A Top Biden Cybersecurity Aide Donated Over $500,000 to AIPAC as an NSA Official

“It’s unwise at best.”

Phillip Faraone/Getty

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In mid-January, a week before being sworn in as president, Joe Biden announced that he would appoint Anne Neuberger as the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology on the National Security Council. Cybersecurity experts praised the move, citing it as a clear sign the Biden White House would be serious about countering cyber-threats. The New York Times described Neuberger, who became the National Security Agency’s cybersecurity chief in 2019, as a “rising official” at the agency. She had run its Russia Small Group, which launched a preemptive strike against the Kremlin’s cyber operatives during the 2018 elections, and in addition to focusing on preventing cyber-assaults on the US government and military, she had overseen the development of new impenetrable cryptography. But the glowing reviews left out an unusual piece of her story: In recent years, Neuberger, through a family foundation, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby known as AIPAC, for its efforts to influence the US government and public opinion.

National security experts tell Mother Jones that the hefty donations from Neuberger’s foundation to AIPAC—a strong ally of an Israeli government that is deeply involved in cyber and intelligence issues of importance to the US government and that has spied on the United States and been a target of US spying—raise concerns. (NBC News reports the same.)*

Neuberger hails from one of the wealthiest families in the United States. Her father is billionaire investor George Karfunkel, who was in the news last summer for making a curious donation of Kodak stock—worth up to $180 million—to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn that seemed to barely exist. Karfunkel was listed in New York State records as the synagogue’s president and chief financial officer, and the transfer of this stock—which would have yielded Karfunkel a tremendous tax deduction—occurred during a wild buying spree of Kodak stock triggered by a leaked announcement that the Trump administration might be handing Kodak an unprecedented $765 million loan. (That deal never came through.) Members of Congress have demanded answers about Karfunkel’s highly unusual stock transfer.

From 1993 to 2007, Anne Neuberger worked at American Stock Transfer and Trust, a financial services firm cofounded by her father in 1971, eventually becoming a senior vice president of operations. Her husband, Yehuda Neuberger, was also a top official at the firm and a board member. Anne Neuberger then switched from the private sector to the government. After serving as a White House fellow and working for the secretary of the Navy as an adviser on IT programs, she landed at the NSA in 2009 and helped develop its Cyber Command. Media profiles of her in the years since have focused on the novelty of an Orthodox Jewish woman who grew up in a Hassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn (and whose grandparents on both sides were Holocaust survivors) becoming a leader at the NSA and have noted that her parents were on the 1976 Air France flight that was hijacked by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and diverted to Uganda, where the passengers were eventually rescued by Israeli commandos. 

Twelve years ago, Neuberger and her husband created the Anne and Yehuda Neuberger Foundation to “carry out the charitable and religious purposes of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore,” according to its tax records. Neuberger was vice-president of the foundation; her husband, the president. Neither received compensation from the outfit.

In 2010, the foundation’s first full year of operations, it received $1,183,050 in contributions and handed out $383,100. Of that, a quarter of a million went to the Women’s Network for Single Parents in Brooklyn. (Neuberger is the founder of Sister to Sister, a group that assists divorced women within Orthodox Jewish communities.) The foundation made an $83,000 gift to the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Computer Sciences for the Blind in Brooklyn was awarded $25,000. And the foundation donated $25,000 to AIPAC for “operating support.” 

The following year, the Anne and Yehuda Neuberger Foundation dished out $284,500 in gifts, according to its tax filings. The list included another $25,000 to AIPAC and also $3,500 to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish, pro-Israel think-tank in Washington.

In subsequent years, the foundation upped its contributions to AIPAC. From 2012 through 2018—the last year for which tax records for the foundation are available—the Neubergers provided $559,000 to AIPAC. And this money, according to those filings, financed lobbying—either lobbying “to influence a legislative body” or “to influence public opinion.” The tax records do not provide any specifics about the AIPAC activity the foundation financed. (The contribution amounts listed for AIPAC on the Neuberger Foundation’s IRS submissions line up exactly with the amounts the foundation declared as expenditures for lobbying. A nonprofit charitable foundation is allowed to pass money to a lobbying shop, as long as the amount donated is a moderate percentage of its overall giving.) 

