- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2015

President Obama vowed in 2013 to cut back on spying on U.S. allies. But in the interests of negotiating his Iran nuclear deal, according to the Wall Street Journal, he made an exception in the case of Israel and thereby also caught communications of U.S. Congress members in that dragnet.

In an extensive investigation, citing current and former U.S. officials, the Journal reported that the Obama administration had the National Security Agency continue spying on such allies as Germany, France and Turkey after an international furor in 2013 prompted by leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about U.S. spying operations.

But Israel was the most contentious ally, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly campaigned against the Iran deal, which caused the White House to see the NSA as a useful domestic political tool, albeit one it could not explicitly use.

According to the Journal, the White House was wary of explicitly asking the NSA to share what it had learned about Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign, and thus establish a potentially embarrassing paper trail. Instead, it used strategic silence.

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

The NSA intercepts of Mr. Netanyahu’s communications necessarily included private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American Jewish groups, which one senior U.S. official said raised fears of an “Oh-s— moment” of spying on Congress.

The White House debated behind closed doors which friendly foreign leaders would be exempted from spying — French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the list; Mr. Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not.

However, the NSA was still allowed to spy on exempted leaders’ advisers and aides, giving the exemption little practical effect.

In addition, according to current and former U.S. officials, the Journal reported that Mr. Obama personally ordered the monitoring of Mr. Netanyahu, with whom he has had a frosty personal relationship. He said it would serve a “compelling national security purpose.”

“This account, stretching over two terms of the Obama administration, is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and administration officials and reveals for the first time the extent of American spying on the Israeli prime minister,” the Journal wrote.

• Victor Morton can be reached at vmorton@washingtontimes.com.

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