Dennis Ross’ ‘red line’ to the White house
Why did the White House install a secure phone in Dennis Ross’ office in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy?
Last week I published an article in Haaretz which stated that Dennis Ross, who had left the White House in November after more than two years as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, is still advising President Barack Obama even in his old-new position as a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Following the report, two independent sources approached me – one an Israeli academic, and the second a U.S. official. Both sources divulged a small, but very significant detail that clarified just how much Ross is still involved in framing U.S. policy regarding Israel and the Middle East.
Apparently, a short while after Ross left his position in the Obama administration, the White House made an unusual request to install a secure phone line in Ross' office at the Washington Institute. The secure line is known in Israel as a "red phone", which could be used to discuss confidential information without the risk of wiretapping.
In America, the term “red telephone” brings back memories of the Cold War and apocalyptic films such as of Dr. Strangelove. Guarded telephones in the U.S. Department of State as well as those in the White House are mostly white or gray. One of them sits in Dennis Ross’ office in his research institute, through which Ross receives updates regarding classified government information connected to his profession. There aren’t many independent researchers that receive such privileges.
For unknown reasons, Ross’ strange work arrangement is kept secret both by him and the White House. But the publication of the news brought up the issue of Ross’ position during the Department of State’s daily briefing last Friday. Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that not only is Ross advising the president, he is also part of a formal arrangement.
"Dennis Ross is now a private citizen, but he also has an association with the White House as an unpaid advisor,” Nuland told journalists during the briefing. So I’m going to send you to the White House in terms of…those details.”
During his visit to Israel last week, Ross met secretly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as with his advisor Yitzhak Molho. American officials estimated that Ross’ talks with Netanyahu are on behalf of President Obama, and part of a channel of communication that bypasses the government.
One journalist insistently asked Nuland whether Ross is bypassing the State Department in his talks with Netanyahu. “With regard to this specific mission and how much of it is Dennis’s private travel and how much of it is in this role as an uncompensated advisor, you need to talk to the White House about that. I don’t have those details. But frankly, Dennis has been a good partner to administrations of all kinds, whether he was in government or out of government, and always remains in close touch.”
During last week’s visit, Ross confirmed to several Israeli colleagues with whom he spoke that he is still advising President Obama and other White House officials, but claimed that in the November statement about his resignation, it was emphasized that President Obama will continue to consult with him from time to time. “I come to meetings and they ask me my opinion,” he stated. “But I am definitely not pulling the strings.”
The blog of Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, taking a deeper look behind the scenes of Israeli politics and foreign policy.