An article published by the Wall Street Journal last week revealing the Obama administration’s attempts to spy on conversations between Israeli officials and members of Congress has again rocked relations between the two governments. According to the article, the Israeli government’s secure communications systems have been penetrated by US spying agencies, which have been monitoring conversations between Netanyahu and other Israeli government officials with the leaders of pro-Israel American Jewish lobbying groups and even with elected US senators and congressmen, and reporting on them to the White House. The level of US espionage directed at Israel suggests to experts in the intelligence community that despite its claims to the contrary, the Obama administration is treating Israel more like an enemy than an ally.
In January 2014, Obama publicly promised that he would end US eavesdropping on friendly heads of state. The declaration came after a huge trove of secret documents was revealed by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. It disclosed that the NSA was tapping the private cell phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as the communications of other world leaders and US allies.
That set off a firestorm of criticism by German officials that threatened to rupture the close US alliance with the most economically powerful country in Europe. Merkel reacted to the NSA’s targeting of her personal cell phone by declaring indignantly, “Eavesdropping among friends is never acceptable.”
In response, the White House issued a hands-off order to the NSA, consisting of a list of protected heads of state, including Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. Their private communications were declared be off-limits to NSA surveillance.
On January 17, 2014, Obama announced new ground rules for American intelligence services that would protect the security of the country without violating the constitutional rights of American citizens or compromising its relationships with key allies around the world. Obama declared, “the leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I’ll pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance. In other words, just as we balance security and privacy at home, our global leadership demands that we balance our security requirements with our need to maintain the trust and cooperation among people and leaders around the world.”
OBAMA PROMISES NO MORE SPYING ON US FRIENDS
Obama added, “The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well. Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies. And I’ve instructed my national security team, as well as the intelligence community, to work with foreign counterparts to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust going forward.
“Now let me be clear: Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners.”
However, the White House did authorize the NSA to continue spying on the top advisors to the same leaders on the protected list, and in his speech, Obama left himself some wiggle room, reserving the right to continue surveillance of heads of state if “there is a compelling national security purpose.”
NETANYAHU WAS AT THE TOP OF THE TARGET LIST
In light of the revelations in the Wall Street Journal article, which have not been denied by the White House, it has become painfully apparent that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not counted by Obama among “heads of state and government of our close friends and allies” whose privacy was to be respected by the NSA.
As one senior administration official admitted, the idea of halting US surveillance on Netanyahu was never seriously entertained. “Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn’t do that,” the senior US official said.
On the contrary, according to the sources of the Wall Street Journal article, which included more than two dozen current and former senior US administration and intelligence officials, Netanyahu was at the top of the list of government leaders whom Obama ordered the NSA to monitor closely as an exception to the rule, because, Obama claimed, keeping an eye on Netanyahu’s efforts to block a nuclear deal with Iran served a “compelling national security purpose” for the US.
Another world leader reportedly under NSA surveillance is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, which is a NATO ally of the US but is suspected of having supplied aid to ISIS.
SPYING TOOLS LEFT IN PLACE
Even though Obama forbade further spying on some world leaders, such as Merkel and Hollande, the software and hardware eavesdropping tools that the NSA had implanted in their communications systems were deliberately left in place. That way, they could be easily reactivated by US intelligence agencies at any time on the orders of the White House National Security Council. The NSA spent decades putting the tools in place, and if they had tried to remove them, it would become almost impossible to put them back in place at another time. By just turning them off without revealing their nature or location, they remain available for use in the future.
US intelligence officials regarded the tap on Merkel’s phone to be a particularly valuable source of information. They were reluctant to give it up because of her direct communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been a particularly difficult target for US intelligence to monitor. US intelligence officials also felt that surveillance on Merkel was justified because they knew that the German intelligence service, known as the BVD, has been closely monitoring senior US administration and intelligence officials. But once Snowden revealed the NSA’s tap on Merkel’s cell phone, it became diplomatically impossible for the administration to justify continuing the surveillance.
