WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama ordered his agencies to spy on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
Under his instructions, the US National Security Agency monitored phone conversations between top Israeli officials and US lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.
The newspaper quoted current and former US officials as telling its correspondents that President Obama had ordered the eavesdropping on the grounds it served a “compelling national security purpose”.
The agency particularly focused on information that could be valuable to counter Mr Netanyahu’s campaign against the nuclear deal, which the US and five other world powers signed with Iran in July this year.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the completion of a critical phase of the deal, removal of enrich nuclear material from Iran, and said that the two sides were now moving towards removing international sanctions on Tehran.
Mr Netanyahu, however, opposed the deal on the ground that allowing Iran to keep any nuclear capability was a threat to Israel’s security and that Iran would not implement the deal even if it was signed.
The NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Mr Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the US- Iran negotiations, which they learned through Israeli spying operations, the newspaper reported.
The reports allowed the Obama administration to peer inside Israeli efforts to turn Congress against the deal.
Last summer, Congress invited Mr Netanyahu to address a joint session on the proposed deal without informing the White House.
During the eavesdropping, the agency learned Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, was coaching unnamed Jewish-American groups on lines of argument to use with US lawmakers, and Israeli officials were pressing lawmakers to oppose the deal, WSJ reported.
Asked for comment on the report, a White House National Security Council spokesman said: “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.”
Following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the agency’s spying operations, President Barack Obama announced last year the United States would curb its eavesdropping of friendly world leaders.
A number of such figures, including French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were put on a list declared off-limits to US eavesdropping.
But President Obama allowed Mr Netanyahu’s monitoring on the grounds it served a “compelling national security purpose”, the Journal reported.
While monitoring Israeli officials, the agency also listened to conversations between US lawmakers and Israeli officials, the newspaper said.
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 Journal said.
During Israel’s lobbying campaign, the NSA removed the names of lawmakers from intelligence reports and weeded out personal information, the newspaper said.
Israel’s efforts to prevent the deal did not succeed and in September Congress endorsed the agreement signed in Geneva in July.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2015