Why Tell the Israeli Spying Story Now?

“Intelligence professionals have a saying: There are no friendly intelligence services,” the WSJ describes former House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers saying, on the record. While there’s no way of telling — particularly not with WSJ’s described “more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and administration officials” sources behind it’s blockbuster story on US spying on Bibi Netanyahu and other Israelis, Rogers is a likely candidate for some of the other statements attributed to “former US officials,” a moniker that can include agency officials, consultants, and members of Congress.

Which is awfully funny, given that two of the people squealing most loudly in response to the story are Rogers’ immediate predecessor, Crazy Pete Hoekstra, who called it a “Maybe unprecedented abuse of power,” and successor, Devin Nunes, who has already started an investigation into the allegations in the story.

It is the height of hypocrisy for these men, who have been privy to and by their silence have assented to this and, in Crazy Pete’s case, far worse patently illegal spying, to wail about a story that shows the Administration abiding by NSA minimization procedures they’ve both celebrated as more than adequate to protect US person privacy. If NSA’s minimization procedures are inadequate to protect US persons, the first thing Nunes should do is repeal FISA Amendments Act, which can expose far more people than the tailored, presumably EO 12333 tap placed on Bibi, not to mention OmniCISA, which can be targeted at Americans and will have even fewer protections for US persons.

The immediate attempt by a bunch of surveillance maximalists to turn compliant spying into a big scandal raises the question of why this story is coming out now, not incidentally just after Iran turned over its uranium stockpile over to Russia and in the process achieved another big step of the Iran deal.

I’m not in any way meaning to slight the WSJ reporting. Indeed, the story seems to show a breadth of sources that reflect a broad range of interests, and as such is not — as would otherwise be possible — Mike Rogers attempting to leak something to the WSJ so his fellow Republicans can make a stink about things.

This story includes “current and former U.S. officials” providing a list of leaders they claim were detasked from spying in 2014 — François Hollande, Angela Merkel, and other NATO leaders — and those they claim were not — along with Bibi Netanyahu, Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Of course, like James Clapper’s claim that Edward Snowden’s leaks forced the NSA to shut down its full take spying on Afghanistan, this “confirmation” may instead have been an effort to cover for collection that has since been restarted, especially given the story’s even more revealing explanation that, “Instead of removing the [surveillance] implants, Mr. Obama decided to shut off the NSA’s monitoring of phone numbers and email addresses of certain allied leaders—a move that could be reversed by the president or his successor.” Obama did not eliminate the infrastructure that allows him to request surveillance (in actually, monitoring of surveillance going on in any case) to be turned on like a switch, and this WSJ article just conveyed that detail to Hollande and Merkel.

So the story could serve as disinformation to cover up restarted surveillance, and it could serve as a cue for the bogus, unbelievably hypocritical political scandal that Crazy Pete and Nunes appear to want to make it.

But I’m just as interested in the dick-waving in the story.

Some of the most interesting details in the story — once you get beyond the wailing of people like Crazy Pete and Devin Nunes probably swept up in intercepts described in the story — pertain to what NSA did and did not learn about Bibi’s efforts, largely executed through Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, to thwart the Iran deal. A key detail here is that while (it is implied) NSA destroyed most or all of the intercepts involving members of Congress directly with Bibi, they passed on (with US person identities masked) the reports back through foreign ministry channels of discussions with or on behalf of Bibi.

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.

“Either way, we got the same information,” a former official said, citing detailed reports prepared by the Israelis after exchanges with lawmakers.

In other words, NSA might not pass on the intercepts of calls members of Congress had with Bibi directly, but they would pass on the reports that Dermer or Bibi’s aides would summarize of such discussions. And according to “a former official” (curiously not described as high ranking) by passing on the reports of such conversations, “we got the same information.”

Usually, but not always, according to the story.

It describes that “Obama administration officials” (which may but probably doesn’t include intelligence officials) didn’t learn about John Boehner’s invitation to Bibi to address Congress ahead of time, even though Boehner extended that invite through Dermer.

On Jan. 8, John Boehner, then the Republican House Speaker, and incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on a plan. They would invite Mr. Netanyahu to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. A day later, Mr. Boehner called Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, to get Mr. Netanyahu’s agreement.

