Today, let’s consider the bombshell dropped by the Wall Street Journal. Apparently the NSA spied on the efforts of the Netanyahu government to
purchase win support in Congress when they were considering approval of the Iran Nuclear Deal. A US intelligence official familiar with the intercepts said Israel’s pitch to undecided lawmakers often included such questions as:
How can we get your vote? What’s it going to take?
There’s more. The Hill reported: The NSA helped the White House figure out which Israeli government officials had leaked information from confidential US briefings our government gave to the Israelis:
The NSA’s snooping allegedly found Netanyahu and his aides leaked details of the negotiations gained through Israeli spying, coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal and asked those lawmakers who were undecided on the deal how it could get their vote…
So, the WH knew that the NSA was spying on both Netanyahu and certain Congress critters. Some will say that the Executive Branch was spying on Congress. But there are two other ways to look at this.
• The NSA was spying on an ally, which we have done in the past (Merkel, Hollande).
• And that spying revealed that members of Congress were apparently working with Israel.
Either way, some in DC will be outraged. In fact, Rep. Devin Nunes, (R-CA) has already started an investigation into the allegations in the story. That is hilarious, since that spying is authorized by NSA procedures, procedures that Rep. Nunes has said are more than adequate to protect the privacy of US persons. You know, in his role as Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. From Emptywheel:
If NSA’s minimization procedures are inadequate to protect US persons, the first thing Nunes should do is repeal [the] FISA Amendments Act, which can expose far more people than the tailored…tap placed on Bibi…
However, you could also return to the basic question from last fall: Why are members of Congress working to help a foreign government derail a major foreign-policy initiative of the US? And be outraged yourself.
This is the reason that allowing lawmakers’ communications to be incidentally collected is such a risk — because it inevitably collects details about the legislative process. That can also disclose an untoward quid pro quo by foreign governments to members of Congress. Finding that is within the purview of the Executive branch’s mandate.
Maybe more privacy protections, including for Members of Congress, are needed. But wiretapping the communications with foreign leaders is solidly within the parameters of Congressionally-approved NSA spying, even if it incidentally collects information about members of Congress. Congress itself has deemed these actions may sometimes be important to protect the US.
And didn’t Congress approve all of this spying to catch terrorists? Or, was it just to get intelligence to assist our drone attacks. Or, to assist in the war on drugs, so that we can play catch-and-release a few more times with El Chapo. The problem is, when you build an intelligence gathering system this big and this technologically capable, it will inevitably intrude into domestic politics. Or vacuum up not-so-innocent information that is incidental to its intended target.
As for surveillance of members of Congress, surely everyone in Congress knows how that game works, THEY VOTED TO IMPLEMENT IT!
There’s a substantive difference between direct surveillance of members of Congress, and surveillance of a foreign ambassador’s reporting back to his government about communications with those Members.
If Nunes, et. al were simply trying to hang on to the remnants of our Constitution like the rest of us poor schlub voters, maybe the poutrage would be understandable.