Seattle blogger Richard Silverstein breaks stories — and stirs up virulent criticism — writing about Israeli security issues. He found himself in an espionage case involving leaked FBI wiretaps, the Israeli embassy and several congressmen.
In the winter of 2009, an express-mail package containing several hundred pages of classified FBI surveillance transcripts arrived at the door of a home in Madrona. Within weeks, another similar package arrived.
The packages were sent to Richard Silverstein. By day, he is a 59-year-old stay-at-home dad, caring for three young children and a lazy golden lab, with a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos in the living room and bikes cluttering the porch.
By night, he is a sharp-elbowed journalist, writing an influential blog about Israeli security issues that inflames the left and right alike. His posts, pounded out in this basement office cluttered with utility bills and world music CDs, rank Silverstein’s in the top 20 among world politics blogs.
The arrival of the packages began a strange, two-year journey as he became entangled in an international espionage case and watched his source, an FBI translator, go to federal prison for leaking him documents. Silverstein was questioned by authorities last year in Seattle, but says he destroyed all copies of the leaked documents.
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Although virtually unknown in Seattle journalism, Silverstein’s online profile rose as he became a conduit for more leaks. He most prominently broke news about government-issued gag orders restraining the Israeli press from reporting on detentions of alleged spies or terrorists.
An Israeli TV commentator dubbed him “the WikiLeaks of Israel.” The Guardian newspaper credited Silverstein with forcing Israel to drop gag orders against the press.
“This is a guy with a track record,” said Max Blumenthal, a prominent writer and author who monitors Silverstein’s blog. “He has as much of an impact on Israeli politics and society as any reporter out of Israel does.”
But his reporting — and often flame-throwing style — makes him equally reviled by Israel’s online defenders. He is labeled as a self-hating Jew, a racist kook and more. One website calls him “Kapo Dickie,” a reference to Jews who helped the Nazis inside concentration camps.
It all seems at odds with his daytime life of shuttling kids to school. After a New York Times story last week broke news of his involvement in the leak case, his neighbors were incredulous. “They said we had no idea what was going next door,” Silverstein said.
“What to do with this?”
Silverstein, son of a New York schoolteacher, aspired to be a Hebrew professor, attending Jewish Theological seminary and pursuing, but not finishing, a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. With shaggy hair and glasses, he retains the look of an academic.
He became a fundraiser for Jewish causes and, in 1997, for the University of Washington. His wife works as a commercial lawyer in Seattle. They attend a synagogue in View Ridge.
In 2003, soon after quitting the UW and the birth of his first child, Silverstein began the blog, called Tikun Olam — “to repair the world” in Hebrew. His most prominent reporting focuses on what he sees as abuses of the Israeli military and political right against Palestinians.
“I love Israel. For some people, loving Israel the way I do is considered a race traitor,” Silverstein said. “The best way for Jews in Israel to realize their goal, to realize living in a Jewish homeland, is for all citizens of that country to have the same rights.”
One reader was an FBI linguist named Shamai Leibowitz, a liberal Israeli lawyer whose aunt studied with Silverstein. Around February 2009, Silverstein said, Leibowitz called him out of the blue — their first conversation — asking if he’d like to see some documents.
Opening up the package, Silverstein said his reaction was, “Oh, my god. What am I going to do with all this?” Then another thought: “This would really take me into a different league as a blogger and reporter.”
The ensuing packages, according to Silverstein, were raw transcripts of FBI wiretaps of Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. They showed, Silverstein said, the Israelis’ secret efforts to boost public support for a potential war with Iran, and to monitor members of Congress who were considered unfriendly to Israel. Among them was Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, whom the Israelis appeared to monitor during his visit to Gaza in 2009, Silverstein said, relying on his memory of their contents.
“I rather assumed something like that was happening,” said Baird, who since has left Congress. “If we were indeed labeled anti-Israel, that’s unfortunate. There’s an attitude that anyone who questions Israel is anti-Israel. I find that anti-American.”
Silverstein said he talked extensively with Leibowitz about how to protect him, although it never occurred to him that the agent could go to prison for leaking. The Obama administration has prosecuted five government officials for leaking classified materials to the press, compared with zero under the George W. Bush administration, according to The New York Times.
Leibowitz’s attorney in Maryland did not respond to an interview request, and Leibowitz is prohibited from speaking about the case. Dean Boyd, Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment as well.
Silverstein mentioned a “confidential source” in three posts in April and May 2009; he says he deleted several others. He also says, at Leibowitz’s request, he burned the 200-or-so pages of transcripts in the small charcoal chimney on his back porch, and spread the ashes as compost on his backyard.
They last talked in about June 2009, when Leibowitz described the blog posts as “a waste of time.” Silverstein assumed that was because Leibowitz sensed he was under investigation.
Leibowitz was arraigned that December for disseminating “communications intelligence.”
Silverstein, interviewed by Justice Department officials in April 2010 in Seattle, potentially faces prosecution, but Ronald Friedman, Silverstein’s lawyer and a former federal prosecutor, said that has not been the trend.
“The statute is used to grab the person who grabs the documents,” Friedman said. “They have been reticent to go after parties who release this type of information, whether it be The New York Times, The Washington Post or a blogger like Mr. Silverstein.”
Leibowitz, as part of an April 2010 guilty plea, wrote, “I allowed my idealism and misguided patriotism to get ahead of me, and to my regret and sorrow, I revealed the information to a member of the media.”
“I’m not Jesus”
Silverstein hasn’t visited Israel since 1996, but has dug up big recent scoops.
In March 2010, Silverstein broke news about an Israeli press gag order in the case of Anat Kam, an Israeli journalist accused of leaking Israeli military documents about the targeted killing of Palestinians.
Within months, Silverstein was credited with breaking news of alleged torture — and ensuing press gag order — involving a Palestinian civil society activist and accused spy. In July 2010, he outed an Israeli intelligence agent, accusing the man of running Israel’s version of Abu Ghraib.
Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, described Silverstein’s blog as an “international poster board for reports that Israel’s courts and military censor withhold from publication,” but said his reports “generally contain a kernel of truth, along with a good deal of speculation and some half-truths.”
Others are less nuanced. JStreet, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington, D.C., accused Silverstein of “disgusting racist and crazy attacks” via Twitter. One critical website noted Silverstein described Israeli soldiers committing “heinous, subhuman behavior” in Gaza and that he launched a screed after falling for an Israeli version of an April Fool’s day spoof.
Silverstein said he regrets such mistakes but is leery enough of his critics that he no longer posts his children’s artwork and asked that his wife’s name not be used in this story. He jabs back. “I’m not Jesus. I don’t turn the other cheek.”
After Leibowitz had been in prison for more than a year, Silverstein said he had a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, on Facebook. Encouraged to come forward, Silverstein called a contact at The New York Times, and broke his silence.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605