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Why the U.S. Spies on Netanyahu

The Wall Street Journal story [1] revealing that the Barack Obama administration used the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen to phone calls made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides is being spun in a number of different directions depending on one’s political proclivities. Sen. Rand Paul told Fox News [2] that he was “appalled by it… you could see how it would stifle speech if you’re going to eavesdrop on congressmen and that it might stifle what they say or who they communicate with.”

But whom the congressmen speak to and regarding what is precisely the point, as they were elected to represent their constituents in the United States of America, not the Israeli government. Understanding that, the Obama White House was perfectly within its rights to move aggressively against Netanyahu. The snooping program itself was initiated with bipartisan support towards the end of Obama’s first term, when there were concerns that Netanyahu would order a unilateral attack on Iran that would drag the United States into an unwanted war. In early 2015 its focus shifted to Israeli interference in the U.S. government’s secret involvement in negotiations relating to a possible international agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. It was clear that the Israelis were obtaining classified information on the state of the negotiations and were leaking that information selectively to influence both Congress and supportive organizations within the U.S. regarded as part of the Israel lobby.

Obama was not eavesdropping on American legislators—he was working against a foreign country that was actively spying against the United States and using the information it obtained to interfere with U.S. policy formulation. That was more than sufficient reason to try to find out what Netanyahu was up to. The fact that he was talking to congressmen in an attempt to line them up against the White House is deplorable, but if the congressmen did not exchange classified information with the Israelis then their consciences should be more or less clear, if not completely untroubled.

How dare we spy on the head of a “friendly” government? Cries of outrage are coming from the usual sources—National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal—as this is America’s “greatest friend and closest ally” that we are talking about. Or is it? Israel spies on the United States more than any other ostensibly friendly government does. It has never hesitated to put its own interests first without concern for blowback against the American people. When it is caught out it lies: it did so in the 1954 Lavon Affair [3], when it would have blown up a U.S. government building; in 1967, when it tried to sink the USS Liberty [4]; and yet again in 1987 to cover up the Jonathan Pollard spy case [5].

Nor is Israel shy about interfering in American politics. It openly supported Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in 2012. In 2009 Congresswoman Jane Harman was contacted by an Israeli intelligence “agent” [6] and asked to attempt to influence a reduction of the espionage charges in the then ongoing trial of accused American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spies Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. In return, Harman’s contact promised to support her bid to become chairman of the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence. The Israeli caller, who some suspect was leading Democratic Party donor Haim Saban himself, indicated that he would pressure House speaker Nancy Pelosi using threats to withhold political contributions if Harman were not given the position. Harman was later spoken of as a possible candidate to become Director of Central Intelligence and, without the FBI recordings of her phone conversations, which were made known to Pelosi, she might have obtained either position, or possibly both in succession. (Saban, who has claimed that “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” is currently poised [7] to become the Hillary Clinton campaign’s principal financial contributor.)

So Washington was tapping Netanyahu’s phones to determine what he was up to and who was leaking classified information. And when the phones were tapped, something interesting developed. A number of congressmen were identified speaking to the Israeli officials, who were apparently trying to find out what inducement it would take to obtain a vote against the White House on Iran. And, of course, there might have been more than that, with some congressmen possibly offering to give the Israelis a little encouragement or even help. As the details of the conversations and the names of the congressmen have been redacted in the transcript version that went to the White House, we might never know exactly what happened, but it should be observed that the provision of classified information to someone representing a foreign government is a clear violation of the Espionage Act of 1918. The NSA is not obligated to turn over information it obtains to the Justice Department for prosecution. Nevertheless, given the possibility that there were criminal violations impacting on national security, it would be very interesting to find out who said what to whom in the transcripts of the complete conversations retained by NSA.

Then there are the Jewish organizations that were evidently being briefed, coached, and organized by the Israeli Embassy to oppose the White House proposals. That would be a violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938, which requires any organization offering to work on behalf of a foreign government to register. That means, among other indignities, revealing their sources of funding. As most pro-Israel organizations have 501(c)(3) educational foundation tax status, that might prove most embarrassing and provide yet another bit of evidence to substantiate criticisms of how the Israel lobby is organized and operates to the detriment of American interests.

