US blogger revealed as recipient of FBI wiretaps of Israel

Richard Silverstein speaks to ‘Post’ about eavesdropping fracas.

Richard Silverstein 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Richard Silverstein 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.”
Silverstein 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 not.”
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 power.”
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 libertarian.”
Silverstein characterized himself as “really shocked” about Liebowitz’s arrest, and feeling a “certain amount of responsibility for what had happened.”
“It’s a hard burden to bear, that someone went to prison because of an activity that you cooperated in,” Silverstein said.
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.”
The relationship 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.”
“Israel 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 issues.
“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 honest.”
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 journalist Uri 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.”