US SPYING ON 100,000 COMPUTERS
The NSA monitors traffic on the internet by direct observation of data in computer lines passing through US hubs and by using spying software secretly implanted in almost 100,000 targeted computers worldwide. As a result, the NSA scans nearly 200 million text messages a day sent from devices around the world.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, shortly after Obama was first elected president in 2008, US intelligence officials gave his national security team a form on which they were asked to choose which of the world’s leaders the president elect wanted them to spy upon, using electronic monitoring techniques, to determine their “leadership intentions.” As one former Obama administration official told the Wall Street Journal, “Who’s going say, ‘No, I don’t want to know what world leaders are saying?’”
The NSA was already well practiced in monitoring heads of state. It would commonly deliver to the White House a visiting foreign leader’s talking points in advance.
Before his inauguration, Obama and his top advisers were thoroughly briefed on what US intelligence agencies thought of all world leaders, including Netanyahu, who was Israel’s opposition leader, and not yet prime minister at the time.
By the time Obama made his speech on respecting the privacy of other world leaders, he was so suspicious of Netanyahu that he ordered US intelligence agencies to step up their surveillance of Israeli communications with legislators in Congress and coordination with pro-Israel American groups, which opposed the Iran deal and were lobbying Congress to block it.
WHITE HOUSE LEFT SURVEILLANCE GROUND RULES UP TO THE NSA
The White House was particularly interested in how Israel learned the details of the US negotiating position in the nuclear talks with Iran, which Israeli leaders then leaked to members of Congress and the media to stir up public opposition to the deal.
The White House realized that it could be accused of spying on Congress. It therefore walked a fine line in its instructions to the NSA, leaving it up to agency administrators to determine how much of the private conversations between Jewish advocates and members of Congress on the Iran issue should be turned over to White House officials. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it.’ We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it,’” a senior administration official said. The administration was also careful not to leave a paper trail of instructions to the agencies that might be exposed to back a charge that it was spying on the legislative branch of government.
In the end, the NSA turned over enough information to the administration to expose the full scope of the pro-Israeli lobbying effort to get members of Congress to block the Iran nuclear deal. It enabled the administration to launch a highly effective counter-lobbying campaign, with the help of liberal Jewish and non-Jewish groups, in support of the highly controversial agreement.
A COMPLEX INTELLIGENCE SHARING RELATIONSHIP
The Wall Street Journal article also outlined the long and complex history of US-Israeli intelligence cooperation.
General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, described the intelligence sharing relationship between the US and Israel as “the most combustible mixture of intimacy and caution that we have.”
In the late 1970s, the NSA gave Israel technical assistance in expanding its efforts to collect signals intelligence from the communications of its Arab enemies in the region. Israel later began to suspect that the US was using the same technology to monitor Israeli communications.
The discovery that the US is still spying on Israel did not come as a surprise to intelligence experts in the US or Israel. According to Mike Rogers, former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “Intelligence professionals have a saying: There are no friendly intelligence services.” In other words, in the world of intelligence, even allies who are working together against a common enemy have to assume that they are spying on each other as well.
ISRAEL ALWAYS ASSUMED THE US WAS SPYING
Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, said that Israel had always assumed that the US and others were attempting to spy on it. “It’s not very nice, but that is the assumption,” Oren, now an MK of the Kulanu party, said in a broadcast interview, if he had something confidential to tell the prime minister, Oren said, “I got on a plane.”
Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told Army Radio that US spying came as no surprise.
“The US listens in on everyone; we don’t need to get excited about it. Everyone knows; it’s a fact,” Amidror said. “Israel is careful not to carry out any spying operations in the United States, not even a little bit,” because it has gotten burned in the past.
On the other hand, Israel’s Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said in response to the Wall Street Journal report, “Israel does not spy on the US and we expect that our great friend in the US will treat us in a similar fashion. If the [information in the Wall Street Journal report] turns out to be true, Israel must file a formal protest with the US government and demand that it stop all activities of this kind.”
HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE TO INVESTIGATE
Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said his committee will investigate the report by asking the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the head of the NSA to come to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers so that they can “get the facts” on the matter.
“The House Intelligence Committee is looking into allegations in the Wall Street Journal regarding possible Intelligence Community (IC) collection of communications between Israeli government officials and members of Congress,” Nunes said in a statement. “The Committee has requested additional information from the IC to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures.”
“We’re going to play this right down the middle and determine whether or not somebody did something wrong,” Nunes added.
White House officials declined to comment on the report, but insisted that the relevant congressional intelligence oversight committees were being kept fully informed about any surveillance activities. The administration also pointed to ongoing negotiations with Israel on a new 10-year US military aid agreement as proof that the US-Israeli security relationship remains strong.
“When it comes to Israel, President Obama has said repeatedly that the US commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. “This message has always been backed by concrete actions.”
Price also said, “We do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose. This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike.”
RUBIO SAYS IT’S WORSE THAN IT LOOKS
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination on a strong national security platform, said on Fox News of the reported US surveillance on Netanyahus’s communications, “I actually think it might be worse than what some people might think, but this is an issue that we’ll keep a close eye on.”
Rubio added that people “have a right to be concerned about the fact that while some leaders around the world are no longer being targeted, one of our strongest allies in the Middle East, Israel, is,” he said.
Rubio said that while he was not trying to defend the actions of the Obama administration, he would be careful about how he discussed the issue in public because this is “one of those complicated issues when it comes to intelligence matters. We have to be very careful about how we discuss it, especially since there’s a press report that I don’t think gets the entire story.”
The same day, Rubio’s presidential campaign began broadcasting an ad accusing Obama of treating the leaders of Iran more respectfully than Netanyahu.
ISRAEL’S OWN SECRET COMMUNICATIONS UNIT
The Israeli military has its own high tech equivalent to the NSA, known as Unit 8200. Working together with US government computer experts, Unit 8200 assisted in the creation of the Stuxnet computer virus. It was custom designed to hack into the computer controls of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges and then ordering the units to speed up to the point that they self-destructed, imposing a significant set-back to Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts.
At the start of the Obama administration, Unit 8200 shared a useful new computer hacking tool it had developed with the NSA. Later, the NSA discovered that the hacking tool was also secretly reporting to Unit 8200 how the NSA was using it. When confronted with evidence of that reporting, the Israelis responded that it was an “accident,” to which NSA officials said, with a wink and a nod, “Don’t worry. We make mistakes, too.”
In 2011, when US and Israeli policy about how to stop Iran’s nuclear program began to diverge, Obama ordered US intelligence agencies to step up their surveillance of Israeli preparations to stage a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, while the Obama administration stepped up its secret efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran without informing Israel.
As part of the surveillance effort, the NSA was able to insert a cyber implant within Israel’s secure networks, enabling it to access secret communications from the prime minister’s office.
SPY VS. SPY
At first, NSA officials used the surveillance to monitor Israeli preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even after the NSA ascertained that Israel was not going to launch such a strike on Iran, it maintained its surveillance to try to find out how much Israel knew about the secret US nuclear negotiations with Iran and, if possible, to identify the source of the leak.
On the basis of the NSA intercepts, the White House knew that the Israeli government was aware of the content of the nuclear negotiations under way with Iran in Europe. Israeli officials later denied that they had been spying on the US negotiators, and claimed they discovered the nature of the talks by spying only on the Iranians.
GATES RULES KEEP THE NAMES OF LAWMAKERS SECRET
The rules restricting the kinds of information that the NSA can reveal from intercepted communications “to, from or about” American citizens were first established during the Cold War. They prohibited using the names of individuals or corporations in official reports. Starting in the 1990s, the so-called “Gates Rules,” named after Robert Gates, who headed the CIA from 1991-93, required the intelligence agencies to notify leaders of Congress if the name of a member of the House or Senate surfaced in the surveillance reports to the administration.
