The unfortunate implications of Edward Snowden’s leaks of security information have been many, but probably none were so embarrassing to Washington as the revelation that the United States was spying on allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Obama administration promptly apologized for this and promised not to do it again. But since the notion of the U.S. spying on allies as well as foes was hardly surprising to those who understood the way great powers operate, it was probably a given that we would eventually learn about how this behavior was repeated.
Yet rather than just another instance of nation states behaving like, well, nation states, the Wall Street Journal’s reporting about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program directed at the Israeli government raises even more troubling questions about the use of federal power. The scandal here isn’t just the unsavory practice of eavesdropping on a friendly government but the way the practice extended to contacts between Israelis, pro-Israel groups, and members of Congress. In doing so, the Obama administration made clear not only that — contrary to the assurances it gives pro-Israel Democrats — it regards the Jewish state with great hostility and suspicion, but that it is not afraid to use the immense power of the security establishment to spy on Congress, a practice that ought to have both security hawks and libertarians sounding the alarm about possible abuse of power.
Over the course of the past few years, libertarian critics of the Obama administration have engaged in some hyperbolic speculations about the U.S. spying on American citizens. With a cynical push from some on both the left and the right, the metadata collection program that was aimed at those having contacts with known terrorist connections morphed into a plot to read everyone’s emails and listen to all our phone calls. The result of this foolishness that had been started by the traitorous Snowden’s leaks and exploited by politicians on both sides of the aisle was the end of a valuable intelligence resource and a blow to the nation’s security. But now that it’s clear that the NSA wasn’t just spying on terror contacts or even foreign governments but also meetings involving American Jewish groups and contacts with Congress expands the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. Rather than merely disagreeing with Israel over the Iran nuclear deal or any other issue as two allies might do, the U.S. has been treating the Jewish state and its friends in much the same or an even worse manner that it might conduct itself toward hostile nations like Russia and Iran.
Let’s specify that it must be understood that in the real world all nations probably spy on each other. That includes friends. Moreover, the generally very close relations between the U.S. and Israeli security establishments does not preclude them from seeking to gain more information than might be shared in the course of normal diplomatic intercourse. In the past, there have been documented cases of the U.S. spying on Israel. On the other hand, the Pollard affair demonstrated an instance in which some Israeli spooks and their political masters had the bad judgment to not only spy on the U.S. but to employ an unstable American Jew. That mistake has wrongly allowed anti-Semites within the U.S. government to wrongly place loyal American Jews under suspicion.
But the endless, eternal struggle for more intelligence that all spies wage against each other has become something very different under the Obama administration. The report about its anti-Israel activity makes plain that surveillance of Israel has gone beyond the routine hunger for extra tidbits of information that had not been previously shared by the allies. What has been going on is more like a campaign that was driven primarily by political motives more than ones rooted in security.
The Obama administration wasn’t content to merely debate the Israelis and the majority of Americans that opposed the Iran nuclear deal. The president and his foreign policy team were actively spying on them in a way that reflected more than ordinary curiosity about an ally. The information it sought and gathered actually had nothing to do with Israeli or American security. Rather it was conducting political espionage aimed at monitoring normal diplomatic conduct and legitimate political activity being conducted by American citizens and members of Congress that opposed the president’s détente with Iran.
The irony here is of Olympic in proportions. Rather than using its resources on legitimate security risks or even on sources of vital information relating to the defense of the homeland or our allies, the NSA was basically acting as an arm of the White House’s political operations ferreting out information about lobbying efforts of those opposed to the Iran deal.
That netted the administration some juicy tidbits about conversations between former Speaker of the House John Boehner and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer that led to an invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress (so much for the administration’s expressions of shock and surprise about the alleged breach of protocol by the Israelis!). While the Israeli decision to accept that offer was politically debatable, it was not a matter of national security one way or the other. Nor were any of the sessions that were apparently bugged involving Israelis, American supporters of Israel and members of Congress.
Leaving aside ethics and the law, this spying activity was largely pointless. It’s not as if anyone in Washington was in any doubt about Israeli displeasure with the president’s betrayal of the security interests of both nations in his pursuit of appeasement of Tehran. Everything they learned about opposition to the Iran deal by spying was already being talked of openly by all concerned. Using the NSA in this manner wasn’t just morally dubious; it was a waste of precious intelligence resources.
Nor can we be reassured by what the Journal tells us the NSA did to keep limits on the spying it was doing use the measures. Removing “trash talk” by members of Congress directed at the president from the transcripts it provided the White House was nice, but it didn’t address the basic problem of the executive branch spying on the legislature’s normal conduct of business.
Complicating this affair were the administration’s worries about Israeli efforts to find out what was going on between the U.S. and Iran in the nuclear talks. Apparently the White House’s greatest fear was that the Israelis would tell Congress what the president and his foreign policy team were giving away in the course of those negotiations.
In the end, Obama got his nuclear deal with Iran via concessions and even was able to implement it despite the opposition of the majority of the House and Senate as well as the American people. The spying on Israel didn’t help, but it did further undermine the already fragile trust between the Jewish state and its one superpower ally.
What comes through loud and clear from all of this is that the Obama administration is more worried about letting either its allies or the representatives of the American people know about its conduct toward Iran than they were about the nuclear threat. That meant using the NSA in a manner for which it was not intended: to spy not just on foreign friends but on American citizens and members of Congress.
You don’t have to be a supporter of Rand Paul to think there is something frightening about an administration that would behave in this fashion. The potential for even greater abuses of power inherent in such practices is obvious. Just as worrisome are the implications for U.S. foreign policy. With the NSA spying on Israel and Congress while Washington ignores violations of the deal, no wonder Iran doesn’t fear Obama and why Israelis rightly worry about the way the U.S. has thrown them under the proverbial bus.