Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Obama Administration Spied on Israel — And Members of Congress, Pro-Israel Interest Groups as Well

I mean if this kind of completely underhanded (and illegal) espionage of our purported allies were taking place during the Watergate era, it'd be right up there with the break-in at the DNC headquarters. It's not so much that we're spied on our only consolidated democratic ally in the Middle East, but that the Obama White House deployed bureaucratic legerdemain to establish plausible deniability. Obama set himself up to blame the NSA if anything went wrong, and this is two years after pledging to curtail spying on America's strategic partners.

And don't forget to add in the extra bonus of spying on Members of Congress and pro-Israel lobbying groups.

Man, this is really something else.

At the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress" (via AoSHQ):

NSA’s targeting of Israeli leaders swept up the content of private conversations with U.S. lawmakers.

President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state after the world learned the reach of long-secret U.S. surveillance programs.

But behind the scenes, the White House decided to keep certain allies under close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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.

Before former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed much of the agency’s spying operations in 2013, there was little worry in the administration about the monitoring of friendly heads of state because it was such a closely held secret. After the revelations and a White House review, Mr. Obama announced in a January 2014 speech he would curb such eavesdropping.

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.

Israeli, German and French government officials declined to comment on NSA activities. Turkish officials didn’t respond to requests Tuesday for comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the NSA declined to comment on communications provided to the White House.

This account, stretching over two terms of the Obama administration, is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and administration officials and reveals for the first time the extent of American spying on the Israeli prime minister...

And see Jonathan Tobin, at Commentary, "Obama Crosses a Line on Spying":

Let’s specify that it must be understood that in the real world all nations probably spy on each other. That includes friends. Moreover, the generally very close relations between the U.S. and Israeli security establishments does not preclude them from seeking to gain more information than might be shared in the course of normal diplomatic intercourse. In the past, there have been documented cases of the U.S. spying on Israel. On the other hand, the Pollard affair demonstrated an instance in which some Israeli spooks and their political masters had the bad judgment to not only spy on the U.S. but to employ an unstable American Jew. That mistake has wrongly allowed anti-Semites within the U.S. government to wrongly place loyal American Jews under suspicion.

But the endless, eternal struggle for more intelligence that all spies wage against each other has become something very different under the Obama administration. The report about its anti-Israel activity makes plain that surveillance of Israel has gone beyond the routine hunger for extra tidbits of information that had not been previously shared by the allies. What has been going on is more like a campaign that was driven primarily by political motives more than ones rooted in security.

The Obama administration wasn’t content to merely debate the Israelis and the majority of Americans that opposed the Iran nuclear deal. The president and his foreign policy team were actively spying on them in a way that reflected more than ordinary curiosity about an ally. The information it sought and gathered actually had nothing to do with Israeli or American security. Rather it was conducting political espionage aimed at monitoring normal diplomatic conduct and legitimate political activity being conducted by American citizens and members of Congress that opposed the president’s détente with Iran.

The irony here is of Olympic in proportions. Rather than using its resources on legitimate security risks or even on sources of vital information relating to the defense of the homeland or our allies, the NSA was basically acting as an arm of the White House’s political operations ferreting out information about lobbying efforts of those opposed to the Iran deal.

That netted the administration some juicy tidbits about conversations between former Speaker of the House John Boehner and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer that led to an invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress (so much for the administration’s expressions of shock and surprise about the alleged breach of protocol by the Israelis!). While the Israeli decision to accept that offer was politically debatable, it was not a matter of national security one way or the other. Nor were any of the sessions that were apparently bugged involving Israelis, American supporters of Israel and members of Congress.

Leaving aside ethics and the law, this spying activity was largely pointless. It’s not as if anyone in Washington was in any doubt about Israeli displeasure with the president’s betrayal of the security interests of both nations in his pursuit of appeasement of Tehran. Everything they learned about opposition to the Iran deal by spying was already being talked of openly by all concerned. Using the NSA in this manner wasn’t just morally dubious; it was a waste of precious intelligence resources.

Nor can we be reassured by what the Journal tells us the NSA did to keep limits on the spying it was doing use the measures. Removing “trash talk” by members of Congress directed at the president from the transcripts it provided the White House was nice, but it didn’t address the basic problem of the executive branch spying on the legislature’s normal conduct of business.

Complicating this affair were the administration’s worries about Israeli efforts to find out what was going on between the U.S. and Iran in the nuclear talks. Apparently the White House’s greatest fear was that the Israelis would tell Congress what the president and his foreign policy team were giving away in the course of those negotiations.

In the end, Obama got his nuclear deal with Iran via concessions and even was able to implement it despite the opposition of the majority of the House and Senate as well as the American people. The spying on Israel didn’t help, but it did further undermine the already fragile trust between the Jewish state and its one superpower ally.

What comes through loud and clear from all of this is that the Obama administration is more worried about letting either its allies or the representatives of the American people know about its conduct toward Iran than they were about the nuclear threat. That meant using the NSA in a manner for which it was not intended: to spy not just on foreign friends but on American citizens and members of Congress...
Still more.