U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares
By Adam Entous and Danny Yadron
December 29, 2015
Wall Street Journal
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.
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
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
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 leaders.
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 said.
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
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
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 Committee.
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, too.”
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.
The NSA maintains the means to
monitor the communications of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Photo:
Yasin Bulbul/Associated Press
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
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
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 with lawmakers.
The message to the NSA from the
White House amounted to: “You decide” what to deliver, a former intelligence
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 Obama administration included
French President François Hollande on a so-called protected list, shielding him
from NSA snooping. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
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
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
“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
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.
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.