Bombshell report from WSJ: NSA spied on Congress, Netanyahu, and Jewish organizations to push Iran deal
For some reason, the editors of the Wall Street Journal chose to unveil a major investigative report on the NSA’s spying on Congress in the black hole for news that is the run-up to New Year’s Eve. The piece by Adam Entous and Danny Yadron alleges:
President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state after the world learned the reach of long-secret U.S. surveillance programs.
But behind the scenes, the White House decided to keep certain allies under close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.
The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears—an “Oh-s— moment,” one senior U.S. official said—that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.
The Obama administration played cute with statutory prohibitions on spying on Americans (including especially co-equal branches of the federal government):
White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign [to convincer Congress to reject the Iran deal]. They 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.’ ”
Let that sink in for a moment. In a manner similar to the famous line from Beckett (“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”), White House officials back-handedly authorized spying on Congress over an impending vote in order to defeat a bill it didn’t like. Fred Fleitz, writing at NRO, catalogues the violations of law and the Constitution:
This suggests major misconduct by the NSA and the White House of a sort not seen since Watergate. First, intercepts of congressmen’s communications regarding a dispute between Congress and the White House should have been destroyed and never left the NSA building. The Journal article said a 2011 NSA directive requires direct communications between foreign intelligence targets and members of Congress to be destroyed, but gives the NSA director the authority to waive this requirement if he determines the communications contain “significant foreign intelligence.”
Netanyahu’s discussions with members of Congress on a policy dispute between Congress and the president do not qualify as foreign intelligence. Destroying this kind of information should not have been a close call for NSA. Congress should immediately ask NSA director Michael Rogers and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to verify the Journal story and explain why intercepts of private discussions of members of Congress were provided to the White House. If this did happen, both officials should resign.
Second, the White House bears significant responsibility for this scandal. By encouraging and 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.
The claim that Obama officials did not directly instruct the NSA to collect this information but simply accepted what the NSA sent them is preposterous. If the Journal article is accurate, Obama officials knew they were receiving intelligence on the private conversations of U.S. congressmen on a major policy dispute. These officials knew they were not supposed to have this intelligence but did not cut it off, because they wanted to use it to defeat efforts by Netanyahu and Congress to derail the Iran nuclear deal. This story is another indication of how desperate the Obama administration was to get a nuclear deal with Iran.
It is truly bizarre that Obama officials would be parties to such a gross misuse of U.S. intelligence after the controversy caused by NSA collection of phone records under the metadata program and so-called warrantless wiretaps by the Bush administration. These initiatives might have pushed the envelope of the law and intelligence charters, but they were carried out to defend the nation against terrorism and targeted terrorist suspects. By contrast, the Journal article discusses domestic intelligence activities that clearly are prohibited: targeting U.S. citizens over a policy dispute, and targeting the legislative branch of government. Congress should be outraged over this story, especially in light of how narrow the votes were in September to disapprove the Iran deal. The Obama administration won these votes because it did a better job than the congressmen and American Jewish groups who opposed the Iran deal of persuading Democratic members to support it. The Journal story suggests that NSA collection against American opponents of the deal may have helped the Obama administration win this battle for Democratic support.
There should be major congressional hearings on this program early next year. If the Journal reporting is accurate, we have a major scandal on our hands.