Israel is likely to have planted mobile phone spying devices near the White House and other sensitive locations in the US capital over the past two years, according to a report from Politico that cited three former US officials.
The miniature surveillance devices mimic telecommunications towers to gather information, including the contents of phone calls. The US government concluded Israeli operatives were most likely to have placed them to spy on Donald Trump and his associates, the news website reported.
One of the three former intelligence and national security officials, none of whom were identified in the article, said the Trump administration – which describes itself as the most pro-Israel US government in history – did not rebuke its ally.
“The reaction … was very different than it would have been in the last [Obama] administration,” one former senior intelligence official was quoted as saying. “With the current administration, there are a different set of calculations in regard to addressing this.”
The Guardian was unable to immediately verify the report, which emerged as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, fights for his political life ahead of elections next week.
The report said the FBI and other agencies used detailed forensic analysis of the devices, known as StingRays, to link them to Israeli agents. “It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” a former senior intelligence official was quoted as saying.
An Israeli embassy spokesperson in the Washington, Elad Strohmayer, denied the report, saying: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.” The White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the US Secret Service did not comment, Politico said.
Netanyahu was in Sochi on Thursday for talks with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that have been interpreted back home as a last-minute attempt to win over Russia-speaking Israelis for next Tuesday’s election.
The prime minister has launched an aggressive campaign to woo the minority of one million people, running ads in Russian and erecting a giant poster of him and Putin on his Likud party’s Tel Aviv headquarters.
Netanyahu has also been shoring up nationalist voters with feisty language and hardline promises.
On Tuesday he announced that he would annex up to one-third of the occupied West Bank if he won re-election, drawing condemnation from the Palestinians, Arab countries, the UN, and the EU.
On Thursday Facebook said it had imposed sanctions on Netanyahu’s page because of a violation of the company’s hate speech policy. The tech firm said it had suspended the page’s bot – or automated chat function – for 24 hours.
Netanyahu’s page had called on voters to prevent the establishment of a government composed of “Arabs who want to destroy us all — women, children and men”, sparking uproar by opposition politicians.