NEW YORK – In Seattle, Richard Silverstein’s phone rang off the hook all day
Tuesday. It stood to reason: Silverstein had just been unveiled by the New York
Times as having been the blogger recipient of transcripts of FBI wiretaps of
conversations from the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
“I’m doing another
interview,” Silverstein told his son as an aside, no trace of weariness in his
voice, after he picked up my call.
But Silverstein, author of the
politically left blog Tikun Olam, which focuses on Israel-related issues, feels
he cannot speak enough about the situation in which he characterizes himself and
Shamai Liebowitz, the Israeli-American dual citizen and FBI translator who
provided him with the conversations, as “whistleblowers.”
said he feels the story was characterized differently in the Times from what he
would have wanted.
“I didn’t like the focus on the fact that there was US
spying on the Israelis,” he said. “Everyone knows the Israelis do that to the US
in Tel Aviv, and every country does that to every other country. For me, the
issue was what Israel was doing in the US, and every activity being monitored
was secretly being done – so no American knew the types of things Israelis were
doing related to Iran, and Gaza.
“That’s the whole reason Shamai and I
did that,” Silverstein said, referencing Liebowitz’s transfer of FBI transcripts
to Silverstein. “We were really concerned about what we were learning from the
transcripts – that the Israelis were monitoring travel schedules of politicians,
their committee assignments, etc.”
Some of the monitored conversations,
Silverstein said, happened during and after Operation Cast Lead: “There was a
lot of material in there about Obama’s inauguration, and whether the Israelis
were going to stop the hostilities before the inauguration or
Liebowitz, Silverstein said, decided on his own that “he was so
distressed by what he was reading that he wanted to go public on it, so he asked
me if I wanted to read some material. I opened it up and I said, ‘What the hell
do I have here?’” “I immediately realized the gravity of what I was being given,
and so we had a lot of discussions with what to do with it, whether we should
even do anything with it, and I discussed the matter confidentially with a lot
of people I knew and trusted and got their advice – we didn’t go into this at
all lightly,” Silverstein said.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think
that the US government would prosecute him,” Silverstein said of Liebowitz. “We
were doing this on behalf of the US, rather than on behalf of a foreign
Later in the interview, he said that he “never expected”
Liebowitz to go to federal prison, and that if he had, he “would have done
things different or not at all.”
“I still think that what the federal
government did in this case was really misguided and overblown, and the way the
Obama administration has pursued these issues even more aggressively than the
Bush administration is shocking to me, as a civil
Silverstein characterized himself as “really shocked” about
Liebowitz’s arrest, and feeling a “certain amount of responsibility for what had
“It’s a hard burden to bear, that someone went to prison
because of an activity that you cooperated in,” Silverstein
Silverstein first got in touch with Liebowitz after reading the
other man’s blog and seeing a similarly iconoclastic political take on issues to
his own. Characterizing Liebowitz as sharing “mutual political and spiritual
values” with him, Silverstein developed an electronic relationship with the FBI
translator over the course of “two to three years,” and corresponded with him on
religious issues, Jewish theology and conceptual debates.
“We would share
stuff back and forth, and that was how he came to turn to me – we had this
relationship,” Silverstein said. “He was looking for someone he trusted, and he
didn’t want to go to someone that he didn’t know well.”
between the two men, Silverstein said, became “more intense” during Cast Lead.
“That may have played a role in his thinking,” Silverstein speculated as to
Liebowitz’s decision to send him the transcripts.
“The horrors of Cast
Lead shocked both Israeli and Jewish progressives, and that may have had a big
impact on him.”
The story illustrates the importance of blogging and new
media. Silverstein says he does his blog “out of devotion and dedication to the
mission of promoting Israeli-Arab peace and Israeli democracy.”
is a national security state where democracy can be truncated in circumstances
where something someone does is considered a threat to the state,” Silverstein
said. “So there are huge numbers of gag orders placed on cases like Anat Kamm.
One of my roles, as a blogger, is to do for Israel what the Israeli media would
do for themselves if there weren’t so many gag orders and if the Shabak and
Mossad weren’t able to put a stop to full-throated debate on these
“To me that’s what blogs should be doing: shining a light back on
society, putting up a mirror to people’s faces so they can look at themselves
and their society even if what they’re doing isn’t attractive,” Silverstein
added. “That’s what my blog is – and for some people, some pro-Israel people,
the very act of holding up the mirror is very disturbing.
“I get a lot of
hate directed at me for what I’m doing. I don’t like it, but I’m prepared to
accept it. If there were a Constitution and a Bill of Rights in Israel, I might
not be necessary, but in the present context, I am.
“Probably people are
firing up their keyboards now and trying to figure out how to approach this –
I’ll get a couple wackos saying I should kill myself, but I get that all the
time,” Silverstein said with a wry laugh.
“I know I’m considered to be a
flaming radical by a lot of people. There are people on the pro-Israel Right who
can’t stand what I do, but also people on the Left. I want to keep them all
During her military service as an assistant in the Central
Command bureau, Kamm secretly copied thousands of classified documents,
including many confidential documents. After she finished her military service
Kamm copied the documents to a CD and leaked it to the Haaretz
Blau. On these acts, Kamm was later convicted of espionage and providing
confidential information without authorization.
While Silverstein was
questioned by the US government after Liebowitz reached a plea deal, he
characterized it as “not at all adversarial.”
While Liebowitz was not a
whistleblower “in the conventional sense of exposing wrongdoing within your own
country, he did exposed wrongdoing happening within the US by Israeli
diplomats,” Silverstein said.
“Maybe that’s an expanded definition of
what an Israeli whistleblower can be.”