By Whitney Webb,
With Richard Grenell now overseeing all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, Israel’s influence over the U.S. intelligence community has reached new and troubling heights.
Last week’s appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell to the post of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) received criticism from both sides of the political divide, mainly for his lack of experience and history of outspoken and partisan political statements. Much more overlooked, however, are Grenell’s ties to the powerful American pro-Israel lobby and Israeli politicians alike, including organizations and individuals with a history of espionage and blackmail against the United States.
Grenell is merely the latest example in a series of appointments over the past few years that have seen individuals with deep ties to the pro-Israel lobby rise to top positions in the U.S. intelligence community, including the NSA’s current director of Cybersecurity Anne Neuberger as well as the leaders of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB).
With many of these posts directly involved in overseeing the security of the upcoming 2020 election, ostensibly to combat “foreign interference,” these connections are even more significant. Some of the Israel lobby groups in question have not only engaged in illegal espionage against the U.S. government, but are also openly meddling in the current Democratic party primary.
Beyond the potential effects on the upcoming election, these troubling ties between top U.S. intelligence officials and a foreign government do not bode well for American national security and will only advance the long-standing practice of American neoconservatives conflating Israeli national security interests with those of the United States.
Grenell’s many conflicts of interest
Richard Grenell’s appointment last Wednesday to the post of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) raised a number of eyebrows on the Beltway and drew sharp condemnation from former and current intelligence officials alike. Most of the concern was due to the fact that Grenell, who has been serving as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, has virtually no intelligence experience or background. Yet, he will now oversee and coordinate all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA and NSA, and will be responsible for briefing President Trump on intelligence matters of both domestic and international concern.
Grenell’s new position is not required to be confirmed by the Senate unless Trump decides to nominate him as a permanent candidate at the end of the temporary three-month period during which he can serve as acting DNI. There has not been a permanent DNI since Dan Coats resigned last August.
Grenell’s appointment was also criticized due to his brazen political approach towards his diplomatic post as U.S. ambassador to Germany, which he will maintain while coordinating and overseeing U.S. intelligence activities. In his two years as ambassador, Grenell has alienated numerous German politicians to the extent that prominent officials have refused to meet with him. Some German officials began calling for his resignation during his first month as ambassador.
One very valid criticism of Grenell’s appointment, however, has been glossed over, namely his ties to controversial lobbyists, political operatives and foreign politicians. For instance, Grenell used to work on behalf of Arthur Finkelstein and Associates, a firm of the late Republican political operative of the same name.
Finkelstein was one of the main architects of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first campaign in 1996. Finkelstein was placed in contact with the Netanyahu campaign by prominent Jewish American businessman and billionaire, Ronald Lauder — a close associate of Trump, then-top backer of Netanyahu (they have since had a falling out) and a member of the controversial “Mega Group.”
Finkelstein worked on numerous successive campaigns for far-right politicians in Israel, including former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He has been described as being “deeply committed” to and a “staunch supporter” of Israel and the hawkish Likud Party. He also spent numerous years on Likud’s payroll.
Grenell’s financial disclosures reveal that his consulting firm, Capitol Media Partners, received more than $5,000 from Finkelstein but does not specify the exact amount. ProPublicarecently reported that Grenell, who has ties to Fox News and Newsmax, worked for Finkelstein as a “media consultant” in Eastern Europe, where Ronald Lauder has long held significant media interests. In that capacity, Grenell was paid to work on Finkelstein’s behalf for the now-disgraced Moldovan politician, Vladimir Plahotniuc, work that Grenell did not disclose, but should have according to experts.
Concerns over Grenell’s susceptibility to foreign influence are particularly troubling given his especially close relationship with Israel, despite nominally having served as U.S. ambassador to Germany, a position which ostensibly would require close ties to Germany (which Grenell lacks) as opposed to Israel. Soon after Grenell became ambassador to Germany, he requested Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet him at the Berlin airport. After that meeting, Netanyahu told reporters that Grenell is a “big fan of Israel.” Grenell himself has stated that he views his support for Israeli “peace” (i.e. security) policy as a “biblical mandate” and has visited the country “more times than he can count.”
Though many intelligence community veterans and politicians in both major parties opposed Grenell’s appointment, the American Israel lobby was thrilled. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) “strongly praised” Grenell’s appointment as acting DNI, with ZOA president Morton Klein, stating:
I am proud to say that during my long personal friendship with Ambassador Grenell, it became powerfully clear to me that Grenell is a very talented and knowledgeable man whose commitment to America and its security is second to none. He is also a man who understands the importance of our country’s great alliance with Israel in promoting U.S. security interests. There has never been a better friend of a strong U.S-Israel relationship than Ambassador Grenell. (emphasis added)”
Klein previously announced his displeasure that Grenell had not been appointed to serve as U.S. ambassador to NATO after he had been given private “assurances” by the Trump administration that Grenell would be nominated to that post.
Grenell’s ties to political operatives like Finkelstein, his close friendships to Israel lobbyists Morton Klein and Israeli PM Netanyahu as well as his failure to disclose paid work done on behalf of foreign politicians make him susceptible to foreign influence or blackmail according to the official policy of the office of the DNI, which Grenell now leads.
That policy holds that “conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying” include “connections to a foreign person, group, government or country that create a potential conflict of interest between the individual’s obligation to protect classified or sensitive information or technology and the individual’s desire to help a foreign person, group or country by providing that information or technology.”
