- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Obama White House found itself playing defense Wednesday amid rising anger from lawmakers and Republican presidential rivals over a report that President Obama authorized spying on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other U.S. allies, snooping that may have swept up private conversations involving members of Congress and private U.S. pro-Israel groups.

While the administration would not confirm or deny the existence of a National Security Agency intelligence-gathering operation reported Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, a spokesman for Mr. Obama’s National Security Council stressed that the president believes the U.S. “commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”

At the same time, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said, U.S. officials “do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose.”

“This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” Mr. Price said in a statement.

At least three Republican presidential candidates used the report to criticize Mr. Obama for failing to rein in the NSA and for targeting Israel, a critical U.S. ally.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson condemned the purported spying on Mr. Netanyahu as “disgraceful.”

“Instead of focusing on deterring the Iran nuclear threat and fighting against the [Iranian] mullahs who chant ‘Death to America,’ President Obama has treated Israel, our staunch, democratic ally in the Middle East, as his real enemy,” Mr. Carson said in a statement.

Two key House Republicans sent a letter late Wednesday to Adm. Michael Rogers, NSA director, citing passages in the Journal story that reported private conversations between foreign leaders and lawmakers may have been monitored and that the White House largely left it up to the NSA to determine which intercepts it would share with Mr. Obama and his aides.

“These reports raise questions concerning the processes NSA employees follow in determining whether intercepted communications involved members of Congress, and the latitude agency employees have in screening communications with members of Congress for further dissemination within the Executive Branch,” wrote House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican who chairs the panel’s national security subcommittee.

The two demanded that the spy agency supply its internal rules on how to handle such intercepts by no later than Jan. 13.

The Journal reported Tuesday that the White House allowed the NSA to monitor Israeli officials — specifically Mr. Netanyahu — during negotiations toward last summer’s international nuclear accord with Iran that Tel Aviv strongly opposed.

Mr. Obama vowed to cut back on spying on U.S. allies after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the wide scope of such activities. But according to The Journal, the president decided to continue the electronic surveillance in certain cases — including against Israel because of the importance of the Iran deal.

Despite geopolitical fallout over Mr. Snowden, the NSA reportedly kept in place electronic monitory systems that the agency had embedded in certain foreign communications networks around the world to increase spying activities on a case-by-case basis.

With regard to Israel and the Iran nuclear negotiations, The Journal reported, Mr. Obama personally ordered the agency to monitor Mr. Netanyahu, with whom he is seen to have had frosty relations over the past seven years, saying such spying would serve a “compelling national security purpose.”

Citing interviews with “more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and administration officials,” The Journal suggested that the White House realized over time that the NSA’s spying also was capturing the contents of private conversations that Israeli leaders were having with U.S. lawmakers and American Jewish groups.

What followed was a startling realization at the White House over the prospect that the administration could be accused of spying on Congress, according to one senior U.S. official who spoke with The Journal.

However, former high-level officials who spoke with The Washington Times on Wednesday dismissed that characterization.

“I know the rules and the procedures surrounding these types of situations and to me — if this story is true — it looks as if everyone involved from the White House to the NSA handled this precisely by the book and in the right way,” said one former senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“There’s nothing in U.S. law that makes the Israeli prime minister or ambassador or other Israeli official a protected person from U.S. intelligence gathering,” the former official said. “You’re trying to figure out what the Israelis are doing with regard to the Iranian negotiations and, frankly, you’re going to suck in an awful lot of U.S. content, including U.S. political figures. It’s just going to happen that way, and that does not mean it’s not legitimate foreign intelligence gathering.”

Another former high-level official, with direct experience handling sensitive legal issues relating to White House authorizations of intelligence activities, also told The Times that approved “NSA surveillance often incidentally collects communications of U.S. persons, which may include executive branch or congressional officials.”

“The U.S. person’s information is required to be ‘minimized’ and not disseminated, unless it shows evidence of criminal activity,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Republican anger

Mr. Carson was not the only Republican presidential candidate who pounced on the issue.

“This is exactly why we need more NSA reform,” said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“The debate in Washington right now has been unfortunately going the other way. Since the San Bernardino shooting, everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, we need more surveillance of Americans,’” Mr. Paul told Fox News. “In reality, what we need is more targeted surveillance. I’m not against surveillance, but I am against indiscriminate surveillance.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he wasn’t surprised by the accusations and asserted that the Obama administration “views Congress, Republicans and sometimes even Democratic members of Congress as their enemy,” according to CBS News.

But Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been known to clash on surveillance issues with libertarian-minded Republicans, cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that the Obama administration had done something wrong.

“I’m a member of the intelligence committee, so obviously I want to be very careful of what I say about information of this kind,” Mr. Rubio told Fox.

He said people have “a right to be concerned” about U.S. spying on “one of our strongest allies in the Middle East,” but “we have to be very careful about how we discuss it, especially since there’s a press report that I don’t think gets the entire story.”

The office of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, told reporters only that it was looking into the matter.

Mr. Netanyahu has been silent about Tuesday’s report, but The Times of Israel reported Wednesday that Yisrael Katz, the government’s intelligence and transportation minister, said Israel would lodge a strong protest if the report proves true.

“Israel does not spy on the U.S., and we expect that our great friend, the U.S., will treat us in a similar fashion,” Mr. Katz told the Ynet news website. “If the information on the subject turns out to be true, Israel must file a formal protest with the American government and demand it stop all activities of this kind.”

But former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amridror told the country’s Army Radio that no one should be surprised that even close allies keep secret tabs on one another.

“The U.S. listens in on everyone. We don’t need to get excited about it,” he said. “Everyone knows — it’s a fact.”

‘Bilateral security cooperation’

There was some uncertainty, meanwhile, over the full extent of the NSA’s monitoring of Israeli officials. According to The Journal report, information given to the White House by the NSA allowed administration officials to peer inside Israeli efforts to turn Congress against the Iran nuclear deal.

The information described Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, as having coached unidentified U.S. organizations on lines of argument to use with lawmakers. It also reportedly said Israeli officials were pressing lawmakers to oppose the nuclear deal.

But an Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington told The Journal that “these allegations are total nonsense.”

The newspaper also reported that 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.’”

While such comments are likely to trigger a wave of U.S.-Israeli diplomatic friction, the two nations share a history of close intelligence cooperation and, at times, discord.

The Journal noted that the NSA helped Israel expand its electronic spy apparatus in the late 1970s and asserted that when Mr. Obama took office, the NSA and its Israeli counterpart — Unit 8200 — worked together against shared threats, including a campaign to sabotage centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear program.

But there also has been a long trail of accusations of the two sides spying on each other.

Perhaps the most notorious case involved Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who was released in November after spending 30 years in an American prison. A former civilian intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy, Pollard was convicted in 1987 of passing classified information to Israel.

While that case and the latest revelations hang in the backdrop, Mr. Price, the National Security Council spokesman, said Wednesday that the Obama administration’s devotion to protecting Israel’s security is as strong — if not stronger — than that of any previous U.S. administration.

“This administration has pursued an unprecedented level of military, intelligence, and security cooperation with Israel to address new and complex security threats and ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), including the provision of the world’s most advanced military equipment, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” Mr. Price said. “This commitment to Israel’s QME lies at the heart of our bilateral security cooperation relationship.”

He also cited the administration’s support for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and noted that since 2009 alone, the U.S. has provided over $20.5 billion in foreign military financing to Israel, more than half of the total U.S. foreign military financing worldwide.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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