EDITOR’S NOTE (Jan. 27, 2021, 9:30 p.m. ET): After a number of readers raised issues with this article, NBC News conducted a review and has determined that it fell short of our reporting standards. In order to warrant publication, it needed on-the-record quotes from critics, rather than anonymous ones. The article should have also included more views from those who believe that donations to AIPAC do not represent a conflict. And it did not give Neuberger adequate time to respond to our reporting. NBC News is leaving the article on our website in the interest of full transparency with our readers.
WASHINGTON — A family foundation linked to President Joe Biden's senior director for cyber policy on the White House National Security Council donated more than half a million dollars in recent years to the main pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, according to public records.
The donations, first reported by David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, do not appear to pose a legal issue, but some current and former national security officials told NBC News they risk creating the possible appearance of bias in favor of Israel by a top American official. While Israel is a close American ally, it operates in its own interest and aggressively spies on the U.S., including using cyber capabilities, current and former officials say.
Other current and former officials disagreed, saying they do not think the donations pose a problem.
The lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, describes itself as a "bipartisan American organization that advocates for a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship." Most Republicans and many Democrats are closely allied with the group, while other Democrats are not.
The official, Anne Neuberger, recently was named senior director for cyber policy on the National Security Council. She spent the last decade at the National Security Agency, the Pentagon's digital spying arm, where she worked her way up the ranks to become head of a newly created cybersecurity directorate.
Neuberger did not immediately respond to email and phone messages.
A spokeswoman for the National Security Council declined to answer detailed questions about the matter, saying, “As a senior NSC employee, Ms. Neuberger will abide by the Executive Order on Ethics Commitments By Executive Branch Personnel.”
It's not clear Neuberger would have been required to disclose contributions by her family foundation as part of her ethics or security clearance reviews — so it's not known whether the Biden team vetted the donations. Although the donations are listed in public tax filings available on the web, some effort is required to find them.
The daughter of billionaire investor George Karfunkel, Neuberger is an officer of a foundation named for her and her husband, the Yehuda and Anne Neuberger Foundation.
The foundation was created 12 years ago to "carry out the charitable and religious purposes of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore," according to its tax records. Neither Neuberger nor her husband received any compensation from the nonprofit.
From 2012 through 2018 — the last year for which tax records for the foundation are available — the Neuberger foundation donated $559,000 to AIPAC, tax record show. In a separate part of the forms, the foundation reports spending that exact amounts of its AIPAC donations under the category of spending for lobbying "to influence a legislative body" or "to influence public opinion," A nonprofit charitable foundation is allowed to donate to a lobbying organization if the amount is a limited percentage of its overall giving.
A cross section of current and former intelligence officials and foreign policy experts — none of whom were willing to be named — said the donations created an appearance problem. They noted that Israel, whose companies build and sell spying gear to regimes abroad and whose intelligence agencies hack foreign governments around the world, has a big stake in American cyber policy.
Two of the sources interviewed who know Neuberger say she is a person of high integrity. Nonetheless, installing a top cyber official in the White House who has strong ties to an organization that represents the interests of the Israeli government could cause some people to question the impartiality of the policy process, they said.
"If you donate half a million dollars to a lobbying group, that indicates a pretty strong preference," said one senior Congressional aide who oversees national security issues.
"One question this presents is whether she would recuse herself from decisions that could impact Israel," said a foreign policy expert with close ties to the Biden team.
The donations "would raise a lot of eyebrows within the government and beyond, one former senior intelligence official said, "especially since the two dimensions involved — Israel and cyber — have their own history."
A second former senior intelligence official added, "Is this disqualifying? Probably not. But it's not good."
One current intelligence official and one congressional aide disagreed, saying the donations alone are not problematic because AIPAC is a mainstream organization and Israel is an ally.
The Trump administration emphasized its close alignment with the Israeli government, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and cutting off relations with Palestinian officials. The Biden administration has announced its intention to restore relations with the Palestinians.
While the Neuberger Foundation donations to AIPAC have not previously been reported, news stories have detailed her husband's role as chair of AIPAC's Baltimore executive council. In 2011, Rabbi Steven Weil, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, hailed his "outstanding reputation as a leader of AIPAC." Four years later, as part of a concerted AIPAC effort, Yehuda Neuberger lobbied Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to oppose the multilateral Iran nuclear deal the Obama White House had negotiated.
According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Israel spied on talks among the U.S. and its allies over the Iran nuclear deal, in an effort to stop it.
AIPAC has long been dogged by criticism that it operates as a virtual arm of the Israeli government. In 2009, the Justice Department decided to drop espionage charges against two AIPAC officials who had been accused of spying for Israel. Officials cited court rulings that they said made the case unwinnable and fears that the trial would disclose classified information.
A spokesperson for AIPAC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.