Did the Obama administration win backing of the Nuclear Iran Deal by eavesdropping on private communications between U.S. Congressmen and pro-Israel groups?
Published: December 30th, 2015
The publication of several news stories in the Wall Street Journal late Tuesday, Dec. 29, produced a subterranean tremor in the crowd that closely monitors U.S.-Israel relations. The articles, on the surface, revealed information that was not all that astonishing: The Israelis spied to obtain information on the U.S. and the U.S. spied on Israel regarding the recent Nuclear Iran Deal negotiations. Big news for naifs, but not so for close and constant observers.
But just below the words looms a much bigger story, one not quite completely spelled out by the Journal reporters, Adam Entous and Danny Yadron. But that story may well, or at least should, lead to a whole new political firestorm harkening back to the furor that led to the Church Committee hearings in the 1970’s.
Because, really, who did not already know that U.S. President Barack Obama and his team were furious with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the Nuclear Iran Deal? And wasn’t it already known that the Israelis received information about the presumably “secret” back-door negotiations between U.S. intermediaries and Iran about a nuclear deal? And why would anyone be surprised that such tensions between two traditionally rock-solid allies would create or further encourage less than desirable activity to reveal what the other was doing?
But the interesting revelation was that the sharing of information between the NSA and the White House included, apparently, not only communications by senior level Israeli officials, but also communications between those officials and members of Congress, as well as between members of Congress and U.S. pro-Israel organizations.
A clue that this matters, is that the Journal published an entirely separate article laying out the law and practice regulating eavesdropping by the executive branch on federal legislators.
That article, Cold War-Era Rules Designed to Protect U.S. Lawmakers’ Communications, one of the three articles date-lined Tuesday on the topic, is probably the one over which most readers’ eyes glazed, but it was placed there for a reason.
This article explains the evolution of various safeguards on the identities of sitting members of Congress in the course of American eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. That practice, formalized during the Cold War, required the identity of lawmakers, and even of mere U.S. private citizens, be obscured, when acquired by the NSA while the security agency fishes for information to protect the homeland from, for example, terrorism.
In the 1990’s, the Journal article explains intelligence agencies were “required to notify congressional leaders of intelligence committees whenever a lawmaker’s identity was revealed to an executive branch official.” But the article reveals that this “requirement” has not been scrupulously followed in recent years.
A declassified 2011 NSA directive required analysts to destroy intercepted communications between foreign targets and U.S. officers or employees, such as legislators, unless the NSA director issued a waiver on the grounds of “significant foreign intelligence.”
The expanding network of intelligence gathering gained substantial steam after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but were reportedly dramatically curtailed after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden publicly revealed the vast width and breadth of surveillance gathering engaged in by the U.S.
In the wake of the Snowden disclosure, President Obama promised the country to curtail spying on U.S. allies. Except that a loophole remained – and a sensible sounding loophole it is – that permitted snooping when “there was a compelling national security purpose” motivating the eavesdropping.
And here the picture comes together.
You see, the Obama administration was dead-set on reaching a nuclear weapons deal with Iran. And the Israeli people and government, and many U.S. legislators, and many American citizens, were dead-set against it. That created, apparently, what the Obama administration considered a “national security” reason for continuing to eavesdrop on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and anyone the government of Israel was talking to, and anyone who agreed with them who was speaking with American legislators.
This means that the Obama Administration employed tools, originally created to capture information about possible terrorists – the same tools whose use was publicly frowned upon by the Democrats when they are used to uncover terrorists – to eavesdrop on America’s “closest” ally in the most important strategic corner of the world, Israel.
Most shockingly, the Obama administration also used these terror-hunting tools to scoop up information about members of Congress working to develop their own policy position — one at cross-purposes with the administration. It will be interesting to see what “compelling national security purpose” the administration comes up with for this eavesdropping.
The revved-up spying on Netanyahu yielded information about how much Israel knew about the details of the Iran deal. It also uncovered coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal and lobbying discussions with U.S. lawmakers about the deal.
If true, the NSA was gathering, and handing over to the White House, information on the actions of private U.S. citizens and organizations composed of such citizens. This kind of domestic spying hasn’t been done since the days of Richard Nixon. And when Congress found out about that, there was a political firestorm, months of important hearings led by Senator Frank Church, and an avalanche of legislative reports and new laws to make sure it all never happened again.
This latest information was garnered by the current White House playing a twisted version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in which the White House took the information from the NSA, while never explicitly asking for it.
According to the Journal, “[t]he 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,’ ” according to the Journal.
A third Dec. 29 Journal article, this one by Entous and Patrick O’Connor, revealed that the speech Netanyahu gave to Congress last spring sprang from the heads of Republican members of Congress, and was not something devised by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, or Netanyahu himself, as had been rumored.
And the effect of all of this deeply troubling spy business on the Nuclear Iran Deal?
As former CIA analyst and House Committee staffer Fred Fleitz explained in an email to this JewishPress.com staffer, “This is very serious. The vote in September in Congress to disapprove the nuclear deal was narrow. The White House won this vote by doing better last summer convincing Democrats to support the deal. It now appears the White House won this battle, in part, by using NSA reporting on private discussions by congressmen and members of U.S. Jewish organizations.”
Fleitz asserted in a Dec. 30 article in National Review that the NSA violated federal law by passing on intercepts of private discussions of members of Congress to the White House and the White House was wrong to accept that information about this policy dispute between Congress and the president.
Going further, Fleitz wrote that by “accepting this intelligence, the White House used the NSA as an illegitimate means to undermine its legislative opponents. This represented a major abuse of presidential power, since it employed the enormous capabilities of an American intelligence service against the U.S. Congress. It also probably violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation-of-powers principles and the Fourth Amendment, since surveillance may have been conducted against U.S. citizens without a warrant.”
Yes, this is a very big deal.