WASHINGTON – The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the espionage conviction of Shamai Leibowitz, and Israeli-American who was sentenced to 20 months in jail for intelligence offences in 2010, was linked to FBI wiretapping of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
According to the report, Leibowitz – who worked as a Hebrew translator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leaked transcripts of material derived from the wiretaps to a blogger, as part of his efforts to diminish what he believed to be Israel's influence in Congress.
Leibowitz's trial was shrouded with mystery – so much so that after he pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain, even the case judge was quoted as saying he did not know exactly what kind of information Leibowitz had disclosed.
“All I know is that it’s a serious case. I don’t know what was divulged other than some documents, and how it compromised things, I have no idea.” Judge Alexander Williams Jr., of the US District Court in Maryland, said at the sentencing in May 2010.
The reason for the extraordinary secrecy has now become clear, as it seems that Leibowitz leaked transcripts of FBI wiretaps of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, according to the blogger Richard Silverstein.
Silverstein told the NYT how he burnt the secret documents Leibowitz – the grandson of renowned Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz – had given him after he came under investigation in mid-2009.
Silverstein said that at one point he was in possession of "200 pages of verbatim records of telephone calls and what seemed to be embassy conversations," adding that in one of the transcripts, Israeli officials expressed concern that their conversations might be monitored.
Leibowitz maintains that he released the documents because of his concerns about Israel’s "aggressive efforts to influence Congress and public opinion," and fears that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
According to the NYT, the FBI listens in on foreign embassies and officials in the United States to track foreign spies, though any intelligence it obtains on other matters is passed on to the CIA and other agencies.
The paper further quoted former counterintelligence officials as saying that Israeli intelligence operations in the United States were "quite extensive," ranking just below those of China and Russia.
Innate diplomatic sensitivities aside, the fact that the US spies on Israel is taken for granted by experts on intelligence community, the report said.
“We started spying on Israel even before the state of Israel was formally founded in 1948, and Israel has always spied on us,” Matthew Aid, an intelligence writer told the New York Times. “Israeli intercepts have always been one of the most sensitive categories," he added.