According to Gates, who later served as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, the rule was designed to curtail the “dissemination of intercepts involving lawmakers’ foreign contacts. The most senior people in national security and counterintelligence needed to be aware of what was going on, but I didn’t want every Tom, Dick and Harriet in the intelligence community and policy agencies to have such information. The risk of leaks, gossip and harm to reputations was too great, as was the risk of blowback from the [Capitol] Hill.”
A 2011 NSA directive says that evidence of any direct communication between US lawmakers and a surveillance target should be destroyed unless the director of the NSA issues a special waiver declaring that the communication contains “significant foreign intelligence.”
However, the NSA may collect and report such information it has picked up by intercepting communications between third parties, such as foreign diplomats, in reporting back to their ministries on their private conversations with members of Congress. The NSA was still required to respect the privacy of the elected officials involved by not disclosing their names unless they were specifically requested to “unmask” the lawmaker by a senior administration official.
Nevertheless, intelligence officials said they could often tell from the context of the intercepted conversation which political party the lawmaker belonged to and their committee assignment, even though the name was not revealed.
After Snowden revealed the extent of NSA surveillance in 2013, a number of lawmakers asked the NSA to do a search to see if their names appeared in any of its surveillance reports. They were then assured that the Gates Rules had been carefully observed and that their names had been dutifully redacted.
BOEHNER’S INVITATION TO NETANYAHU CAME AS A SURPRISE
Despite ongoing NSA surveillance, the administration was caught by surprise last January by an agreement during a phone call between then House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to issue an invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on the dangers of the emerging Iran nuclear deal.
Boehner and McConnell first discussed the idea of inviting Netanyahu on January 8, but they were not sure Netanyahu would risk further alienating Obama by accepting such an invitation. On January 9, they consulted with Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, who liked the idea and promised to discuss it with Netanyahu.
Boehner and McConnell were well aware that inviting a foreign official to address a joint session of Congress without consulting the White House first was a breach of the usual protocol, and would be particularly sensitive because of the importance of the nuclear talks with Iran to the White House. They also knew that if it informed the White House in advance, Obama would pressure Netanyahu to decline the invitation. “We knew this would be a poke in the eye,” a close advisor to the Republican leaders said, so they kept it secret until January 21, the day after Obama’s State of the Union address, just a short time before the invitation to Netanyahu was to be announced.
THE WHITE HOUSE BLAMED DERMER
On January 20, Kerry met with Dermer for 45 minutes to give him an update on the progress of the negotiations with Iran, but Dermer said nothing about the pending invitation to Netanyahu. In his State of the Union address that evening, Obama spoke optimistically about prospects for success in the negotiations with Iran and asked Congress not to do anything that might sabotage the talks.
The invitation to Netanyahu was issued the next day, a few hours after Boehner’s chief of staff, Mike Sommers, called Obama’s congressional liaison chief, Katie Fallon, to inform the White House of the invitation for the first time. Initially, there was no reaction, but when National Security Council (NSC) staffer Philip Gordon, who was responsible for coordinating Middle East policy, heard the news, he became furious at Dermer for failing to tell him about it, even though “I talk to Dermer all the time.”
Administration officials were initially convinced that the idea originated with Dermer and Netanyahu, who then proposed it to the Republican leaders, when in fact, it was the other way around. When furious White House officials accused Dermer of blind-siding them, he responded that he believed that the speaker’s office would “take care of” informing the White House, because inviting Netanyahu had been their idea to start with.
Even though the Iran nuclear deal is secure and now on the verge of being implemented, Obama’s continued suspicion and hostility towards Netanyahu has remained unabated.
US OFFICIAL WORRIED BY OBAMA’S HOSTILITY TOWARDS ISRAEL
Ynet security reporter Ronen Bergman writes of his recent interview in Berlin with a former senior US intelligence official, whom he identifies only as “Robert,” who is deeply worried about the underlying significance of Obama’s orders to maintain NSA surveillance on Netanyahu. After the publication of the Wall Street Journal story, Robert broke his long silence on the subject to warn that Israel has been too complacent and naive about the US penetration of Israel’s encrypted communications systems, which, according to Robert, is “much deeper and more comprehensive than Israel knew.”
