Dems scoff as House GOP looks into NSA spying on Israel and Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) arrives in the House Chamber prior to his address to a joint meeting of Congress ion Capitol Hill in Washington, March 3, 2015. © Joshua Roberts
The Republican chairmen of two committees of the House of Representatives say they are looking into reports that the National Security Agency spied on Israel and US lawmakers, but ranking Democrats in Congress have expressed less concern.

“The House Intelligence Committee is looking into allegations in the Wall Street Journal regarding possible Intelligence Community (IC) collection of communications between Israeli government officials and members of Congress,” Representative Devin Nunes (R-California), the committee’s chairman, said in a statement. 

In parallel, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and sub-committee Chairman Representative Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) also contacted the NSA seeking more details.

“These reports raise questions concerning the processes NSA employees follow in determining whether intercepted communications involved members of Congress, and the latitude agency employees have in screening communications with members of Congress for further dissemination within the executive branch,” they said in a joint statement.

Not all members of Congress are so keen to learn more, however.

One congressman even said the Wall Street Journal’s Tuesday report alleging that the NSA had spied on the secret lobbying efforts of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undermine the Iran nuclear deal with US legislators was “much to do about nothing.”

Representative Eliot Engel (D-New York), the top Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill, “I’m not surprised. I kind of think the report is much to do about nothing,” admitting that he secretly talked with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer on two occasions in the lead up to a vote regarding the Iran deal.

“I assume that everything I say — someone is listening. I am careful that what I say in public is what I say in private,” Engel said. “I don’t know what this really tells us.”

Representative Adam Schiff (D-California), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Wall Street Journal, “From what I can tell, we haven’t had a problem with how incidental collection has been handled concerning lawmakers.”

When it comes to surveillance, Republicans and Democrats, in general, have often acted in bipartisan fashion or are quick to compromise, but with the Wall Street Journal report widely suspected to be a leak approved by the White House, the issue is more polarizing.

“The Committee has requested additional information from the IC [intelligence community] to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures,” Representative Nunes said in his committee’s statement.

The former holder of Nunes’ chairmanship, Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan, joined the call for investigations into the NSA and Obama administration for what he speculated may be an “unprecedented abuse of power.”

US officials told the Wall Street Journal that President Obama maintained that a “compelling national security purpose” necessitated the eavesdropping on Netanyahu, his staff, and other Israeli officials who were committed to blocking the US-led diplomatic efforts of six nations.

When Netanyahu came to Washington to give a speech to Congress slamming the Iran deal, officials claim Obama did not specifically authorize snooping on the Israeli president’s meetings within the Capitol.

“We didn’t say, ‘Do it.’ We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it,’” a senior US official told the Wall Street Journal.

The White House did, however grant the NSA the power to take action on the information as it saw fit, according to the Journal.

The House committees looking into the spying authorization may press intelligence or administration officials as to reveal why this was done. So far, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price has been vague with reporters.

“We do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose. This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” Price said.

What could also be of interest is what has been redacted from the NSA’s reports. Lawmakers’ names and “trash talk” about the White House were both censored, according to the Journal’s report.

While Israel officially denies it spied on the Iran deal or offered special deals to Congress for votes, the Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister, Yisrael Katz, and Immigrant Absorption Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, have both come out strongly against the Obama administration’s alleged surveillance.

“If the information that was published is shown to be true, Israel should submit an official protest to the American administration, and demand that it stop all activity of this sort,” Katz told Arutz Sheva.

“Precisely on the background of the spying, in opposition to the official declaration that they stopped listening in on friendly states, their stubbornness on the case of (Jonathan) Pollard, the limitations on him and the refusal to bring him to Israel seem even more unacceptable,” Elkin told the Israeli network.

Netanyahu’s administration has not commented, nor has the White House, and as the incident pertains to the national security of both countries, it remains to be seen how far the House committees will be able to get in their efforts to uncover more.