On Wednesday morning, Politico reported, as a breathless “exclusive,” that “Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington.”
The charge is explosive, not just for U.S.-Israeli relations but for internal Israeli elections. The Israelis are holding elections next week, and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party are running on the closeness between Netanyahu and President Trump as a key advantage. Suggestions of tension, let alone a genuine “blow-up,” could swing the election and with it, the direction of Israeli history.
A responsible journalist leveling this sort of charge at such a time would only do so with deep and unimpeachable sourcing and only if the details of the story were incredibly solid. Thus, readers might be surprised to learn that the entire piece was hung on three former administration officials who said it’s unclear whether the efforts were successful or if it was actually the Israelis.
A few things in particular should render audiences quite skeptical of this recent Politico report, which the mainstream media has scooped up without much questioning (naturally). Trump himself has stated he does not believe the allegations, but below are several questions the media should be asking:
Which Administration Did These Former Officials Belong To?
President Trump personally cast doubt on the reporting later in the day. U.S. officials denied it as flat-out false. No Trump administration figures have reinforced the allegations. However, the Politico story was immediately taken up by formers security officials from the Obama administration (here and here), those who served as part of the infamous Echo Chamber that was hostile to Israel and wanted to realign America with Iran. These are the same people who, when they were in the White House, regularly leaked information to reporters — some true, some highly questionable – to undermine Israel’s security. They are also the same team that attempted to unseat Netanyahu in previous elections, which resulted in a congressional investigation that found the State Department had purged emails about the campaign.
Putting aside the former officials’ motives and hostility, the obvious question becomes: If the Politico story is based on statements from people who are indeed former officials, how would they know this information? And how could the reporter know they know?
How Would Trump Behave, Had There Been No Spying?
The other factor that seems particularly odd in this story is the large emphasis on Trump and his unwillingness to hold the Israelis accountable for the alleged transgressions. However, Trump’s behavior — indifference — would be precisely the same if the Israelis had not been spying. It hardly seems a data point, but the reporter presents it in the same sort of breathless manner that characterizes most reporting on Trump.
How Ubiquitous Are StingRays, And What Distinguishes an Israeli StingRay?
The phone tracking device, known as a StingRay, allegedly used by the Israelis to spy on President Trump, is a device that is fairly pedestrian within the surveillance community. However, the Politico piece quotes a former Trump official as saying that the usage of StingRays is “not … easy or ubiquitous.” This is false. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 27 states and the District of Columbia currently use StingRay devices, and the ACLU admits this is a conservative estimate. They are frequently used abroad as well, with enough frequency that an entire international campaign has centered on stopping their usage in various countries. Thus, to portray these devices as particularly unique seems misguided.
Furthermore, the ability to trace the device to the Israelis would be quite a feat, but the report goes into no specific details about what might distinguish a Chinese StingRay or Saudi Arabian StingRay from an Israeli one, even from a general standpoint. The Politico piece cites typical analysis of surveillance equipment, which may include a study of the “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,” but there’s no mention of how greatly these devices may vary from one source to another — or how effective that analysis was, besides the fact they arrived at a “likely” conclusion.
It’s also unclear from the way the piece is worded whether all of those details listed above were able to be garnered from the device; the piece just describes a “typical” process. It’s a healthy exercise to wonder how great the distinctions might be, given these distinctions serve as the basis of the entire report.
As with most things the mainstream media publishes with regard to Israel, there is decent reason to remain skeptical. The recent allegations of Israeli spying are no exception.