Netanyahu denies Israel planted spy devices near the White House

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By Saphora Smith and Paul Goldman  with NBC News World News
Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Israel K
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, left, and Government Secretary Tzachi Braverman attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sept. 8, 2019.   -   Copyright  Abir Sultan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied his country spies within the U.S. afterPolitico reported Thursday that the U.S. government concluded Israel was most likely behind surveillance devices planted near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, D.C.

Citing three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter, Politico reported devices capable of tracking cellphone activity had been uncovered. NBC News was unable to immediately independently verify the story, but reached out to the White House and State Department for comment Thursday.

Netanyahu's office shot down allegations his country was spying on U.S. soil as "a blatant lie."

"There is a longstanding commitment, and a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the U.S.," it said in a statement. "This directive is strictly enforced without exception."

The allegations could potentially rock what is a key diplomatic relationship for both the U.S. and Israel, days ahead of a close Israeli general election in which Netanyahu is fighting for his political life. The prime minister was en route Thursday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin before Israelis head to the polls on Sept. 17.

The news comes two days afterNetanyahu pledged to begin annexing parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank if he is re-elected prime minister next week. He said he would do so with "maximum coordination" with the U.S.

Politico reported that three unnamed senior U.S. officials familiar with the matter said the U.S. government had concluded within the last two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of the devices. The website reported that it was unclear whether the efforts were successful.

Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Israel Katz, also denied the report. He said Israel does not conduct spy operations in the U.S.

"The U.S. and Israel share a lot of intelligence information and work together to prevent threats and strengthen the security of both countries," he said in reaction to the allegations.

In October last year, U.S. officials told NBC News that they had been concerned for months that President Donald Trump has been discussing sensitive information on an unsecured cellphone, after The New York Times reported that Chinese and Russian spies had been listening to his personal calls.