Despite NSA surveillance, Obama administration officials said they were caught off guard when Mr. Boehner announced the invitation on Jan. 21.

According to the description of the article, this call should have been fair game to be shared with the White House as a report through the foreign ministry, but either wasn’t reported through normal channels on the Israeli side or NSA didn’t pass it along.

But, according to the story, the White House did get many of the details about Dermer’s attempt to scotch the Iran deal.

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.

[snip]

A U.S. 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?”

Let me interject and note that, if the people squealing about these intercepts weren’t such raging hypocrites, I might be very concerned about this.

Consider the Jane Harman case. In 2009 it got reported that NSA and FBI collected conversations Jane Harman had (probably on an individual FISA wiretap) with AIPAC suspects in which Harman allegedly agreed to help squelch the criminal investigation into the organization in exchange for help getting the Chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. The position, not incidentally, that all the people (save Mike Rogers, who seems to have had no problem with them) squealing about these intercepts have held or currently hold. At least according to 2009 reports on this, lawyers in then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ DOJ considered criminal charges against Harman, but chose not to pursue them, because Gonzales — who had criminally, personally authorized the Stellar Wind program in March 2004 — needed Harman’s support in advance of NYT breaking the Stellar Wind story at the end of 2005. That suggests (if these stories are to be believed) Gonzales used Harman’s purported criminal exposure to get protection against his own.

Now, Crazy Pete was out of power well before these particular intercepts were described (though may have his own reason to be concerned about what such intercepts revealed), but in the same period, Devin Nunes got himself appointed HPSCI Chair, just like AIPAC was allegedly brokering with Harman. He got himself appointed HPSCI Chair by the guy, Boehner, who invited Bibi to address Congress.

And what were AIPAC and other groups — who allegedly were offering congressional leadership posts back in 2005 — offering lawmakers last year to oppose the Iran deal? “What’s it going to take?” the intercepts apparently recorded.

What were they offering?

This is the reason permitting lawmakers’ communications to be incidentally collected is such a risk — because it collects the sausage-making behind legislative stances — but also defensible — because it might disclose untoward quid pro quo by foreign governments of members of Congress. It is a real concern that the Executive is collecting details of Congress’ doings. More protections, both for Members of Congress and for regular schlubs, are needed. But wiretapping the incidentally collected communications with foreign leaders is not only solidly within the parameters of Congressionally-approved NSA spying, but may sometimes be important to protect the US.

That’s the kind of the thing the White House may have seen outlines of in the reports it got on Darmer’s attempts — though the report indicates that Democratic lawmakers and Israelis who supported the Iranian deal (probably including former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, who was criticizing Bibi and Darmer’s efforts in real time) were sharing details of Darmer’s efforts directly with the White House.

In the final months of the campaign, NSA intercepts yielded few surprises. Officials said the information reaffirmed what they heard directly from lawmakers and Israeli officials opposed to Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign—that the prime minister was focused on building opposition among Democratic lawmakers.

Which brings me to the dick-waving part. Here’s the last line of the WSJ story.

The NSA intercepts, however, revealed one surprise. Mr. Netanyahu and some of his allies voiced confidence they could win enough votes.

Some of this story is likely to be disinformation for our allies, much of this story seems to be warning (both friendly and unfriendly) to those likely implicated by the intercepts. But this just seems like dick-waving, the spook-and-politician equivalent of spiking the football and doing a lewd dance in the end zone. The Israelis surely knew all the monitoring was going on (even if members of Congress may have been stupid about them), especially given the way John Kerry, as laid out in the story, raised concerns about Israeli spying during negotiations. But this line, the final reveal in the story, mocks the Israelis and their American interlocutors for assuming they had enough to offer — “What’s it going to take to get your vote?”– to kill the Iran deal.

