Senior officials in the American administration said Sunday that the FBI had conveyed information to the Shin Bet security service about the Facebook account of IDF soldier Oron Shaul, in an attempt to locate him during the recent war in Gaza. The officials denied reports of the past few days in three Israeli media outlets that on an “order from above,” the FBI had not conveyed information that Israel had asked for.
On Friday morning Israel Hayom and the Jerusalem Post, and on Friday night Channel 1, published reports by Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, claiming that after Oron’s APC blew up in the Shujaiyeh quarter of Gaza City during Operation Protective Edge, Israeli intelligence officials had asked the FBI for information about Shaul’s Facebook page and been turned down.
The Israeli request came after Hamas hacked into Shaul’s Facebook page and posted claims that it had captured him. Emerson said the Israelis believed that by checking activity on Shaul’s Facebook account they could glean information as to his whereabouts, as at the time he was still classified as missing in action. Israel wanted the FBI to use its authority to obtain a court order to receive the relevant information directly from Facebook’s server.
According to Emerson, the FBI approached the Justice Department about obtaining the order. The response, which Emerson claimed came from Attorney General Eric Holder’s office, was negative. Emerson said that although the request was on a life and death matter, the Justice Department gave a technical reason for its refusal: that Israel and the United States do not have a treaty on legal cooperation.
Senior officials in the U.S. administration called Emerson’s claims “incorrect and misleading.” The officials said that the three media reports “only contribute to the public’s misunderstanding about the extent of efforts that both the U.S and Israeli government undertook in the search for Corporal Shaul.”
Contrary to Emerson’s claims, the officials said the FBI did convey the information Israel had asked for. “There was significant cooperation between the USG and the GOI in developing information in support of the search for Corporal Shaul. The FBI did immediately pass useful intelligence information to Israeli authorities related to Corporal Shaul’s social media account which answered the initial Israeli request,” the officials said.
A senior American official added that in trying to locate Shaul, the FBI conducted additional investigative activities “consistent with its legal powers,” following additional Israeli requests for information.
Emerson, who represents himself as a journalist and researcher on Islamic extremism, is a controversial figure in the United States. Members of the Muslim community and the left in the United States say he is islamophobic and that he incites against the Islamic community. Emerson has written a series of articles in recent years against the Obama administration, particularly with regard to Obama’s attitude toward Israel.
Emerson, a right-wing Republican, is considered close to Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. According to a 2007 article by Guy Leshem in TheMarker, Emerson is a “personal friend” of Adelson and is the latter’s “ambassador in the American administration.”
In an article in 2008 by Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, Emerson was described as a person whom Adelson asks advice about terror. Adelson is a formidable patron of the Republican Party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is the publisher of the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, which supports Netanyahu and promotes his policies, and was one of the three media outlets that published Emerson’s claims.