The United States is conducting major spy operations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's communications despite promising to curtail the hacking of its allies, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
The National Security Agency has also swept up communication showing Israeli officials trying to turn lawmakers against the international deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the article said. One senior administration official, the Journal reported, described the discovery of the swept-up communication as an “Oh s— moment” and feared that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.
But the president argued otherwise, and by avoiding direct interoffice communications, the administration gave a green light to the operation by doing nothing more.
The agency’s goal was “to give us an accurate illustrative picture of what [the Israelis] were doing,” a senior U.S. official told the Journal.
At the time, administration officials hoped that some of the information it uncovered could potentially counteract Netanyahu’s crusade to stop the nuclear deal. But trying not to meddle, the White House opted to allow the NSA to decide on its own — to avoid leaving a paper trail by submitting a formal request.
“We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’” a senior U.S. official told the Journal. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’”
The report said the NSA removed the names of the lawmakers and personal information, as well as “trash talk” about the White House.
The Journal reports that Obama insisted that keeping tabs on Netanyahu served a “compelling national security purpose.” In one speech, Obama alluded to an exception for certain leaders but didn’t name any specific individuals.
Contacted by Agence France Presse (AFP), the White House did not deny the report, which cites several serving and former US officials, but stressed the importance of its ongoing close ties with Israel.
The Israeli embassy refused to comment.
Two years ago, after rogue intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed the vast extent of the National Security Agency's online surveillance, President Barack Obama promised to limit spying on US allies.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel had been embarrassed by the revelation that her cellphone had been monitored and other allies expressed private concerns about the breadth of NSA monitoring.
The US administration decided not to remove or disable the "cyber-implants" it had secreted on foreign communications systems, as they would be hard to replace.
Instead, the report says, Obama ordered that some of the hacked systems used by close allies would not be routinely monitored by the NSA, while others would continue to be mined for intel.
"Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn't do that," one senior US official told the Journal, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Netanyahu's case, Washington was concerned that Israel was itself monitoring US negotiations with Iran and might try to derail the effort to reach a deal on Tehran's nuclear program.
“Intelligence professionals have a saying: There are no friendly intelligence services,” Mike Rogers, former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Journal.
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