This may, in part, be an effort to get those implicated in the intercepts to exercise some more caution. But it also seems to be a victory dance, just as Russia ships away Iran’s uranium stockpiles.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

19 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    in a recent ew column on cisa (12/29) former nsa attorney susan hannssen was cited to a lawfare article.

    hannssen began her article with a sneering reference to people like me who believe pervasive government spying is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly to american government:

    “Omni-CISA has passed. Privacy advocates are waxing outraged… ”

    let me explain my concern.

    if government spying is allowed to exist without severe judicial and legislative constraints and without persistent intrusive and knowledgable oversight,

    then that power to spy will inevitably, repeat, inevitably, be used by those holding political power in this country against those seeking to gain political power or, more seriously, those seeking to change some aspect of the political system.

    the central value and “genius” of the american system isn’t some form of “democracy”, it is that the system can change as its people think necessary.

    pervasive government spying can be destructive to that capacity to change. electronic spying by corporations joined with governments in a mutually beneficial power/money arrangement is even more dangerous.

    the current uproar by congressgoobers about congressgoobers being spied on might not seem to qualify for these concerns since the israeli government was allegedly the target.

    but let me ask, what would it take for the executive to catch and hold a few congressgoobers in this, say a mike lee or avron wayden. why no more than a willing prosecutor backed by a determined executive.

    whatever resolves from the current uproar, including the possibility the congressgoobers’ uproar is intended to hide collusion with the israeli government against the american executive, the power and danger is there for the congress to see.

    what might be the outcome?

    why, in these days merely a congressional privacy carveout.

    but that already exists, doesn’t it :)

    • orionATL says:

      to continue –

      but all this spying is only to catch terrorists right?

      or to target-assist drones?

      or to war on drugs or play catch-and-release with el chapo?

      or to prevent russian outlaws or chinese soldiers from invading our privacy?

      or to assist google and facebook to grow?

      but the problem is if you build this system, it will inevitably be used to intrude in domestic politics – to identify leadership and organizational structure as could have been the motive behind the ostensive motive for fbi night flights over baltimore.

    • orionATL says:

      continuing from1 and #3:

      there could be said to be certain fundamental concerns or goals to be achieved by all this government and private spying, especially when the two are combined:

      1) to protect from armed attack – citizens, businesses, military missions, and diplomatic missions

      2) to protect from criminal activity – personal and corporate information, and money and monidd assets

      i argue that these two goals, because they greatly enhance the capacity of the state to abuse its power, can be in serious to disastrous conflict with a third – the freedom from state suppression of the leadership and membership of citizen political organizations that seek to change government, to assume power, or merely to criticize a class of government policies, e. g., anti-war, or environmental.

      here is an example from another culture, an example that involves what i believe was calculated self-interest on the part of yahoo, (but it could have been and has been microsoft or google, et al., not to mention a government entity like the u. s., russia) in a collusion with the chinese government:

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/13/AR2007111300885.html

  2. Trevanion says:

    It certainly could be the ‘warning’ you describe (plenty of precedent for that type of thing).

    But it also has the scent of an attempted preemptive first-telling. Perhaps someone got wind of potential new revelations forthcoming in the new year. Perhaps something about how fast and loose things are played way outside the GWOT context. Perhaps including with regard to “U.S. person”(s).

    Perhaps, but perhaps not.

    • emptywheel says:

      Again, at least as the story describes and backed by Adam Schiff, there was no playing fast and loose. On the contrary, this is what playing by the rules looks like. If that’s bad, then change surveillance rules and laws.

      • Trevanion says:

        With great respect, “fast and loose” can refer to something other than rules. (In any event we know that ‘playing by the rules’ is a concept these days grounded in nothing more than sand.)
        Step back. The Schiff story is very narrow. It is another minuscule part of the elephant in the still-darkened room. It may have been put out there by someone concerned about whispers of more lights coming on, new revelations of the true mass of the animal — through, perhaps, more specifics on practices reaching every day into a large class of DC denizens (many more than 535). Just idle speculation, of course.

  3. Peterr says:

    It describes that “Obama administration officials” (which may but probably doesn’t include intelligence officials) didn’t learn about John Boehner’s invitation to Bibi to address Congress ahead of time, even though Boehner extended that invite through Dermer.

    On Jan. 8, John Boehner, then the Republican House Speaker, and incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on a plan. They would invite Mr. Netanyahu to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. A day later, Mr. Boehner called Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, to get Mr. Netanyahu’s agreement.

    Despite NSA surveillance, Obama administration officials said they were caught off guard when Mr. Boehner announced the invitation on Jan. 21.

    According to the description of the article, this call should have been fair game to be shared with the White House as a report through the foreign ministry, but either wasn’t reported through normal channels on the Israeli side or NSA didn’t pass it along.

