On the one hand this is pretty incredible, on the other hand this is totally to be expected. When a president presumes the authority to tell Congress when it is and is not in session, then it is only a short step to spying on the members of Congress in order to subvert the functioning of the Congress. And that is exactly what has happened.
To set the stage, many members of Congress were upset that Obama was so cozy with a regime listed by our own government as a state sponsor of terrorism that he intended to help them build a nuclear bomb. To Obama, giving Iran a nuke was a legacy-making issue and the more the public knew about the deal, the more they opposed it.
Enter the NSA. The Obama administration had already targeted the Israeli government for extensive espionage. When the Iran nuclear deal kicked into high gear, the administration redoubled its efforts to short-stop Israel efforts to scuttle the negotiations. Though the article refers only to SIGINT, it is hard to believe that this full-court press did not include satellite and HUMINT assets being diverted from actual threats to hand Obama a domestic political win. As Congress, by the Constitution though not in the actual event, is supposed to be a key player, members of Congress also became targets of NSA surveillance.
Soon after, Israel’s lobbying campaign against the deal went into full swing on Capitol Hill, and it didn’t take long for administration and intelligence officials to realize the NSA was sweeping up the content of conversations with lawmakers.
The message to the NSA from the White House amounted to: “You decide” what to deliver, a former intelligence official said.
NSA rules governing intercepted communications “to, from or about” Americans date back to the Cold War and require obscuring the identities of U.S. individuals and U.S. corporations. An American is identified only as a “U.S. person” in intelligence reports; a U.S. corporation is identified only as a “U.S. organization.” Senior U.S. officials can ask for names if needed to understand the intelligence information.
A 2011 NSA directive said direct communications between foreign intelligence targets and members of Congress should be destroyed when they are intercepted. But the NSA director can issue a waiver if he determines the communications contain “significant foreign intelligence.”
The NSA has leeway to collect and disseminate intercepted communications involving U.S. lawmakers if, for example, foreign ambassadors send messages to their foreign ministries that recount their private meetings or phone calls with members of Congress, current and former officials said.
Except that clearly is not what went on here.
During Israel’s lobbying campaign in the months before the deal cleared Congress in September, the NSA removed the names of lawmakers from intelligence reports and weeded out personal information. The agency kept out “trash talk,” officials said, such as personal attacks on the executive branch.
Administration and intelligence officials said the White House didn’t ask the NSA to identify any lawmakers during this period.
“From what I can tell, we haven’t had a problem with how incidental collection has been handled concerning lawmakers,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a California Democrat and the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He declined to comment on any specific communications between lawmakers and Israel.
The NSA reports allowed administration officials to peer inside Israeli efforts to turn Congress against the deal. Mr. Dermer was described as coaching unnamed U.S. organizations—which officials could tell from the context were Jewish-American groups—on lines of argument to use with lawmakers, and Israeli officials were reported pressing lawmakers to oppose the deal.
What we see here is clearly not what is allowed by law. This is not a case of intercepting Israeli communications that revealed communications with members of Congress. What happened was that personal communications between members of Congress and persons alleged by the US government to be Israeli operatives. And, incredibly, the administration gave information to it’s allied interest groups so they could rebut and attack the arguments.
This is simply egregious. Obama, unable to engage his opponents on the facts of the issue, was reduced to spying on them to try to anticipate their moves. Make no mistake about it. This had zero to do with national security. The administration had the option of not getting the information that included conversations with Congressmen but they chose to use the information and even disseminate it outside the government. This was spying on the Congress for raw, domestic political purposes.
What will Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) do about it?
Photo credit: William Murphy via Flickr Creative Commons