30 December 2015
NSA Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress
US Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress
NSA's targeting of Israeli leaders swept up the content of private conversations
with U.S. lawmakers
By Adam Entous and Danny Yadron
Dec. 29, 2015 4:40 p.m. ET
President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would curtail eavesdropping
on friendly heads of state after the world learned the reach of long-secret
U.S. surveillance programs.
But behind the scenes, the White House decided to keep certain allies under
close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured
communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust
between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when
Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.
The National Security Agency's targeting of Israeli leaders and officials
also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S.
lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears-an "Oh-s- moment,"
one senior U.S. official said-that the executive branch would be accused
of spying on Congress.
White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable
to counter Mr. Netanyahu's campaign. 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 U.S. official said. "We didn't
say, 'Don't do it.'"
Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Mr. Netanyahu
and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations-learned
through Israeli spying operations-to undermine the talks; coordinated talking
points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided
lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, according to current and
former officials familiar with the intercepts.
Before former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed much of the agency's
spying operations in 2013, there was little worry in the administration about
the monitoring of friendly heads of state because it was such a closely held
secret. After the revelations and a White House review, Mr. Obama announced
in a January 2014 speech he would curb such eavesdropping.
In closed-door debate, the Obama administration weighed which allied leaders
belonged on a so-called protected list, shielding them from NSA snooping.
French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel
and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders made the list, but the
administration permitted the NSA to target the leaders' top advisers, current
and former U.S. officials said. Other allies were excluded from the protected
list, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of NATO ally Turkey, which
allowed the NSA to spy on their communications at the discretion of top
Privately, Mr. Obama maintained the monitoring of Mr. Netanyahu on the grounds
that it served a "compelling national security purpose," according to current
and former U.S. officials. Mr. Obama mentioned the exception in his speech
but kept secret the leaders it would apply to.
Israeli, German and French government officials declined to comment on NSA
activities. Turkish officials didn't respond to requests Tuesday for comment.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the NSA declined
to comment on communications provided to the White House.
This account, stretching over two terms of the Obama administration, is based
on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence
and administration officials and reveals for the first time the extent of
American spying on the Israeli prime minister.
After Mr. Obama's 2008 presidential election, U.S. intelligence officials
gave his national-security team a one-page questionnaire on priorities. Included
on the form was a box directing intelligence agencies to focus on "leadership
intentions," a category that relies on electronic spying to monitor world
The NSA was so proficient at monitoring heads of state that it was common
for the agency to deliver a visiting leader's talking points to the president
in advance. "Who's going to look at that box and say, 'No, I don't want to
know what world leaders are saying,' " a former Obama administration official
In early intelligence briefings, Mr. Obama and his top advisers were told
what U.S. spy agencies thought of world leaders, including Mr. Netanyahu,
who at the time headed the opposition Likud party.
Michael Hayden, who led the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency during
the George W. Bush administration, described the intelligence relationship
between the U.S. and Israel as "the most combustible mixture of intimacy
and caution that we have."
The NSA helped Israel expand its electronic spy apparatus-known as signals
intelligence-in the late 1970s. The arrangement gave Israel access to the
communications of its regional enemies, information shared with the U.S.
Israel's spy chiefs later suspected the NSA was tapping into their systems.
When Mr. Obama took office, the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, Unit 8200,
worked together against shared threats, including a campaign to sabotage
centrifuges for Iran's nuclear program. At the same time, the U.S. and Israeli
intelligence agencies targeted one another, stoking tensions.
"Intelligence professionals have a saying: There are no friendly intelligence
services," said Mike Rogers, former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence
Early in the Obama presidency, for example, Unit 8200 gave the NSA a hacking
tool the NSA later discovered also told Israel how the Americans used it.
It wasn't the only time the NSA caught Unit 8200 poking around restricted
U.S. networks. Israel would say intrusions were accidental, one former U.S.
official said, and the NSA would respond, "Don't worry. We make mistakes,
In 2011 and 2012, the aims of Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama diverged over Iran.
Mr. Netanyahu prepared for a possible strike against an Iranian nuclear facility,
as Mr. Obama pursued secret talks with Tehran without telling Israel.
Convinced Mr. Netanyahu would attack Iran without warning the White House,
U.S. spy agencies ramped up their surveillance, with the assent of Democratic
and Republican lawmakers serving on congressional intelligence committees.
