Obama's constitutional overreach... and Israel
What should happen to a President who spies on America's lawmakers and her allies?
Originally published by the Jerusalem Post.
It is far from clear why senior Obama administration officials told The Wall Street Journal that under President Barack Obama, the National Security Agency has been aggressively spying not only on Israeli officials but on US citizens and lawmakers who communicate with Israeli officials. Perhaps they were trying to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look like a fool.
After all, the article concludes that the NSA intercepts of these communications “revealed one surprise.”
“Mr. Netanyahu and some of his allies voiced confidence they could win enough votes” in Congress to scuttle Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Ha ha. What dummies.
If their goal was simply to show that the White House has more leverage over Democratic lawmakers than the Israeli government does, then the article overshot the mark.
Beyond expressing the administration’s contempt for Netanyahu, the Journal’s article showed that Netanyahu isn’t the only one the administration sneers at.
It sneers at the American public and at members of Congress as well. And in so doing, it sneers at and deliberately breaks US law and tramples the US Constitution.
Under US law, American intelligence gathering agencies, including the NSA, are only permitted to spy on US citizens in order to protect US national security.
Under the US Constitution, the administration is arguably prohibited from spying on US lawmakers.
And yet, according to the Journal report, to advance its diplomatic opening to Iran, the administration has knowingly and deliberately spied on both law-abiding US citizens who posed no risk to US national security and on US lawmakers engaged in their lawful, constitutional duties.
As the criminal activity was characterized by the report, to protect Obama’s nuclear talks with the Iranians, Netanyahu was marked as a top intelligence target for the NSA. The NSA monitored all of his communications and all communications of his senior officials – most notably Ambassador Ron Dermer.
The report explains that the NSA’s “targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with US lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears – an “Oh sh** moment, one senior US official said – that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.”
That “Oh sh** moment” didn’t make the administration pull back, or order the NSA to follow the law and destroy all communications between Israeli officials and US lawmakers. Rather the administration decided to suffice with winks and nods to make sure that the NSA understood that it should make law breaking an official policy and continue to share deliberately the communications it had mistakenly shared with the White House.
As the Journal report put it, “White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign [to convince Congress to scuttle Obama’s nuclear capitulation to Tehran]. They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’ a senior US official said. ‘We didn’t say, “Don’t do it.”’” Cute. But probably illegal.
The picture painted by the Journal article is of an administration that made massive, continuous and deliberate use of intercepted conversations between lawmakers and private citizens with Israeli officials.
Consider the administration’s indignant fury when news broke on January 21 of last year that the Republican congressional leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehnor had invited Netanyahu to address the joint Houses about the dangers of the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama and his advisers insisted that they were blindsided by the news. Yet, on Wednesday, the Journal published a report that strongly indicated that through its spying on lawmakers, the White House learned of the plan to invite Netanyahu to speak before Congress before Netanyahu found out about it.
The Journal reported that Boehner and McConnell met on January 8 and decided to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session. Recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, they told only their closest advisers about their plan. On January 9, Boehner called Dermer and raised the issue for the first time.
Since we now know that the NSA was monitoring all of Dermer’s communications – including his communications with US lawmakers – it appears to follow that NSA intercepted Boehner’s call to Dermer.
According to the Journal, the White House’s demand for intelligence on Israel was so intense that the NSA was transferring transcripts of intercepted calls within six hours of their interception.
Two weeks after Netanyahu’s March 4 address before the joint Houses of Congress, the Journal reported that the US was concerned about Israeli spying on the nuclear talks with Iran.
The article began, “Soon after the US and other major powers entered negotiations last year… [with Iran], senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.”
It continued, “The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with US lawmakers and others.”
The article went on to describe the content of briefings Dermer gave US lawmakers in late 2013 detailing Israel’s concerns about the interim nuclear deal the US was then concluding with the Iranians. Although it was attributed to congressional sources who participated in the briefings, now that we know the administration was spying on US lawmakers communicating with Israeli officials, it is reasonable to suspect that the administration learned of the briefings from its illegal espionage against US lawmakers.