The final question has to be: who leaked the story to the Wall Street Journal? The authors of the piece claim to have numerous present and former officials as sources, which may be true, suggesting that it is a White House leak, which authorized a number of employees to provide information anonymously or off-the-record to the paper. If that is so, the story might be intended to send a warning shot to some congressmen regarding phone conversations that would best be forgotten. Not coincidentally, Congress is currently preparing [8] to begin work on a new series of sanctions intended to disrupt the final stages of the nuclear agreement with Iran. That the White House would play hardball in this fashion is sheer speculation, but there is a certain plausibility to it.


Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "Why the U.S. Spies on Netanyahu"

#1 Comment By IranMan On December 31, 2015 @ 1:10 am

I’m shocked, shocked to find that spying is going on in here!

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 31, 2015 @ 1:33 am

Seems to me to be far more fertile ground, legally and practically, than the wholesale spying done on the rest of us. It’s the government players who should have no expectation of privacy as they discharge the public purse.

#3 Comment By Rurik On December 31, 2015 @ 4:38 am

As currently governed, the State of Israel is not an ally, and absolutely should be surveilled!

#4 Comment By Fred Bowman On December 31, 2015 @ 4:41 am

Hell yes, the US should be eavesdrop on Netanyahu. You can certainly bet the Mossad does the same thing to our leaders. Of course the Republicans and their Evangelical co-horts are going crazy over this but they (especially the Evangelical) need to realize that the Israel of today is not the Israel of the Old Testament. Truth be told most of our problems in the Middle East stem from our leaders “giving in” to the “wants & needs” of Israel instead of listening to and trying to understand all parties and sides and being “even-handed” in the Middle East.

#5 Comment By Todd Pierce On December 31, 2015 @ 8:45 am

Insightful article Phil. The NSA eavesdrops on all U.S. citizens as well as any part of the world’s population which uses a computer or telephone to communicate with others and it, the NSA, shares that information with Israeli intelligence agencies, and there is not a peep of outrage from the U.S. Congress. While it is no surprise to what lengths “mainstream” Republicans and Democrats go to advance Netanyahu’s interests, the supposedly more independent politician, Rand Paul, has become so controlled by his delusion that he could even be nominated for President that he has prostrated himself in defense of Netanyahu’s interests. This defense is in spite of Netanyahu representing an extreme authoritarian political party in opposition to the principles of “liberty,” which Paul presents himself as a defender of. This political opportunism of Rand Paul in itself should be sufficient to to pull his mask off as as a “defender of liberty.” “Freedom” for this sort of pretender, as it is for the entire Republican party, merely means they stand for the “freedom of action” that Israel demands for itself to continue to expand its territory by settlement and repression of the occupied people in violation of international law. Many Israeli’s recognize this of Netanyahu and Likud but for Paul, if he has it, that recognition cannot be allowed to interfere with his Presidential aspirations, evidently, even if it means selling out the American people.

#6 Comment By AGD On December 31, 2015 @ 9:08 am

Finally, some sensible thoughts on this story. When I initially read it, my first thought was back to Jane Harman and the unregistered lobbyists acting (quite apparently) in the interests of a foreign government. If the Obama administration had not been listening to Netanyahu, that would have been wildly imprudent.

Those Members of Congress who shared or received classified information from foreign sources should be investigated.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 31, 2015 @ 9:25 am

Daniel R. DePetris gave a ho-hum, business-as-usual assessment yesterday in “The National Interest”:

“NSA cryptologists and analysts are dedicated to learning what foreign leaders are saying in order to ensure that U.S. national security is protected and U.S. foreign policy interests are preserved and advanced. No one should be surprised that the NSA, the CIA or any other U.S. intelligence agency is actually performing the job they are ordered to do. As former NSA’er John Schindler remarked on Twitter once the story broke, ‘I am an opponent of ‪#IranDeal. I think Obama has sometimes been a jerk to Israel. But SIGINT & CI vs Israel are utterly normal. Calm down’.”


The important story here is the story that Philip Giraldi’s article points to.

#8 Comment By Clint On December 31, 2015 @ 9:38 am

But whom the congressmen speak to and regarding what is precisely the point, as they were elected to represent their constituents in the United States of America, not the Israeli government.

United States National Interests appear to be undermined by those agendists who attempt to place Israel in some kind of bogus counterproductive sacrosanct special relationship with The United States.

#9 Comment By connecticut farmer On December 31, 2015 @ 10:17 am

I have about had it with the slavish devotion to Israel and it is gratifying to see an American president oppose them. Three cheers for Obama. If for just this one time.

#10 Comment By Montana Marvin On December 31, 2015 @ 11:29 am

TAC is one of the few information sources that honestly illustrates what an albatross around America’s neck Israel is.

