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Oh My: NSA's Eavesdropping Of Israeli Leaders Also Picked Up Private Conversations With Congress

Well, we now know that President Obama’s decision to curtail surveillance on friendly governments was something of a half-truth; the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on Israeli leaders, especially during the secret negotiations over the highly flawed Iran nuclear deal. Yet, the dragnet also picked up private conversations with members of Congress, which worried some U.S. officials that the executive branch would be accused of spying on U.S. lawmakers. Yes, indeed, spying on Congress would be an “oh, s**t, moment,” as The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:


The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.

The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears—an “Oh-s— moment,” one senior U.S. official said—that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.

White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign. They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’ ” a senior U.S. official said. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’

Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping 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; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, according to current and former officials familiar with the intercepts.


In closed-door debate, the Obama administration weighed which allied leaders belonged on a so-called protected list, shielding them from NSA snooping. French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders made the list, but the administration permitted the NSA to target the leaders’ top advisers, current and former U.S. officials said. Other allies were excluded from the protected list, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of NATO ally Turkey, which allowed the NSA to spy on their communications at the discretion of top officials.

Privately, Mr. Obama maintained the monitoring of Mr. Netanyahu on the grounds that it served a “compelling national security purpose,” according to current and former U.S. officials. Mr. Obama mentioned the exception in his speech but kept secret the leaders it would apply to.


Now, in truth, it’s not like the Israelis haven’t spied on us. Their version of the NSA, Unit 8200, gave the U.S. a new hacking tool, which we later found out also relayed how we were using it back to the Israelis, according to the Journal. Moreover, this wasn’t set up just to know what the Israelis were up to regarding combating the Iran deal in Congress. The publication also added that in 2011-12, U.S. intelligence was ramped up on Israel after fears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might strike Iran to prevent them from reaching the capability to build nuclear weapons. At the same time, we were conducting secret talks with Tehran…without telling Israel. And thus we have a relationship that former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden described as “the most combustible mixture of intimacy and caution that we have.” Truth be told, the NSA’s tabs on foreign leaders is so thorough that we reportedly know exactly what talking points these folks are going to bring up before they even meet the president.

Yet, back to the Israeli campaign on the Hill to block the Iran deal:

NSA intercepts convinced the White House last year that Israel was spying on negotiations under way in Europe. Israeli officials later denied targeting U.S. negotiators, saying they had won access to U.S. positions by spying only on the Iranians.

By late 2014, White House officials knew Mr. Netanyahu wanted to block the emerging nuclear deal but didn’t know how.


Despite NSA surveillance, Obama administration officials said they were caught off guard when Mr. Boehner announced the invitation on Jan. 21.

Soon after, Israel’s lobbying campaign against the deal went into full swing on Capitol Hill, and it didn’t take long for administration and intelligence officials to realize the NSA was sweeping up the content of conversations with lawmakers.

The message to the NSA from the White House amounted to: “You decide” what to deliver, a former intelligence official said.


During Israel’s lobbying campaign in the months before the deal cleared Congress in September, the NSA removed the names of lawmakers from intelligence reports and weeded out personal information. The agency kept out “trash talk,” officials said, such as personal attacks on the executive branch.

Administration and intelligence officials said the White House didn’t ask the NSA to identify any lawmakers during this period.

“From what I can tell, we haven’t had a problem with how incidental collection has been handled concerning lawmakers,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He declined to comment on any specific communications between lawmakers and Israel.


Now, they did add there are protocols regarding “intercepted communications ‘to, from or about’ Americans dating back to the Cold War.” Americans and businesses are identified as “U.S. person and U.S. organization” respectively. Moreover, a 1990 revamp of the rules required a U.S. lawmaker be notified if their name was divulged to the executive “in summaries of intercepted communications.”

So, was the Obama White House spying on Congress? One could argue yes, albeit inadvertently–and they did clean up any riff raff that wasn’t germane to what the Obama administration was looking for in these intercepts. At the same time, it shows a) how messy things could get and b) rehashes how bad our relations with Israel have become. 

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