    According to the article, the Obama administration SAID they were caught off guard. This is a lot different from actually being caught off guard.
    .
    My WAG is that the NSA *did* report it to the WH, and it was very closely held. At that point, the WH had a choice to make: express their outrage (either privately to Boehner and McConnell or publicly to the world) about the proposed invitation, or keep silent and pretend to be caught off guard when the GOP revealed it themselves. The former would have revealed their surveillance, while the latter would have kept the surveillance secret — and neither would have made a difference in terms of Bibi addressing Congress. Thus, they chose to pretend to have been surprised.
    .
    If the NSA did *not* report this up to the WH, and now it comes out that they knew and didn’t tell, someone’s head will roll at the NSA. “You knew that someone was planning and implementing actions to undermine the stated official policy of the United States, and you didn’t tell the WH? I think you can just pack up your pencils under the watchful eye of this nice security officer, and he’ll escort you out.”

  4. Peterr says:

    The NSA intercepts, however, revealed one surprise. Mr. Netanyahu and some of his allies voiced confidence they could win enough votes.

    I wouldn’t say this was a surprise. Bibi, AIPAC, and the House GOP have a long track record of believing their own press releases. Reality, on the other hand, suggests this is misplaced confidence. Bibi can barely hold the confidence of his own government, let alone predict how the more distant US House and Senate will act, and Boehner wasn’t that much better. That doesn’t keep them from continuing to believe their own PR. See “Boehner, resignation of” and “Obamacare, repeal of” for two other examples.

  5. haarmeyer says:

    The immediate attempt by a bunch of surveillance maximalists to turn compliant spying into a big scandal raises the question of why this story is coming out now, not incidentally just after Iran turned over its uranium stockpile over to Russia and in the process achieved another big step of the Iran deal.

    If this is about the Iran deal, and it seems like it is, then the communications were registered agents of a foreign government attempting to undermine that deal, which since Article 2 section 2 of the Constitution makes a fundamental duty of the President. That would seem to amount to intervening in the domestic affairs (the operation of our government) of a democratic country. To quote Bibi Netanyahu’s office,

    It is hard to imagine any democratic country accepting foreign governments intervening in its domestic affairs by funding domestic groups engaged not merely in criticism of a particular government’s policy but also attacking the very foundations of the State.

    Instead of righteous indignation, the Israelis and their supporters in Congress should be asking themselves what their own usual response to someone “attacking the very foundations of the State” is.

    • Bill Michtom says:

      Though history tells us that the Constitution is ignored again and again, I still wonder how this interference with treaty negotiation, like Reagan’s interference with freeing the hostages, does not amount to treason: “adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

      • orionATL says:

        i had that identical thought about the identical situation – reagan political operatives negotiating with iranians in order to influence an american presidential election vs republican political operatives negotiating with the netanyahoo gov to undermine their president who was pursuing an important partial solution to consuming neareast war.

        those republican political operatives, aka republican congressgoobers, were doing this solely to curry favor with american zionist voters and a clique of rightwing christians. they wers doing it for the explicit purpose of acquiring or consolidating their power. typical political behavior, except it involved working with agents of a foreign government against the presidency of the u.s.

        so what about applying the 1918 espionage act to these congressmen, as it was applied by doj in the last 10 years, to former cia employees who crticized specific incompetent or illegal cia programs.

  6. martin says:

    quote”It is hard to imagine any democratic country accepting foreign governments intervening in its domestic affairs by funding domestic groups engaged not merely in criticism of a particular government’s policy but also attacking the very foundations of the State.”unquote

    Indeed. It’s hard to imagine democratic countries accepting the CIA intervening in it’s domestic affairs by funding domestic groups engaged not merely in criticism of a particular government’s policy but also attacking the very foundations of the State.

    Insert rolling eyes smiley here.

