywhere ^× and often is
overlooked when trying to tidy up a mess.
^× PMR and JMW
^ÑSo What, It^Òs Only Israel!^Ò
There is a tendency in and out of government to minimize the impact of
Israeli espionage against the United States because Israel is a friendly
country. That overlooks the gravity of the espionage threat, says David
Major, former director of counterintelligence programs at the National
Security Council. ^ÓThis ^Ñdon^Òt worry about allied spying, it^Òs okay^Ò
attitude is harmful,^Ô he warns. ^ÓThe U.S. should expect that the rest of
the world is bent on rooting out its national-security secrets and the
secrets that could subject its leaders to blackmail.^Ô Minimizing or
excusing ^Ófriendly spying,^Ô he argues, only discourages vigilance and
encourages more attacks on U.S. national security. ^ÓI^Òm not outraged by
nations that find it in their interests to collect intelligence but by our
unwillingness to seriously pursue counterintelligence.^Ô
Major, now dean of the private Center for Counterintelligence and Security
Studies, asks: ^ÓWhat price should Israel pay for this? My predictions are
that there will be no impact whatsoever. Do we put our heads in the sand
or do we take it as a wake-up call?^Ô
Others observe that Israel has passed stolen U.S. secrets to America^Òs
adversaries. The government of Yitzhak Shamir reportedly provided the
Soviet Union with valuable U.S. documents stolen by Israeli spy Jonathan
Pollard. ^ÓIt^Òs the security equivalent of herpes,^Ô says a former U.S.
antiterrorism official now at a pro-Israel think tank who requested
anonymity. ^ÓWho gets it [beyond Israel] nobody knows.... Once we let it
happen, the word gets out that ^Ñyou can get away with this.^Ò^Ô