Posted Saturday, May 6, 2000

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FBI Probes Mossad Espionage at White House -- continued    [back to part 1]


The potential loss of U.S. secrets is incalculable. So is the possibility that senior U.S. officials could be blackmailed for indiscreet telephone talk. Many officials do not like to bother with using secure, encrypted phones and have classified discussions on open lines.

Which brings the story back to some obvious questions involving the indiscreet telephone conversations of the president himself. Were they tapped, and, if so did they involve national-security issues or just matters of the flesh? Monica Lewinsky told Kenneth Starr, as recounted in his report to Congress, that Lewinsky and Clinton devised cover stories should their trysts be uncovered and/or their phone-sex capers be overheard.

Specifically, she said that on March 29, 1997, she and Clinton were huddled in the Oval Office suite engaging in a sexual act. It was not the first time. But, according to Lewinsky as revealed under oath to the investigators for the Office of Independent Counsel, it was unusual because of what the president told her. "He suspected that a foreign embassy was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories," the Starr report says. "If ever questioned, she should say that the two of them were just friends. If anyone ever asked about their phone sex, she should say that they knew their calls were being monitored all along, and the phone sex was just a put on."

In his own testimony before a federal grand jury, Clinton denied the incident. But later -- much later -- he admitted to improper behavior and was impeached but not convicted. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright found him to have obstructed justice. Curiously, Starr never informed Congress whether the Lewinsky tale was true. For that matter, according to Insight's sources, Starr never bothered to find out from appropriate agencies, such as the FBI or the CIA, whether the monitoring by a foreign government of the president's conversations with Lewinsky occurred.

LewinskyInsight has learned that House and Senate investigators did ask questions about these matters and in late 1998 were told directly by the FBI and the CIA (among others) that there was no truth to the Lewinsky claim of foreign tapping of White House phones. Moreover, Congress was told there was no investigation of any kind involving any foreign embassy or foreign government espionage in such areas.

But that was not true. In fact, the FBI and other U.S. agencies, including the Pentagon, had been working furiously and painstakingly for well over a year on just such a secret probe, and fears were rampant of the damage that could ensue if the American public found out that even the remotest possibility existed that the president's phone conversations could be monitored and the president subject to foreign blackmail. To the FBI agents involved, that chance seemed less and less remote.

The FBI has become increasingly frustrated by both the pace of its investigation and its failure to gain Justice Department cooperation to seek an indictment of at least one individual suspected of involvement in the alleged Israeli telephone intercepts. National security is being invoked to cover an espionage outrage. But, as a high law-enforcement source says, "To bring this to trial would require we reveal our methods of operation, and we can't do that at this point -- the FBI has not made the case strong enough." Moreover, says a senior U.S. policy official with knowledge of the case: "This is a hugely political issue, not just a law-enforcement matter."

'You've Got the Crown Jewels'

If spies wanted to penetrate the White House, a facility widely considered the most secure in the world, how might it be done? For that matter, how might any agency or department of government be penetrated by spies?

"Actually, it's pretty easy if you know what you're doing," says a retired U.S. intelligence expert who has helped (along with other government sources) to guide Insight through the many and often complicated pathways of government security and counterespionage.

Access to designs, databases, "blueprints," memos, telephone numbers, lists of personnel and passwords all can be obtained. And from surprising sources. Several years ago this magazine was able to review from a remote site information on the supposedly secret and inaccessible White House Office Data Base, or WHODB (see "More Personal Secrets on File @ the White House," July 15, 1996).

Despite the spending of additional millions to beef up security when the White House installed a modern $30 million computerized telephone system a few years ago, communications security remains a big problem. Whatever the level of sophistication employed, there are soft underbellies that raise significant national-security problems. And potential for espionage, such as electronic intercepting of phone calls, is very great.

Calls to or from the White House dealing with classified information are supposed to be handled on secure lines, but it doesn't always happen. Sometimes, according to Insight's sources, despite the existence of special phones at the White House and elsewhere to handle such calls, some don't use them or only one side of the call does. An Insight editor recently was allowed for demonstration purposes to overhear a conversation placed over an unsecured line involving a "classified" topic.

