- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
With a resounding meh, U.S. lawmakers shrugged off a report Tuesday alleging that Israel spied on nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers in hopes of spurring Congress to scuttle a deal.
The muted reaction to the explosive Wall Street Journal report highlighted Congress’ reflexive and bipartisan support for Israel — despite a White House backlash against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology this week for racially charged pre-election campaigning and an abandonment of a two-state solution with Palestine.
Instead of expressing concern, anger, or a desire for more answers about the foreign collection of U.S. secrets, many top lawmakers either raised doubts about the report’s accuracy or declined to comment.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the most shocking development of the day,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told Foreign Policy before entering an elevator on Capitol Hill.
“No one from Israel’s told me anything I haven’t already known,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said as he ascended an escalator to the Senate on Tuesday.
House Speaker John Boehner, who has privately met with Netanyahu in recent weeks, told reporters “there was no information revealed to me whatsoever,” referring to classified intelligence.
The Journal report cited unidentified U.S. officials who described the snooping as part of a broader campaign by Netanyahu’s government to build a case against any emerging nuclear deal with Tehran.
The report said Israeli spies then passed information to members of Congress to undercut support for an agreement brokered by the White House.
In an awkward turnabout, American officials apparently found out about Israeli snooping by spying on the Israelis themselves, according to the Journal. The newspaper said the White House was not angry about Israel’s collection of classified information on the Iran negotiations — either from signals intelligence, a mole in the negotiating team, or normal diplomatic conversations with French officials.
But the Obama administration was displeased that Israeli spies allegedly used stolen information to undercut the work of U.S. negotiators.
The Israeli government denied the report.
“The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies,” said a spokesman for Netanyahu.
Lawmakers appeared to be in no mood to rush to judgment. Some even defended Israel’s actions.
“They have an existential interest in this negotiation,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told FP. “And the fact that they want to know about it, the fact that they would have an opinion about it, the fact that they would share their opinion about it, I don’t find all that troubling,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker suggested that the White House may have leaked the story to publicly embarrass the Israelis.
“I think ya’ll understand what’s happening here. You understand who’s pushing this out,” Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters.
The Obama administration has long been at loggerheads with Netanyahu, and the sparring peaked over the prime minister’s March 3 address to a joint session of Congress — a speech the White House said snubbed diplomatic protocols. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama denied that he and Netanyahu don’t get along with each other, and said the two have a “businesslike relationship.”
Still, Obama said it’s troubling that Netanyahu last week disavowed a possible Mideast peace plan that includes a Palestinian state. With that, Obama said, prospects for peace are “dim.”
Corker said he never received any sensitive information from the Israelis. He said the spying might not be necessary if the Obama administration did a better job at briefing Congress about the Iran negotiations. “One of my reactions was, ‘Why haven’t they been coming up here sharing information with me?’” he said after reading the Journal report. “I kind of felt left out.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said administration officials have looped in House and Senate lawmakers, and their staff, in at least 230 meetings, hearings, and calls since October 2013.