Given that Israeli politicians and officials, including Netanyahu,have actively used blackmailto influence sitting U.S. presidents and that the pro-Israel lobby has a history of espionage targeting the United States, it is telling that Grenell’s appointment to a sensitive intelligence post has not been criticized in the media over his close ties to the pro-Israel lobby, Arthur Finkelstein and Israel’s government.
Israel’s foothold grows
While Grenell’s appointment is troubling over his ties to the pro-Israel lobby, it is merely the latest such appointment made by the Trump administration as several top intelligence figures with deep ties to the pro-Israel lobby have recently risen to prominence.
For example, current NSA director of Cybersecurity Anne Neuberger is married to Yehuda Neuberger, who serves as chair of AIPAC’s executive council in Baltimore. Neuberger’s parents were rescued via the IDF’s “Operation Entebbe,” an operation led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother, Yonathan Netanyahu. Neuberger was less than a year old at the time, but was not with her parents during the incident.
As Cybersecurity director for the NSA, Neuberger oversees a division of that agency that “unifies NSA’s foreign intelligence and cyberdefense missions” and works “to prevent and eradicate threats to national security systems and critical infrastructure,” including the country’s election infrastructure. Her family ties to AIPAC are therefore concerning given the powerful lobby groups’ propensity to meddle in this election’sDemocratic primary. This is belied by the fact that AIPAC has, in the past, committed espionage against the U.S. government on Israel’s behalf on more than one occasion.
In addition to Neuberger, both the head and deputy chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) have close ties to foreign lobbies and intelligence services. According to the U.S. government, PIAB “exists exclusively to assist the President by providing him with an independent source of advice on the effectiveness with which the Intelligence Community is meeting the Nation’s intelligence needs, and the vigor and insight with which the community plans for the future. The Board has access to all information needed to perform its functions and has direct access to the President.” The government’s official description of the body’s role also states that PIAB has “immense and long-lasting impacts on the structure, management, and operations of U.S. intelligence.”
PIAB is chaired by Stephen Feinberg, the billionaire owner of Cerberus capital management, which owns scandal-ridden U.S. military and intelligence contractor DynCorp. Court documents cited by the New York Times accused Cerberus of “orchestrating secretive deals that transgressed legal and ethical boundaries,” making his role at PIAB at overseeing the often ethically-challenged U.S. intelligence community troubling. In addition, Cerberus was previously the owner of or majority stakeholder of a string of now-bankrupt companies that defrauded U.S. intelligence and the U.S. military on a massive scale during the George W. Bush administration, with much of that occurring while then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was invested in Cerberus.
Feinberg’s close relationships also raise some red flags. He is a close friend of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law whose family has a close friendship with Netanyahu, as well as Steve Bannon, who has close ties to the U.S. Israel lobby, particularly the ZOA. Feinberg is also a close associate of hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, a “Mega Group” member whose father worked for the National Crime Syndicate. Steinhardt was instrumental in the controversial Clinton-era pardon of Mossad asset Marc Rich and is a major funder of pro-Israel organizations.
Feinberg was also one of the main shareholders in Israel’s then-largest bank, Bank Leumi, until he was pressured to sell his stake following the revelation that his partner in that investment, Ezra Merkin, played a key role in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Cerberus’ acquisition of those shares had originally been closely tied to a Likud party initiative to privatize Israel’s entire banking sector.
Companies owned by Cerberus have also been found to be closely tied to Saudi intelligence. The Washington Post reported last year that a U.S.-backed plan to “modernize” Saudi intelligence had been created by Culpeper National Security Solutions, a unit of Cerberus-owned DynCorp, along “with help from some prominent former CIA officials.” Another Cerberus-owned company called Tier 1 has also helped train Saudi Special Forces, some of whom were reportedly involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Though Feinberg says he divested his personal stake from these companies prior to chairing PIAB, they remain owned by his firm Cerberus and arguably still present a conflict of interest.
In addition to Feinberg, the PIAB’s current deputy chair — Samantha Ravich — formerly worked for the pro-Israel lobby group Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a spin-off of AIPAC that was created to shield the lobby organization from scrutiny when it was investigated in 1984 for espionage against the U.S. government on Israel’s behalf.
Ravich, who joined PIAB in 2018, is also a senior advisor to the group the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which was revealed to work directly with Israel’s government in a since-censored Al Jazeera documentary on the Israel lobby. Ravich also worked for the consulting firm of Michael Chertoff, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security whose mother worked with Israel’s Mossad.
Ravich has specifically promoted a “cyber project” to the U.S. Senate that would protect member countries from cyber threats but exclude nations that endorse or fail to condemn the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that supports Palestinian rights and Israeli compliance with international law. Ravich also praised the Trump administration’s decision to partner with Israel’s government on “cybersecurity” in 2017, saying that “the U.S. cannot go it alone in its endeavor to safeguard the networks and systems upon which our economy depends.” As MintPressreported last month, several highly classified networks of the U.S. intelligence community and the military, including networks of the CIA, NSA, and DISA, now use cybersecurity software deeply tied to Israeli military intelligence, thanks in part to this U.S.-Israel partnership.
Now, with Richard Grenell overseeing all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, Israel’s influence in the U.S. intelligence community has reached new and troubling heights. Yet, his appointment is only the latest move by the Trump administration that places pro-Israel partisans in highly sensitive positions, suggesting that similar appointments are likely in the future, especially if Trump is reelected in November.
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