The Cable

Report on NSA’s Israel Spying Sparks Backlash in Congress

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that his staff is looking into allegations that U.S. spies collected communications between the Israeli government and members of Congress.

Heidi Levine-Pool/Getty Images
Heidi Levine-Pool/Getty Images

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that his staff is looking into allegations that U.S. spies collected communications between the Israeli government and members of Congress.

The announcement from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) follows a report in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. government spied on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the foreign leader attempted to undermine support in Congress for President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The report is adding new fuel to the long-running political debate over NSA surveillance. 

According to the Journal, the National Security Agency swept up the contents of private conversations between Israeli officials and U.S. lawmakers and American Jewish groups. Wary of rules against spying on lawmakers, the White House “let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold,” according to the paper.

“We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’” a senior U.S. official told the Journal. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’”

The NSA is prohibited from directly targeting lawmakers for intelligence and surveillance purposes. If a valid foreign intelligence target comes into contact with lawmakers, the agency is required to mask or minimize the identity of the individual in its reports to the executive branch. Lawmakers, sensitive over becoming ensnared in Obama’s spy games with Netanyahu, now want to know more about the espionage claims in the story.

“The committee has requested additional information from the [intelligence community, or IC] to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures,” Nunes said in a statement.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, did not indicate that his staff would take any action but said “allegations of wrongdoing … are always taken seriously by this committee.”

NSA rules regarding intercepted communications of U.S. lawmakers require that American spies notify congressional committees when a lawmaker’s name comes up in intelligence reports to the executive branch. It is not clear if any lawmakers were specifically named in the NSA’s reports to the White House or if they were listed anonymously.

The top Democrat on the House committee, Adam Schiff of California, told the newspaper that “we haven’t had a problem with how incidental collection has been handled concerning lawmakers.”

An NSA directive from 2011 says that direct communications vacuumed up between foreigners and lawmakers should be destroyed upon interception. But a waiver allows the NSA director to preserve the communication if he or she believes it contains “significant foreign intelligence,” according to the Journal.

The NSA and Israeli Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

A senior administration official said “the intelligence community is required to keep congressional oversight committees fully informed of intelligence activities.”

The spying revelations rip the lid off this spring’s intense trench warfare between the White House and the Israeli government over congressional support for the Iran deal. As Netanyahu fought to secure congressional votes against the president’s deal, the White House stayed one step ahead with the help of NSA eavesdropping.

According to the Journal, the NSA’s dragnet included information about how Netanyahu “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.”

The story has already prompted criticism from an array of GOP presidential candidates.

“I’m appalled by it. This is exactly why we need more NSA reform,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Fox News on Wednesday.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also expressed concern over the report but said he wanted to avoid discussing intelligence matters on live television.

“This is one of those complicated issues when it comes to intelligence matters: We have to be very careful about how we discuss it,” he told Fox News. “I actually think it might even be worse than some people might think.”

The spying incident also offers a new reminder of the oftentimes adversarial intelligence relationship between the United States and Israel. Following the backlash to disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Obama administration stopped monitoring the phones and emails of certain allied leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it didn’t do the same for the leaders of Israel, which top U.S. security officials have repeatedly identified as a top counterintelligence threat to the United States.

“Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn’t do that,” a senior U.S. official told the Journal.

Photo credit: Pool/Getty Images

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