Carelessness always has been a problem, but former and current FBI special agents say that under the Clinton administration the disregard for security has been epidemic. Many officials simply don't like the bother of communicating on secure phones.

In another instance, Insight was provided access to virtually every telephone number within the White House, including those used by outside agencies with employees in the complex, and even the types of computers used and who uses them. Just by way of illustration, this information allowed direct access to communications instruments located in the Oval Office, the residence, bathrooms and grounds.

With such information, according to security and intelligence experts, a hacker or spy could target individual telephone lines and write software codes enabling the conversations to be forwarded in real-time for remote recording and transcribing. The White House complex contains approximately 5,800 voice, fax and modem lines.

"Having a phone number in and of itself will not necessarily gain you access for monitoring purposes," Insight was told by a senior intelligence official with regular contact at the White House. "The systems are designed to electronically mask routes and generate secure connections." That said, coupling a known phone number to routing sequences and trunk lines would pose a security risk, this official says.

Add to that detailed knowledge of computer codes used to move call traffic and your hacker or spy is in a very strong position. "That's why we have so many redundancies and security devices on the systems -- so we can tell if someone is trying to hack in," says a current security official at the White House.

Shown a sampling of the hoard of data collected over just a few months of digging, the security official's face went flush: "How the hell did you get that! This is what we are supposed to guard against. This is not supposed to be public."

Indeed. Nor should the telephone numbers or locations of remote sites or trunk lines or other sundry telecommunications be accessible. What's surprising is that most of this specialized information reviewed by Insight is unclassified in its separate pieces. When you put it together, the solved puzzle is considered a national-security secret. And for very good reason.

Consider the following: Insight not only was provided secure current phone numbers to the most sensitive lines in the world, but it discovered a remote telephone site in the Washington area which plugs into the White House telecommunications system. Given national-security concerns, Insight has been asked not to divulge any telephone number, location of high-security equipment, or similar data not directly necessary for this news story.

Concerning the remote telecommunications site, Insight discovered not only its location and access telephone numbers but other information, including the existence of a secret "back door" to the computer system that had been left open for upward of two years without anyone knowing about the security lapse. This back door, common to large computer systems, is used for a variety of services, including those involving technicians, supervisors, contractors and security officers to run diagnostic checks, make repairs and review system operations.

"This is more than just a technical blunder," says a well-placed source with detailed knowledge of White House security issues. "This is a very serious security failure with unimaginable consequences. Anyone could have accessed that [back door] and gotten into the entire White House phone system and obtained numbers and passwords that we never could track," the source said, echoing yet another source familiar with the issue.

Although it is not the responsibility of the Secret Service to manage equipment systems, the agency does provide substantial security controls over telecommunications and support service into or out of the White House. In fact, the Secret Service maintains its own electronic devices on the phone system to help protect against penetration. "That's what is so troubling about this," says a security expert with ties to the White House. "There are redundant systems to catch such errors and this was not caught. It's quite troubling.… It's not supposed to happen."

Insight asked a senior federal law-enforcement official with knowledge of the suspected Israeli spying case about the open electronic door. "I didn't know about this incident. It certainly is something we should have known given the scope of what's at stake," the official says.

Then Insight raised the matter of obtaining phone numbers, routing systems, equipment sites, passwords and other data on the telecommunications systems used by the White House: How hard would it be for a foreign intelligence service to get this information? "Obviously not as hard as we thought," a senior government official said. "Now you understand what we're facing and why we are so concerned."

That's one reason, Insight is told, the White House phone system is designed to mask all outgoing calls to prevent outsiders from tracing back into the system to set up taps. However, knowing the numbers called frequently by the White House, foreign agents could set up listening devices on those lines to capture incoming or outgoing calls. Another way of doing it, according to security experts, is to get inside the White House system. And, though it's considered impossible, that's what they said about getting the phone numbers that the president uses in his office and residence. Like trash, information is everywhere -- and often is overlooked when trying to tidy up a mess.

-- PMR and JMW

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