#11 Comment By balconesfault On December 31, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

If there were any Congressmen who were coming forward to present evidence or even the claim that the White House was trying to use this information to influence their votes back when the Iranian deal was up before Congress … I would be outraged.

It is the potential for blackmail that I fear most about NSA data mining. That government could use info gained from wiretaps and e-mail surveillance and other forms of data collection and use it to twist arms to force people to fall in line behind what the current administration wants.

Am I a fan of it being leaked now? It does seem as if some Senators have been acting very badly, if they are in essence conspiring with the Prime Minister of another nation against the democratically elected President of the US. It seems that it us useful for the American public to be aware of this.

FWIW, the company I work for, and the companies most people work for, retain the right to monitor communications over company phones/internet. While I don’t think the NSA should be monitoring any communications BETWEEN our elected officials, or between them and members of the American public, communications between our elected officials and members of any foreign government seems fair game.

#12 Comment By JR On December 31, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

Hey, what’s a little spying between “friends?” That is usually the spin taken when Israel gets *caught* spying on the U.S.!

Seems a little different when the shoe is on the other foot!

#13 Comment By Nachum On December 31, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

The administration has been using US tax dollars to interfere with Israeli politics since the inception of the Obama administration.

#14 Comment By M_Young On December 31, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

When I was at the Defense Language Institute, modern Hebrew was openly taught. There was little doubt that it was being taught for any other reason than to keep an eye on the Israelis.

Remember the USS Liberty!

#15 Comment By City Eyes On December 31, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

Israel is a foreign country. It has too much to say in America. No! I not going to calm down Israel and its invasive activities and the costs these activities have in life and treasure to the U.S. have been far to high. Israel uber alles types even rationalize the Assault on the USS Liberty. Anything that makes it possible for Israel not being held accountable for its actions.

#16 Comment By The Other Sands On December 31, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

Our good friend Israel is one of the greatest espionage threats against the US, both the government and American businesses. We should use every technology possible to keep them under a constant microscope. My response to hearing about our prowess is spying on foes and allies alike is “Fantastic. I’m glad my side is so good at spying.”

#17 Comment By Naming Names On December 31, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

Spying on Netanyahu, eh?

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

As a Tea Party voter, I would very much like to know the names of the congressmen Netanyahu and his American agents have been talking to. The Wall Street Journal article was much too discreet on that score.

Those congressmen clearly need the kind of primary regimen we administered to the formerly honorable Mr. Cantor.

#18 Comment By Todd Pierce On December 31, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

@Nachum; Are you kidding? Every administrations uses U.S. tax dollars for Israel but it all goes to build settlements to prop up the extreme radical right-wing governments, pay for weapons, subsidize the economy, and to interfere in our politics.

@M-Young, was it to keep an eye on Israelis or was it to better consolidate the Joint Command of the IDF/US Military, with the US at least acting as the supply train for the IDF?

#19 Comment By Dead Zone On December 31, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

“The administration has been using US tax dollars to interfere with Israeli politics since the inception of the Obama administration.”

Call it coincidence if you like, but the Israelis have been using US tax dollars to interfere in US politics for decades.

#20 Comment By Clint On December 31, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

Ted Cruz,
“It is not surprising that the focus of the Obama administration would be on trying to intercept the communications of our very close friend and ally, Prime Minister Netanyahu…”

Cruz is a stealth neoconservative willing to jeopardize United States National Interests for Netanyahu’s Israeli Agenda.

#21 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 31, 2015 @ 8:43 pm

“The administration has been using US tax dollars to interfere with Israeli politics since the inception of the Obama administration.”

Tax dollars are being used to interfere with the politics of every nation in the world.

That nation is one of the few with the resources to interfere in America’s.

#22 Comment By Dan On January 1, 2016 @ 3:17 am

Nachum, the US Government has been spending US tax dollars to influence overseas elections across the world since 1945, that’s what world powers do.

Israel is a strange case with a significant number of duel citizens.

#23 Comment By Dan On January 1, 2016 @ 7:51 am

One of the things which is often fudged in the US when these debates start is the immediate claim that Israel is a strong US ally.

It is NOT.

An ally is a member of a mutual alliance.

The US is a founder member of NATO, an alliance of 28 nations who after 9/11 had announced support for the US under Article 5 of the treaty within a single day, and ALL sent forces to fight in Afghanistan. Iraq was more of a debate and lots of countries were opposed but many sent support and bled in the sands of Iraq.

