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Why the U.S. Spies on Netanyahu

Should NSA listen in when a foreign government seeks to shape America's foreign policy?
bibi spy

The Wall Street Journal story 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 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, when it would have blown up a U.S. government building; in 1967, when it tried to sink the USS Liberty; and yet again in 1987 to cover up the Jonathan Pollard spy case.

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” 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 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 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.