The U.S. maintained National Security Agency surveillance on Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday in an exclusive that exposes the extent of cooperation and mistrust between the two allies.
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According to the report, despite vowing to freeze surveillance on allies in 2013 following the Edward Snowden leaks, the U.S. continued to eavesdrop on Netanyahu and his aides, citing what U.S. President Obama reportedly called a “compelling national security purpose.”
The article quoted unnamed current and former U.S. officials and focused largely on the events preceding and surrounding the nuclear accord with Iran. It reported that the surveillance received congressional support.
The Journal's investigation also revealed how Israel's military intelligence Unit 8200 and the NSA, described as its counterpart, shared information and technology, but also spied on one another, in what the report said stoked mutual suspicions and fostered what a U.S. official described as “the most combustible mixture of intimacy and caution that we [the U.S.] have.”
According to the explosive report, even before the U.S was openly pursuing a nuclear accord with Iran, it decided that despite the fallout from the Snowden leaks – which revealed the U.S was also spying on Germany's German Chancellor Angela Merkel – it would maintain its surveillance on the Israeli administration.
“Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn’t do that,” a senior U.S. official was quoted as saying.
At first, convinced Netanyahu was planning to attack Iran without prior warning to U.S., the NSA "ramped up" their eavesdropping efforts, the report said, claiming the move enjoyed the support of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers serving on the relevant congressional committees.
But by 2013, intelligence officials maintained that Netanyahu had no real intention of striking Iran, but wanted to know if Israel was in the know regarding talks between the U.S. and Iran, and wanted to preempt any attempts to derail the talks by leaking information about their existence.
Though the White House later knew Netanyahu had objected to the deal, the article explained that they had no idea how he planned to fight it.
According to the report, admiration officials believed the intercepted information would be valuable, but they also recognized that requesting it directly was "politically risky," the report said, citing legal concerns and restriction on surveillance of U.S. groups and nationals. Thus, the NSA was given free rein to decide what information to pass on and what to withhold. This issue became even more politically charged when U.S. lawmakers and Jewish American officials were also caught in the web.
That raised concerns of what one U.S. official called an “Oh-s*** moment,” in which the executive would be accused of spying on legislative.
The report went on to claim that through the surveillance, the White House learned that Netanyahu and his aides had leaked information on the talks between the U.S. and Iran – information Israel had gained through its own spying operations – in their attempt to undermine the deal.
They also discovered how Jerusalem was coordinating talking points with Jewish-American organizations vis-a-vis the deal and how it was lobbying U.S. lawmakers to vote against it, even asking them "what it would take to win their votes," the report said, citing current and former officials familiar with the intercepts.
For example, in one set of intercepts, Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., was described as coaching U.S. groups whose names were withheld for legal reasons on how to argue with lawmakers against the deals. The allegations were dubbed "total nonsense" by the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Spy vs spy
One of the most interesting parts of the reports are the light it sheds on the intelligence ties between Israel and the U.S. — ties it describes as both close and extremely suspect.
The NSA helped Israel expand its electronic spy operations — known as signals intelligence — in the late 70s and even gave Israel access to intercepts of regional foes. However, both Israel and the U.S. suspected one another of using the guise of cooperation to spy on one another.
When Obama assumed office, the NSA and IDF intelligence Unit 8200 worked together against shared threats, sharing information on the likes of Iran’s nuclear program, but this was a double-edge sword: for example, 8200 gave their U.S. counterpart a "hacking tool" which was later discovered to have passed on information to Israel about its usage. This was not the only instance of such an incursion, officials told the WSJ, saying that when Israel was confronted with the claims, and would respond that they were accidental, the NSA would half-jokingly respond that the U.S. "make[s] mistakes, too.”