The US has mutual defence treaty with South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, all saw casualties in Iraq or Afghanistan or both.

The OAS is a strange semi military alliance which the US has used to gain legitimacy for its actions on occasions, i.e. the Cuban Blockade.

Israel has no mutual agreement with the US, it did not help in Vietnam, or Panama or the Balkans or Gulf war 1 or Iraq or Afghanistan but somehow it is seen as a stronger ally than those countries that went to Afghanistan or Iraq or both and bled and died!

#24 Comment By Franx Liebkind On January 1, 2016 @ 11:36 am

To Nachum:

Is donating over $6bn a year to Israel (excluding billions more in supplemental appropriations) so that the country might compete with the US in the technology and defense industries interfering in its politics? (The current Vegas line for the bribe meant to propitiate Israel over the Iran deal raises the ante to $10bn.)

That largess certainly distorts Israeli politics, and encourages it to pursue an aggressive and neocolonial foreign policy that is inimical to the US national interest.

#25 Comment By Mike Schilling On January 2, 2016 @ 12:34 am

All countries spy on all other countries, including their allies. All countries put their own interests ahead of those of other countries, including their allies. Grownups know this.

#26 Comment By EliteCommInc On January 2, 2016 @ 11:27 am

Given the recent prisoner release

I think any complaint is moot.

#27 Comment By EngineerScotty On January 3, 2016 @ 3:59 am

Israel spies on us. (I imagine quite a few of our other friends do so as well; ’tis part of statecraft).

Why shouldn’t we return the favor?

#28 Comment By Richard Carter On January 4, 2016 @ 6:22 am

[Reading farther, turns out this is a “me too” comment. . . ]

With a nod to “Nachum”:

Most administrations have been using US tax dollars to influence Israeli politics since long before Barack Obama was born, let alone “since the inception of the Obama administration.”
It appears that many people willfully or ignorantly don’t know this.

[Special note: I too was indignant over Israel’s attack on the Liberty. Still am.]

#29 Comment By balconesfault On January 4, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

@Dan – even for someone who isn’t excited about the neocon/Zionist axis, there’s a good reason that Israel hasn’t participated in our Middle East adventures. If they directly did so, it would kill the ability of other ME countries to participate in whatever coalition we cobbled together, kill cooperation between the coalition and Islamic nations, and be used as a tool for congealing Muslim opposition to whatever we’re trying to accomplish. It would be adding kryptonite to Superman’s cereal …

#30 Comment By Clint On January 4, 2016 @ 4:16 pm

balconesfault says:
@Dan – even for someone who isn’t excited about the neocon/Zionist axis, there’s a good reason that Israel hasn’t participated in our Middle East adventures. If they directly did so, it would kill the ability of other ME countries to participate in whatever coalition we cobbled together, kill cooperation between the coalition and Islamic nations, and be used as a tool for congealing Muslim opposition to whatever we’re trying to accomplish. It would be adding kryptonite to Superman’s cereal …

That’s just another reason why Israel is primarily a “useless anchor” to United States National Interests.

#31 Comment By balconesfault On January 6, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

@Clint That’s just another reason why Israel is primarily a “useless anchor” to United States National Interests.

I’m with you there. The argument often used by pro-Zionists is that Israel has been a valuable channel for Middle Eastern intelligence for the US. But if the last 20 years has shown us anything, it’s that Israel shares with us that intelligence that will benefit Israeli interests – and withholds from us that intelligence which might be inconvenient for Israeli interests. And they seem pretty willing to provide us disinformation when they feel like it.

Which pretty much means that they’re useless, if not counterproductive, to the American intelligence community … like trying to do a cost-benefit analysis on some major proposed industrial action (say, the Keystone Pipeline) relying on the Heritage Foundation or Greenpeace as a source of data.

#32 Comment By Peter On January 7, 2016 @ 9:50 am

Nothing new here. We all know about these things that the lame street media keeps out of the news but the rest of the world knows about. Trump is independently wealthy and can not be bribed nor blackmailed, that is why the masses like him and will elect him the next president. This is revolutionary. This is why the ruling elites fear him so much.

#33 Comment By Mal’s gal On January 7, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

Everytime I see Jane Harman being interviewed on TV or as part of a panel discussion, I ask myself “Why are they interested in what this spy has to say?”

Jane Harman was kicked upstairs after her gig in the US Congress. Now she heads up the Woodrow Wilson center, at your expense.