There is a Neuberger family connection to AIPAC. Yehuda Neuberger is chair of AIPAC’s Baltimore executive council. In 2011, Rabbi Steven Weil, then executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, hailed his “outstanding reputation as a leader of AIPAC.” Four years later, as part of a fierce AIPAC effort, Yehuda Neuberger lobbied Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to oppose the multilateral Iran nuclear deal the Obama White House had negotiated. (During the political fight over the Iran deal, the NSA, according to the Wall Street Journaleavesdropped on Israeli officials, including Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the accord, and “revealed to the White House how Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations—learned through Israeli spying operations—to undermine the talks” and had “coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal.”)

Around 2014, the management of the Neuberger Foundation shifted. Anne Neuberger, who was still at the NSA, moved from vice president to secretary/treasurer, and Yehuda Neuberger, the president, became vice president. Marc Terrill, the president of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, who had previously been a director of the Neubergers’ foundation, took over as president. (According to tax records for 2014, Terrill made $700,109 in total compensation as head of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore that year.) The Neuberger Foundation and the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore share an address and phone number in the Charm City. 

In its 2015 tax filing, the Anne and Yehuda Neuberger Foundation reported a major development: it received a $93 million gift. The source of this large contribution—which came in the form of stock in one publicly traded company—was the Chesed Foundation of America, an organization run by George Karfunkel that started that fiscal year with assets of $148 million. (The tax filings do not disclose what stock was involved in this transfer.) In subsequent years, the Anne and Yehuda Neuberger Foundation increased its donations into the seven-figures range.

In fiscal year 2017, the foundation experienced another significant change in its finances: it started the year with $88 million in assets but ended with $33 million. It handed out about $1.5 million in donations that year, and its tax filing did not explain this drop. Still, in assets, it remained over 30 times the size it was at its inception in 2010.

As the Neubergers’ foundation grew—bolstered by this large infusion from George Karfunkel’s foundation—AIPAC remained a beneficiary. In fiscal year 2018, it doled out $1,925,000 in donations, which included $75,000 for AIPAC.

In Washington, AIPAC is regarded as a powerhouse lobbying force. It describes its mission as a bipartisan effort “to strengthen and expand the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.” But a top AIPAC official once said that its job is generally to support the policies of the government of Israel. In 2005, two senior AIPAC officials were charged with espionage and accused of handing US defense secrets to an Israeli official, but four years later, the case was dropped when pre-court rulings complicated the Justice Department’s case by compelling prosecutors to prove the pair had intended to harm US interests.

In  recent years AIPAC has been widely seen as a supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right and hardline policies—perhaps to such an extent that it has, as one critic put it, engaged in “mission-distortion” or “mission-neglect.” AIPAC, for example, has provided Netanyahu a platform for attacking Democrats and US policies with which it disagrees. “The Israeli government has moved right. AIPAC has gone with it,” Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, noted last year. In his new memoir, former President Barack Obama criticized AIPAC for reflexively siding with Israel in policy disputes. He wrote that AIPAC embraces the view that “there should be ‘no daylight’ between the U.S. and Israeli governments, even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy.” He observed that US officials who adopted a different approach could expect to be targeted by the AIPAC and its political arm: “Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.” 

On cyber matters—Anne Neuberger’s field—Israel is an important player. It has become a cybersecurity powerhouse. The nation is home to NSO Group, one of the most notorious cyber-surveillance firms, which manufactures the infamous Pegasus phone spyware, which can allow a security service or other actor to gain total control of a mobile phone and use the device to surveil its user. According to a 2018 report, “At least six countries with significant Pegasus operations have previously been linked to abusive use of spyware to target civil society, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.” Last year, Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had encouraged NSO to sell Pegasus to the United Arab Emirates and several Persian Gulf states. 

Though Israel is a US ally, it has spied on the US government, and the CIA has considered Israel a top counterintelligence threat. And it is not hard to conceive of cyber-related conflicts that could arise between the two states. So should a Biden administration national security official in charge of US cyber policy be supporting an influence group aligned with the Israeli government? “It’s unwise at best,” says John Sipher, a former CIA official. “In her world, when people think of cyber-threats, Israel is always there, even if it’s an ally. It is surprising that someone in cyber who understands Israeli capabilities would not want to steer clear of these politics.”

