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.