Report of Israeli Eavesdropping on White House Telephones Gets Varying Media Treatment

Richard H. Curtiss

In its May 29, 2000, issue Insight magazine published an in-depth report headlined "FBI Probes Espionage at Clinton White House." The article, actually released on May 5, was the result of a one-year investigation by editors J. Michael Waller and Paul M. Rodriguez into reports that the FBI was probing allegations that the government of Israel had penetrated four White House telephone lines and was able to relay real-time conversations on those lines from a remote site outside the White House directly to Israel for listening and recording.

The article also charged that the FBI was investigating whether similar penetrations had been made into State Department lines, possibly Pentagon lines and, most interesting, into unlisted, secret lines used by the FBI in its counterintelligence work, including its probe into the Israeli penetration already being investigated. The two reporters said the FBI investigation had been launched in late 1996 or early 1997 when a local telephone company manager became suspicious of an Israeli employee of Amdocs, an Israeli company that sells billing software to telephone companies.

The American telephone manager's suspicions came to the attention of the CIA, the reporters said, which turned the matter over to the FBI. The Israeli worked as a subcontractor on a telephone-billing program being developed for the CIA, and was married to an Israeli woman employed in the Israeli Embassy in Washington. In a search of the husband's workplace, the FBI found "a list of the FBI's most sensitive telephone numbers, including the Bureau's 'black' lines that FBI counterintelligence used to keep track of the suspected Israel spy operation," the reporters noted. They reported also that husband-and-wife assignments are common in the Mossad.

In the course of their investigation, the journalists said, they found it impossible to get clear confirmation that the investigation was still active, but at the same time no one would confirm that it had been closed. Instead the reporters were told officially that nothing had turned up to confirm the suspicions that prompted the three-year-long investigation, and unofficially that, because the allegations and findings involved Israel, the entire subject was "radioactive," "too hot to handle," and "could not be confirmed on the record." The two journalists also suggested in their article that perhaps congressional investigators could pick up where they had left off, using the power to subpoena testimony that government officials seemed both eager and afraid to offer except under duress. But since the article appeared, no member of Congress has taken up the challenge.

A 'Radioactive' Effect

In fact, the different media handling accorded the article in the US, European, and Israeli press is a story in itself. The US media, like US government officials, clearly consider Israel "radioactive." Just as an American government official knows that expressing any interest in Israel, unless it is extremely positive, is a career-breaker, US editors know that in journalism it can have the same effect, and also can result in extensive, concerted loss of advertising -- whether the publication's advertisers are national or local.

Thus, although the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, the most conservative of the US networks, picked up the Insight story on May 5, even before Insight readers had received their copy of it, there was virtually no television or radio follow-up, except on radio talk shows when the few callers who had heard about it brought it up. The US print media were even more timid. The Washington Post printed only a May 6 Associated Press report quoting "two senior federal law enforcement officials ... who requested anonymity" as reporting that "the FBI had identified no one to arrest during its investigation." The AP also quoted "Capitol Hill Republican sources" as saying the allegations centered on a telecommunications contractor and that Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev in Washington called the allegations "outrageous" and claimed, "Israel does not spy on the United States."

On his Web site, Insight editor Paul Rodriguez subsequently pointed out that when The New York Times got around to reporting the story, it built in an error about the Insight report, which then gave the Times something to deny.

Whether the Times intentionally set up such a straw man and then knocked it down in lieu of reporting accurately on the Insight story isn't clear. But the overall US media handling, or non-handling, of the story is summarized by Rodriguez: "While Insight prides itself on having sources and contacts others don't, this doesn't mean that other venerable institutions such as The New York Times and The Washington Post don't have good sources and contacts. In fact, several reporters at those papers, as well as ABC News and Fox News Network, have been pursuing the Insight exclusive and have been told much the same story that was published by this magazine [Insight]. Yet apart from Fox News, these outlets have run not a word other than the initial wire or staff stories repeating bland comments by the FBI."

Rodriguez told The Washington Report on June 19: "We're perplexed that no one has followed up on this story. We think it's news by any stretch of the imagination. It is true that the FBI says that a portion of the investigation is closed. But the fact that a portion also is open makes it news. We will continue to pursue it. Meanwhile, it's gratifying that the Middle East press played it fair and square."