By 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies determined Mr. Netanyahu wasn't going
to strike Iran. But they had another reason to keep watch. The White House
wanted to know if Israel had learned of the secret negotiations. U.S. officials
feared Iran would bolt the talks and pursue an atomic bomb if news leaked.
The NSA had, in some cases, spent decades placing electronic implants in
networks around the world to collect phone calls, text messages and emails.
Removing them or turning them off in the wake of the Snowden revelations
would make it difficult, if not impossible, to re-establish access in the
future, U.S. intelligence officials warned the White House.
Instead of removing the 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.
There was little debate over Israel. "Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn't
do that," a senior U.S. official said, using Mr. Netanyahu's nickname.
One tool was a cyber implant in Israeli networks that gave the NSA access
to communications within the Israeli prime minister's office.
Given the appetite for information about Mr. Netanyahu's intentions during
the U.S.-Iran negotiations, the NSA tried to send updates to U.S. policy
makers quickly, often in less than six hours after a notable communication
was intercepted, a former official said.
NSA intercepts convinced the White House last year that Israel was spying
on negotiations under way in Europe. Israeli officials later denied targeting
U.S. negotiators, saying they had won access to U.S. positions by spying
only on the Iranians.
By late 2014, White House officials knew Mr. Netanyahu wanted to block the
emerging nuclear deal but didn't know how.
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.
Soon after, Israel's lobbying campaign against the deal went into full swing
on Capitol Hill, and it didn't take long for administration and intelligence
officials to realize the NSA was sweeping up the content of conversations
The message to the NSA from the White House amounted to: "You decide" what
to deliver, a former intelligence official said.
NSA rules governing intercepted communications "to, from or about" Americans
date back to the Cold War and require obscuring the identities of U.S.
individuals and U.S. corporations. An American is identified only as a "U.S.
person" in intelligence reports; a U.S. corporation is identified only as
a "U.S. organization." Senior U.S. officials can ask for names if needed
to understand the intelligence information.
The rules were tightened in the early 1990s to require that intelligence
agencies inform congressional committees when a lawmaker's name was revealed
to the executive branch in summaries of intercepted communications.
A 2011 NSA directive said direct communications between foreign intelligence
targets and members of Congress should be destroyed when they are intercepted.
But the NSA director can issue a waiver if he determines the communications
contain "significant foreign intelligence."
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.
During Israel's lobbying campaign in the months before the deal cleared Congress
in September, the NSA removed the names of lawmakers from intelligence reports
and weeded out personal information. The agency kept out "trash talk," officials
said, such as personal attacks on the executive branch.
Administration and intelligence officials said the White House didn't ask
the NSA to identify any lawmakers during this period.
"From what I can tell, we haven't had a problem with how incidental collection
has been handled concerning lawmakers," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California
Democrat and the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence. He declined to comment on any specific communications between
lawmakers and Israel.
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.
"These allegations are total nonsense," said a spokesman for the Embassy
of Israel in Washington.
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?"
NSA intelligence reports helped the White House figure out which Israeli
government officials had leaked information from confidential U.S. briefings.
When confronted by the U.S., Israel denied passing on the briefing materials.
The agency's goal was "to give us an accurate illustrative picture of what
[the Israelis] were doing," a senior U.S. official said.
Just before Mr. Netanyahu's address to Congress in March, the NSA swept up
Israeli messages that raised alarms at the White House: Mr. Netanyahu's office
wanted details from Israeli intelligence officials about the latest U.S.
positions in the Iran talks, U.S. officials said.
A day before the speech, Secretary of State John Kerry made an unusual
disclosure. Speaking to reporters in Switzerland, Mr. Kerry said he was concerned
Mr. Netanyahu would divulge "selective details of the ongoing negotiations."
The State Department said Mr. Kerry was responding to Israeli media reports
that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to use his speech to make sure U.S. lawmakers knew
the terms of the Iran deal.
Intelligence officials said the media reports allowed the U.S. to put Mr.
Netanyahu on notice without revealing they already knew his thinking. The
prime minister mentioned no secrets during his speech to Congress.
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.
The NSA intercepts, however, revealed one surprise. Mr. Netanyahu and some
of his allies voiced confidence they could win enough votes.
Write to Adam Entous at adam.entous[at]wsj.com and Danny Yadron at