- In its May 29 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
- 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 U.S., European, and Israeli press is a story in itself. The U.S.
media, like U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. print
media were even more timid. The Washington Post printed only a May 6 Associated
Press report quoting "two senior federal law enforcement officialswho
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 U.S. 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 U.S. to the wire services) let the
story die. Moral: if the U.S. media choose to ignore a story about the
U.S., 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
daily newspaper. It said that although "White House and FBI officials
denied the allegationsthey 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 AmdocsThe 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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
- 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 U.S.
media fan just hours after then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
arrived in the U.S. national capital vowing "to set Washington on
fire" back in 1998.
- Now we know where he got the matches. ___
- Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington
Report. First published July 2000