Robert also worried about the influence of Obama’s deep hostility toward Netanyahu. “In the United States, the mindset coming from the Commander in Chief projects onto the soldiers, down to the most junior among them. Obama despises Netanyahu, and that affects the entire system,” Robert said.
“After the Snowden affair President Obama ordered to stop spying on leaders that the United States views as close and friendly allies. But he ordered to continue, all the more forcefully, spying on several leaders, primarily Netanyahu. We all understood what that order meant: Obama doesn’t view Netanyahu as a friendly leader.”
When Obama ordered the CIA and the NSA to spy on Netanyahu’s efforts to block the Iran nuclear deal, he did so on the basis that they posed a “threat to vital national security interests of the United States, and [he told them] to act accordingly. This is an extreme situation, difficult, unprecedented in the relationship between the two countries.”
A LONG HISTORY OF US SPYING
The US spying on Israel is not a new phenomenon. The US embassy in Tel Aviv has two floors dedicated exclusively to intelligence gathering. The roof of the embassy is a forest of antennas to intercept, monitor and infiltrate all kinds of Israeli communications.
On the third day of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel launched a deadly attack on the USS Liberty, which was collecting signals intelligence in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula. Many in the US intelligence community are convinced that the attack was not a mistake, as Israel later claimed, but rather a warning from Israel that the US should stop spying on it.
The US was caught by surprise by Israel in 1981, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the Israeli Air Force to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nearly operational nuclear reactor at Osirak. Afterward, there was a major investigation into how Israel could pull off an attack of such magnitude without US intelligence learning anything about it in advance.
The NSA then launched an effort to infiltrate Israel’s encrypted military communications systems. That enabled the US, a year later, to learn of Ariel Sharon’s intentions to go all the way to Beirut in the invasion of Lebanon, and it issued a protest accordingly.
US intelligence agencies are understandably curious about Israel’s nuclear capabilities, and have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of work Israel is doing at its main nuclear complex in Dimona.
PICNICKING NEAR DIMONA
According to the son of John Hadden, who served as the head of the CIA station in Tel Aviv during the 1960s, his father used to take their family on picnics in southern Israel to collect dirt samples from different locations around Dimona, which were sent back to the US for analysis by US nuclear experts for traces of radioactive isotopes. Eventually, Hadden was called in by the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence unit, General Shlomo Gazit, and Israeli nuclear researcher Professor Avner Cohen. They told him that the Shin Bet knew what he was up to and that his family would be detained by police if it didn’t stop.
COOPERATION HAS ITS LIMITS
There is still a great deal of cooperation between the NSA and Israel’s Unit 8200. Israel has allowed the NSA to place satellite dishes near Yerushalayim to monitor and intercept communications across the region. The two countries have set up a shared database for the information they have been able to collect, and have put it to good uses, such as helping to prevent attacks by suicide bombers.
At the same time, the US and Israel have been able to learn a great deal about one another’s military and spying capabilities. The US, with British help, has used some of the spying tools which Israel has provided to penetrate and compromise Israeli secrets.
In recent years, the primary goal of US spying was to find out how Netanyahu knew so much about the US nuclear negotiating position with Iran and how he intended to disrupt the deal through lobbying efforts directed at members of the House and Senate.
US AND ISRAEL: FRIENDS OR FOES?
According to Robert, the problem with Obama’s willingness to use such measures against Israel went beyond the dispute with Netanyahu over the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. “The order to use this kind of spying power against Israel, even after Snowden’s leaks and the knowledge that continuing this kind of activity includes a significant political risk, illustrates just how the White House regards the Israeli government. This is not how you treat friends. This is how you spy against enemies,” Robert said.