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Why the White House Wanted Congress To Think It Was Being Spied on by the NSA

The ‘Wall Street Journal’ recently published a scoop about the NSA snooping on Israel, but it makes no sense

Lee Smith
December 31, 2015
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuin the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuin the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama Administration tasked the National Security Agency to spy on Israel. An even more explosive revelation in the Journal story is that in its “targeting of Israeli leaders and officials,” the NSA “also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.”

According to the Journal, “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.”

The Journal article explains that the administration dialed back its electronic surveillance of world leaders after Edward Snowden’s 2013 exposure of some of the NSA’s spying operations. “In closed-door debate,” writes the Journal, “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…” Netanyahu was kept off the protected list partly because American policymakers were concerned that the Israelis were preparing to strike Iran. Knowing that Israel is about to target Iran in a major strike, for instance, and perhaps touch off a war that would affect other regional partners, as well as US troops stationed in the Middle East, would obviously be vital information to have—even if a given White House agreed that the operation was a good idea. However, the Journal explains, “by 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies determined Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t going to strike Iran.”

So, why was the White House still spying on Israel? The answer is that the administration wanted to know if Israel had uncovered secrets that Obama staffers were concealing from many if not all of its allies: First, the fact that the White House had entered negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program; and later, after the talks became public, the details of the negotiations. The administration would argue, perhaps rightly, that the secrecy of negotiations and the details of the talks were matters of national security. Others would contend that the real purpose of keeping the talks secret was to silence its critics.

According to the Journal, the White House believed that spying on the Israeli prime minister and other officials, “could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign” against the Iran Deal. However, the Journal relates, officials “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.’ ”

This story makes no sense. For starters, according to multiple sources in Congress and the intelligence community, the NSA never sent the White House any “intercepts” about how the Israeli government was coordinating its talking points with American-Jewish groups or suborning lawmakers, the latter of which would obviously be a very serious violation of criminal law.

Even the appearance of collecting against Americans is a very delicate issue, and has been since the Nixon years, when the question of domestic spying by US intelligence agencies nearly destroyed the NSA and the CIA. As a result, protocol at the NSA is very clear—it can listen to what Netanyahu says, but has to ignore the US side of the conversation. Legally, as the Journal story notes, intercepts recording communications between “foreign intelligence targets and members of Congress” are supposed to be destroyed. If Israeli officials were really coordinating “talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal” and bribing US lawmakers to win their votes, the information would have gone to the FBI and Department of Justice, not the White House.

But of course, Israeli officials were neither “coordinating” nor were they bribing, because here’s the main point, which nearly everyone in Washington, especially in the pro-Israel community, understands: Even if Bibi and the rest of the government of Israel were craven enough, and wealthy enough, and delusional enough, to try to buy off all of Washington, they all know—and have known for decades—that the NSA is listening to their communications. If Ambassador Ron Dermer, say, were to dictate “talking points” or try to bribe lawmakers, especially those already opposed to the Iran deal, he would be knowingly setting up Americans, including Israel’s friends and allies, for criminal prosecution. The premise is absurd, including the idea that government officials in Jerusalem plan communications and lobbying strategies for American Jewish groups (although that would explain why they’ve been so tone-deaf recently).

In fact, according to multiple sources reached recently, no one in the American intelligence community was spying on U.S. citizens or our elected representatives, and forwarding their names to the White House; the White House just wanted them to believe this was happening. Why? The Journal story only coheres if these purported intercepts are understood as part of the White House’s aggressive campaign to spook possible opponents of the Iran deal.

Recall, if you can, how high the stakes were. In July on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the president hinted broadly at anti-Semitic conceits to scare off Democrats inclined to go against the deal. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer got the full “dual loyalist” treatment when he came out against the agreement. Obama told New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez that his opposition to the deal came not out of conviction but because he was beholden to “donors and others.” The New York Times gave the administration an assist when it charged that Republican congressmen and senators opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are more loyal to the prime minister of Israel than the president of the United States: a Times editorial described the “vicious battle” as “the unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader against their own commander in chief.”

The poisonous environment that the administration created in order to sell the Iran deal spooked plenty of people on Capitol Hill. After all, the president accused Senators of dual loyalty, and the administration got the paper of record to drag them through the mud. In this atmosphere, would a fantasy in which the NSA was listening in on their calls and sending reports back to the White House be the weirdest thing for a Congressman to believe? No. Indeed, these were precisely the fears that the White House wanted to stoke.

What’s not clear is why this story came out now, nearly half a year after the deal was signed in July. The article is heavily reported and researched, and obviously took a long time to put together. Maybe members of Congress aren’t the only ones being gaslighted by the White House these days.