Why is Obama rewarding Israel for spying on the US?

Despite Netanyahu’s hostile acts against the US, Obama is determined to reward Israel with record military aid. (Mark Israel/Flickr)

A senior Republican is calling for President Barack Obama and officials of his administration to be “investigated and prosecuted.”

Peter Hoekstra, a former member of Congress from Michigan who chaired the House intelligence committee, made the demand after revelations published by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

The paper reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been eavesdropping on private conversations between Israeli officials and US lawmakers who were coordinating strategy to undermine the negotiations that led to this year’s six-power agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Hoekstra called the revelations in The Wall Street Journal “scary,” “very disturbing,” “actually outrageous” and an “unprecedented abuse of power.”

The NSA has been the target of global scorn since documents leaked in 2013 by whisteblower Edward Snowden and reporting led by The Intecept’s Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras revealed the agency’s massive intrusions on the private communications of virtually everyone who uses a telephone or the Internet.

Israeli spying revealed

The secret surveillance of entire populations is Orwellian and authoritarian, to say the least. Greenwald was quick to point out the hypocrisy in Hoekstra’s outrage:

But there’s something else missing from Hoekstra’s reaction: any concern at all about systematic spying on the United States and others by Israel, aimed at undermining US foreign policy, as revealed by the same Wall Street Journal report.

The main focus of that report is on the NSA’s eavesdropping on Israeli officials, which included their conversations with members of Congress.

“The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with US lawmakers and American-Jewish groups,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

This raised fears in the administration that the executive branch “would be accused of spying on Congress” and this is exactly what Hoekstra is now charging.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the NSA reports described Ron Dermer, the Florida native who renounced his US citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador in Washington, “as coaching unnamed US organizations – which officials could tell from the context were Jewish-American groups – on lines of argument to use with lawmakers” to oppose the Iran deal.

A US intelligence official quoted by the newspaper said Israel’s pitch to undecided lawmakers ahead of Congress’ approval of the deal often included such questions as “How can we get your vote? What’s it going to take?”

As it happens, the NSA reportedly deleted the names and other identifying details about the lawmakers, organizations and US citizens involved, before passing the reports on to the administration.

But the concern about “spying on Congress” remains the focus of the article.

What gets less attention is Israel spying on the US.

“Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the US-Iran negotiations – learned through Israeli spying operations – to undermine the talks,” The Wall Street Journal states.

The Wall Street Journal report – which is based on interviews with more than two dozen unnamed current and former US intelligence and administration officials – also reveals that in the early years of Obama’s presidency, Israel’s Unit 8200 electronic espionage agency “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 US networks,” the report adds. “Israel would say intrusions were accidental, one former US official said, and the NSA would respond, ‘Don’t worry. We make mistakes, too.’”

This laissez-faire attitude seems to define the Obama approach to Israel: there’s nothing in the 2,200-word Wall Street Journal article that suggests Obama acted to stop or punish the Israeli spying.

Indeed, Israel’s espionage and its aggressive efforts to undermine Obama’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the cornerstone of his foreign policy, have only been rewarded.

Rewarding Israel

In July, the Obama administration announced it would not oppose parole for Jonathan Pollard, the US Naval intelligence officer jailed in the 1980s for trading top secrets for Israeli cash.

Pollard was freed in November.

While Pollard is treated by Israel as a hero, he is reviled by the US military-intelligence establishment as one of the most damaging spies ever.

After the Pollard affair, Israel apologized and promised to stop spying on the US. It broke that promise many times and was apparently doing so with the knowledge of Obama when he decided not to oppose Pollard’s parole.

On top of that – and of much greater practical significance – Obama is determined before he leaves office to reward Israel with a massive increase in US military aid, by some accounts by more than 50 percent over the current $3 billion annual subsidy.

Hoekstra is likely to be only the first US politician among many feigning outrage at counterintelligence activities by the US, while overlooking Israel’s hostile actions against its biggest arms supplier and bankroller.

IC Smith, a former top FBI counterintelligence specialist during the Pollard affair, told Newsweek’s Jeff Stein last year:

“In the early 1980s, dealing with the Israelis was, for those assigned that area, extremely frustrating. The Israelis were supremely confident that they had the clout, especially on [Capitol] Hill, to basically get [away] with just about anything.”

That clout is no doubt still there on the Hill, but even more so it abounds in the ever-forgiving and generous Obama White House.

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