Home page logo

interesting-people logo Interesting People mailing list archives

IP: FBI probing Israeli wiretapping at White House --Insight mag
From: Dave Farber <farber () cis upenn edu>
Date: Sun, 07 May 2000 09:04:15 -0700

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 
systemwide penetration.

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 
our perspective.

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 
law-enforcement matter.^Ô

^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 
White House.

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 
good reason.

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 
news story.

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

  By Date           By Thread  

Current thread:
  • IP: FBI probing Israeli wiretapping at White House --Insight mag Dave Farber (May 07)
[ Nmap | Sec Tools | Mailing Lists | Site News | About/Contact | Advertising | Privacy ]