This magazine covered the Insight report in a page-and-a-half article in its June issue. That article was also sent out to the magazine's e-mail list of 1,500 newspapers with permission to reprint it. There were a few inquiries, including a request for all references on the subject by a major New York daily, but so far as this writer knows, no reprints. A Texas columnist who queried editors in his state as to why they evinced no interest was told they were put off by Insight's lack of corroborating sources. Maybe you can't dial up the FBI, White House, State Department or Pentagon from Texas. Or maybe Texas editors know exactly what Washington journalists and bureaucrats know: Israel is radioactive.

European press handling of the story was not much different, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. The original wire service stories, based upon Insight's information, were picked up. But since there was no follow-up after the first day or two, even those foreign newspapers with Washington correspondents (who concentrate on "local angle" material and leave general reporting about the US to the wire services) let the story die. Moral: if the US media choose to ignore a story about the US, it literally goes down the memory hole, both at home and abroad.

One country that did not ignore the report, however, was Israel. But there the focus was not at all on whether or not the story was true, but only why a three-year-long FBI probe that began as early as 1996 was only now being "leaked" to the media. Reported the Tel Aviv daily Ha'aretz, "Israeli sources said that elements within the US government take routine precautionary steps and that whenever there is any tension with Israel, reports on supposed Israeli espionage against the United States are leaked to the press." They noted that this had happened in the past and was happening again now against the background of US opposition to Israel's deal to sell Phalcon spy planes to China.

The same May 7 Ha'aretz report on the contents of the Insight article was far longer than anything that appeared in any US daily newspaper. It said that although "White House and FBI officials denied the allegations.. . they acknowledged that such an investigation into possible Israeli eavesdropping had been conducted and added that the file has not technically been closed yet. The file is categorized as 'inactive' due to the severity of the allegations and the possibility that there may be further developments."

Ha'aretz continued: "According to the Insight report, for more than a year the FBI followed an Israeli businessman who works for Arndocs.. . The magazine said that the FBI is convinced that telephone company equipment was used from a remote venue to eavesdrop on conversations initiated or received by senior US government officials, including possibly those of the president himself...

"The report notes that many government officials conduct conversations containing classified information on lines that are not considered secure. Clinton, too, the magazine stressed, conducted his intimate chats with Monica Lewinsky on an open line. Lewinsky herself said that in March 1997, when she was with the president in his office, he told her he suspected that a foreign embassy had been tapping his line.

"Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr never told the Congress whether those statements by Lewinsky were ever investigated further. Congressional investigators who asked questions about the matter were told at the end of 1998 by the FBI and the CIA that there was no basis to Lewinsky's statement. Congress was also told that there was no investigation being conducted into any foreign government's wiretapping of the White House. Now it emerges that such an investigation on precisely that matter had indeed been conducted."

There were reports similar to that of Ha'aretz in the other major Israeli dailies, all longer than anything that appeared in any US daily. The only Israeli editorial comment the reports drew did not question the validity of the Insight report, but only its timing.

It is interesting to note that every Israeli editor feels free to inform his readers about stories of great interest in both Israel and the US But nearly all American editors - in a form of "voluntary censorship" identical to that practiced in countries where there is no freedom of the press - choose to withhold those same stories from American readers.

It's going to be hard, however, to make Monica Lewinsky's testimony that President Bill Clinton warned her that a foreign embassy was listening to their telephone sex go permanently down the memory hole. This is particularly true after the whole sordid Monica story hit the US media fan just hours after then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in the US national capital vowing "to set Washington on fire" back in 1998.

Now we know where he got the matches.


From The Journal of Historical Review, November/December 2000 (Vol. 19, No. 6), pages 36-38.

About the Author

Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of The Washington Report from Middle East Affairs. When he retired from the US foreign service, Curtiss was chief inspector of the US Information Agency. He is also the author of A Changing Image: American Perspectives of the Arab-Israeli Dispute and Stealth PACs: Lobbying Congress for Control of US Middle East Policy.

This essay is reprinted from the July 2000 issue of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, pp. 43, 112.