    On a more serious note, while this probably isn’t the same thing, I’ve often wondered how groups like the MEK can not only lobby, but actually hire members of Congress to speak on MEK’s behalf to help them get off the “terrorist organizations” list, while they are ON the list, notwithstanding other nations hiring “lobbying” firms to influence members of Congress …like these…

    Top 10 foreign governments paying for influence in 2013

    1. UAE 14.2 million

    2. Germany $12 million

    3. Canada $11.2 million

    4. Saudi Arabia $11.1 million

    5. Mexico $6.1 million

    6. Morocco $4 million

    7. South Korea $3.9 million

    8. Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) $2.4 million

    9. Georgia $2.3 million

    10. Azerbaijan $2.3 million

    I wonder though.How does one “influence” a Congress member? Although, I’ve got a gut feeling various convicted Senator’s and Representatives can offer enlightenment. I suspect it’s spelled B R I B E.

  7. lefty665 says:

    Seems pretty much like the NSA in its traditional role, doing what it is supposed to be doing, with the exception of any Agency big mouths who may have been sources for the story. The anecdote about Israel caught spying on us, pleading accident, and our response to the effect “Don’t worry about it, we make mistakes too” while perhaps true, was pretty egregious dick flaunting.
    .
    NSA doesn’t ever want its exploits publicly displayed. Being had, as was illustrated by the anecdote of an Israeli supplied hacking tool that reported home, is not high on their list of PR highlights either. Sources seem likely to be mostly Congressional and Administration.
    .
    Seemed like a clumsy back of the hand to NetanYahoo. Also seems any Congresscritter who named a price in response to the Israeli question of what it would take to buy their vote should be thinking about bribery and sedition too. Dunno how any of them can expect to be under the radar when they talk to foreign nationals. But then being bright is not a requirement for holding office.
    .
    Mittens thought he had the votes too. Believing ones own propaganda is usually foolish, sometimes to the point of being fatal.

  8. TarheelDem says:

    I’m wondering the relationship to the negotiations going on over Syria in Vienna, in which Russia plays a key role, and the stampeding of NATO’s policy in Ukraine in which Russia is the designated goat. Sabotaging even the minor possibility of the destruction of ISIS before January 2017 is clearly not beyond the GOP hardball players; we’ve seen US interests sacrificed for Republican political victories before.

    Waving off silliness often looks like chest-beating or serious dick-waving. Today the deliberate ignorance (swallowing one’s own PR) is high and so are the real stakes of war and peace. There is too much pouring gasoline and playing with matches going on in domestic politics by big egos. Shades of 1913-1914.

  9. Denis says:

    Does anyone have a link to a non-paywalled version of the WSJ article? I wouldn’t object to paying the $50/year if it wasn’t going to Murdoch.
    .
    BTW, not to seem both cheap and naive, but what is “dick-waving?” Is it something one could accuse, say, Jane Harman of, or is meant to be literal, anatomically speaking? Sounds incredibly sexist to me. (I don’t have a TV so I struggle to keep abreast of contemporary idioms.)
    .
    I keep seeing that snip about Congresscreeps being asked “How much would it take to get your vote?” but I don’t see anybody saying what the answer was or whether the Congresscreeps are OK with shekels. Did NSA get that part of the conversation?

  10. GKJames says:

    As citizen and taxpayer (who also happens to appreciate the cast-iron stomach that emptywheel has to scuba in this bottom-less cesspool to keep us up to speed), am more concerned with the prioritization of issues. Surely we didn’t need the national security apparatus to tell the WH or the rest of us that Israel opposed to Iran deal. Or, given the GOP’s anything-to-screw Obama ethos and the corresponding adoration of a like-minded (though way-smarter) right-winger like Netanyahu, that Israel would entice members of Congress in all sorts of ways, the most likely and effective being, how much do you need for re-election. Small wonder, then, that the NYT can report (12/30/15) that “Quaeda Revival in Afghanistan Surprises U.S.”

    As for surveillance of members of Congress, while I can appreciate the concern at a fundamental, hanging-on-to-remnants-of-our-republic level, surely everyone in the game knows how this works. There’s a substantive difference between direct surveillance of members of Congress, and surveillance of a foreign ambassador’s reporting back to his government on communications with those members.

  11. sillybill says:

    i agree with Denis about the most interesting question. details about nsa intercepts and quasi legal dodges by sleazeballs are just confirmations of what we already sort of know. what would it take and the answers given (and presumably recorded) are what we really need to know.
    should we assume the WSJ is filing foia’s so the citizenry can find out if some of our reps are on the take?

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