Magazine article Insight on the News

FBI Probes Espionage at Clinton White House

Magazine article Insight on the News

FBI Probes Espionage at Clinton White House

Article excerpt

A foreign spy service appears to have penetrated secret telecommunications in the Clinton administration, which long has discounted security and intelligence threats.

The FBI is probing an explosive foreign-espionage operation that could dwarf the other spy scandals plaguing the U.S. government. Insight has learned that FBI counterintelligence is tracking a daring operation to spy on high-level U.S. officials by hacking into supposedly secure telephone networks. The espionage was facilitated, federal officials say, by lax telephone-security procedures at the White House, State Department and other high-level government offices and by a Justice Department unwillingness to seek an indictment against a suspect.

The espionage operation may have serious ramifications because the FBI has identified Israel as the culprit. It risks undermining U.S. public support for the Jewish state at a time Israel is seeking billions of tax dollars for the return of land to Syria. It certainly will add to perceptions that the Clinton-Gore administration is not serious about national security. Most important, it could further erode international confidence in the ability of the United States to keep secrets and effectively lead as the world's only superpower.

More than two dozen U.S. intelligence, counterintelligence, law-enforcement and other officials have told Insight that the FBI believes Israel has intercepted telephone and modem communications on some of the most sensitive lines of the U.S. government on an ongoing basis. The worst penetrations are believed to be in the State Department. But others say the supposedly secure telephone systems in the White House, Defense Department and Justice Department may have been compromised as well.

The problem for FBI agents in the famed Division 5, however, isn't just what they have uncovered, which is substantial, but what they don't yet know, according to Insight's sources interviewed during a yearlong investigation by the magazine. Of special concern is how to confirm and deal with the potentially sweeping espionage penetration of key U.S. government telecommunications systems allowing foreign eavesdropping on calls to and from the White House, the National Security Council, or NSC, the Pentagon and the State Department.

The directors of the FBI and the CIA have been kept informed of the ongoing counterintelligence operation, as have the president and top officials at the departments of Defense, State and Justice and the NSC. A "heads up" has been given to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but as Insight went to press, no government official would speak for the record.

"It's a huge security nightmare," says a senior U.S. official familiar with the super-secret counterintelligence operation. "The implications are severe," confirms a second with direct knowledge. "We're not even sure we know the extent of it," says a third high-ranking intelligence official. "All I can tell you is that we think we know how it was done," this third intelligence executive tells Insight. "That alone is serious enough, but it's the unknown that has such deep consequences."

A senior government official who would go no further than to admit awareness of the FBI probe, says: "It is a politically sensitive matter. I can't comment on it beyond telling you that anything involving Israel on this particular matter is off-limits. It's that hot."

It is very hot indeed. For nearly a year, FBI agents had been tracking an Israeli businessman working for a local phone company. The man's wife is alleged to be a Mossad officer under diplomatic cover at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Mossad -- the Israeli intelligence service -- is known to station husband-and-wife teams abroad, but it was not known whether the husband is a full-fledged officer, an agent or something else. When federal agents made a search of his work area they found a list of the FBI's most sensitive telephone numbers, including the Bureau's "black" lines used for wiretapping. …

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