Several other national security experts—who asked not to be named—say that the foundation’s donations to AIPAC create, at the least, an appearance problem for Anne Neuberger. They point out that the Israeli government does maintain an aggressive campaign of espionage against the United States and has a deep interest in US cyber policy.

A former senior intelligence official says, “Anne is a very smart and competent professional. I was very impressed with her work and never had any question about her integrity… That said, such a donation, if true and publicized, would raise a lot of eyebrows within the government and beyond, especially since the two dimensions involved—Israel and cyber—have their own history.” A second former senior intelligence official adds, “Is this disqualifying? Probably not. But it’s not good.”

A senior congressional aide who oversees national security issues says, “If you donate half a million dollars to a lobbying group, that indicates a pretty strong preference.” And a foreign policy expert with close ties to the Biden administration notes, “One question this presents is whether she would recuse herself from decisions that could impact Israel.”

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on government ethics, notes that ethics laws are primarily aimed at preventing an official’s financial interests from having an impact on his or her government work. “Neuberger’s past financial contribution to AIPAC does not create that kind of ethics issue,” she says. But Clark notes that it could “raise raise a question regarding her impartiality.” Clark points out that because cybersecurity issues involve Israel and because AIPAC “promotes strong US-Israeli cooperation on a wide range of issues, including cyber,” the public “needs to know whether the actions of Neuberger’s foundation overlap with her government responsibilities.” She adds, “Will we know what the foundation has spent or is spending its money on? Will we know what projects the foundation is supporting? Will the foundation accept donations?”

Marc Terrill, the president of the Neuberger Foundation, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When reached by Mother Jones, Yehuda Neuberger said he was not available to discuss the foundation. 

On Monday, Mother Jones sent a list of questions about the Neuberger Foundation and its AIPAC donations to the NSC and Anne Neuberger. The queries included: Did Neuberger or her foundation know specifically what lobbying the donations subsidized? What was the source of the initial $1,183,050 the foundation kicked off with? What was the stock valued at $93 million that her father’s foundation donated to the Neuberger Foundation? Why did the foundation receive such a large gift? Does the Neuberger Foundation consult with Karfunkel regarding any of its donations? Has Neuberger filed a financial disclosure form regarding her new position at the NSC? Does it include information related to the Neuberger Foundation? Did she file a financial disclosure form at the NSA? Did it include information related to the Neuberger Foundation?

Mother Jones also asked, Is it appropriate for a high-ranking intelligence official or a NSC official to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to AIPAC, a lobby regarded by critics as often aligned with the policy interests of a foreign government? Is there a potential conflict of interest for a senior official in charge of cyber policy who donates money to an American group that is seen as supportive of a foreign government highly involved in cyber-surveillance and cyber-warfare issues?

An NSC spokesperson said that she would respond to the query and requested time to do so. Two days later the NSC declined to answer any of those questions. The NSC spokesperson said, “As a senior NSC employee, Ms. Neuberger will abide by the Executive Order on Ethics Commitments By Executive Branch Personnel.”

The NSA did not respond to a similar set of questions.

UPDATE: After this article was published, Emily Horne, an NSC spokesperson, sent Mother Jones the following statement: “We note that NBC has pulled down their own version of this story, saying it fell short of their reporting standards, and look forward to Mother Jones doing the same. The women and men of the NSC are patriotic, dedicated, and serve their country with distinction. Being forced to endure public smear campaigns should not be part of working on behalf of the American people.” NBC News moved its story on Neuberger to its archives and said that the article did not meet the network’s reporting standards because it cited only unnamed sources raising questions about the Neuberger Foundation’s donations to AIPAC and because Neuberger was not given “adequate time to respond to our reporting.” This Mother Jones article cited both named and unnamed sources, and Mother Jones gave Neuberger two days to respond to a query about her foundation and the AIPAC donations. She did not respond. Mother Jones also contacted the president of the foundation, and he did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Mother Jones stands by our reporting.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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