Tapping the Israeli Embassy
Shamai Leibowitz, an FBI Hebrew translator, was arrested in May 2010 for revealing restricted information consisting of five reports classified “secret” to an unidentified blogger. He confessed—explaining that he had been trying to reveal illegal activity—repented, and was sentenced to a minimum term of 20 months in prison. He has now been released. There was considerable speculation over what Leibowitz, a left-wing, Israel-born dual national, had actually revealed. A New York newspaper claimed that the information had gone to a “pro-Palestinian Arab group.”
In reality, Leibowitz, who had top-secret clearance, was working as the translator for an undercover FBI counterintelligence team operating out of Calverton, Maryland. The FBI was tapping into all the telephone lines and cell phone numbers associated with diplomats and intelligence officers working out of the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the United Nations in New York. The Israelis practiced good communications security when they were on their phones speaking English, but they were reportedly extremely reckless when speaking Hebrew because they believed that they could not be understood. The FBI compiled a thick dossier on Israeli diplomats and spies and was able to establish linkages to a number of other targets of interest. Analyzing the Hebrew recordings, Leibowitz identified a number of hidden relationships with U.S. government officials and the media, as well as advocacy groups like AIPAC and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
What the FBI uncovered was a massive and highly focused campaign referred to by the Israelis as “perception management,” but which the CIA would refer to as a covert action. Much of the activity was illegal or incompatible with the role of foreign diplomats in the United States, which is why Leibowitz took action after his supervisors refused to proceed with prosecution. The focus was on Iran, with Israeli officials intent on preparing the American public for war against the mullahs. They were spreading disinformation on Iran’s nuclear program, promoting international sanctions, and trying to obtain Washington’s support for an ultimatum on the nuclear program as a final diplomatic gesture that would be turned down by Iran, leading to war with the U.S. playing the lead role. The Israeli Embassy’s activities consisted of drafting articles and editorials that were placed with an accommodating media, paying journalists to write pieces making the same points, and working closely with groups like WINEP and AIPAC to present policymakers with a coordinated list of arguments for war. At least one congressman from Indiana was approached directly by Israeli intelligence and agreed to host an anti-Iran conference as well as to introduce legislation tightening Iran sanctions. The recorded telephone conversation between an Israeli intelligence officer and Rep. Jane Harman in April 2009, in which she agreed to intervene on behalf of accused AIPAC spies Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman in exchange for chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, was also part of the special FBI counterintelligence operation.
Leibowitz’s concern that the illegal activity would not be prosecuted by the Justice Department proved correct. No Israeli or American named in the extensive FBI investigative dossier has been in any way punished.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.