In Wednesday’s article, we learned that last summer, as Congress prepared to vote – or not to vote – on Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the administration intercepted communications carried out between Israeli officials and private citizens as well as Democratic lawmakers.
From these intercepted communications, the administration learned Israel’s pitch for Democratic lawmakers in its efforts to convince them to oppose the deal.
According to the article, among other things, Israeli officials asked the wavering lawmakers, “How can we get your vote? What is it going to take?” Given Israel’s failure to convince a significant number of Democratic senators to oppose the deal, the suspicion arises that the administration read the answers and used the ill-begotten information as a means of blocking Israel from securing Democratic opposition to Obama’s nuclear deal.
It ought to go without saying that the administration’s massive efforts to block information about the most radical US foreign policy initiative since World War II from US lawmakers speaks volumes about how Obama and his colleagues assessed the public’s position on Iran generally and Obama’s nuclear talks with the mullocracy specifically.
The nuclear deal with Iran endangers the US directly.
It empowers the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism financially, diplomatically and militarily. Iran declared war against the US 37 years ago and has been calling for the destruction of America and supporting terrorist attacks against the US and its allies ever since.
As to those allies, the nuclear deal with Iran specifically, and the Obama administration’s decision to embrace Iran as a potential ally more generally, place Israel in jeopardy. So, too, it endangers all of the US’s traditional Arab allies.
Yet rather than reconsider its strategic goal of courting Iran at the expense of its own national security and that of its closest allies, the Obama administration determined that its most urgent goal was to scuttle Israeli attempts to warn lawmakers and the US public about the dangers of the deal. Rather than redouble its commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Obama administration launched an intensive espionage operation against Israel, its American- Jewish supporters and US lawmakers to diminish their ability to prevent the deal from being concluded or implemented.
The timing of the report is odd. Obama blocked Congress from even voting on his nuclear deal four months ago, and ever since he has been choking on his victory. With each passing day it becomes clearer that Netanyahu was right about the danger of the deal and Obama was wrong, and deliberately misleading.
Four months later, Iran still refuses to approve or implement the deal. The American hostages it holds continue to languish in its prisons. Its nuclear sites remain closed to international inspectors. Its ballistic missile program is moving forward and no one takes seriously the administration’s announcement this week that it will pursue sanctions at the UN Security Council against Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests.
For its part, Iran is so emboldened by the deal that last week it shot a missile across the Straits of Hormuz in close proximity to a US naval ship. The ayatollahs are convinced that Obama will suffer any and all indignities to keep up the fiction that he has a nuclear deal with them. They are certain that rather than acknowledge his mistake, Obama will ground Congress and Israel to the ground.
And yet now, as Iran daily humiliates Obama with its unbridled aggression, that senior administration officials chose to brag to Wall Street Journal reporters about how they spied on Israel in breach of Obama’s pledge not to spy on leaders of US allied nations. It is now, when Obama’s opening to Iran is a self-evident failure, that they chose to share how they broke US law by spying on US citizens and abused the president’s constitutional authority by spying on US lawmakers.
Hours after the Journal article was published, Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, announced that his committee will review how the NSA handled its intercepts of congressional communications with Israeli officials.
Certainly, the Intelligence Committee should aggressively pursue the issue. For the fact is that the administration’s arguably unconstitutional moves to block Congress from exercising oversight over Obama’s foreign policy is not limited to his nuclear outreach to Iran.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said the climate change deal the US and the world powers concluded in Paris was drafted in a way that would deny Congress oversight power over the deal. In other words, a common thread linking the administration’s policies from the Middle East to the ozone layer is its desire to disempower Congress.
Israelis reasonably concentrate their attention on how stories affect them. So most of the discussion in Israel following the Journal’s report on Wednesday revolved around what the story means for the prospects of better relations with the administration in its final year in power.
But in truth, the story wasn’t really about Israel. It was about an administration so contemptuous of US lawmakers and citizens that its senior officials have no compunction about admitting that they are breaking the law. They brazenly admit that they are undertaking unlawful spying operations against private citizens and lawmakers and in so doing conducting a massive abuse of presidential powers while trampling the spirit and arguably the letter of the US Constitution.
And they expect that no one will call them to task for it.