Nearly two years after President Obama promised to retool the way the National Security Agency (NSA) collects private conversations, the Wall Street Journal reports the NSA tapped Congressional phone lines and relayed the information to the White House. The administration claims it intended to use the NSA’s foreign surveillance capabilities to record Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to persuade Congress to block the Iran nuclear deal. This disclosure sheds light on the NSA’s intelligence gathering processes in the US and raises new questions about the severity of domestic spying.
In a January 2014 speech, President Obama vowed that the intelligence community, under his orders, would be reigned in. “I have approved a new presidential directive for our intelligence activities, both here and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities. It will take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances, trade and investment relationships, including concerns of American companies and our commitment to privacy and basic civil liberties.”
What President Obama’s administration neglected to tell members of Congress was their conversations were part of the collection process. This prompted a quick response from House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), along with Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who both demanded the White House respond to allegations that the NSA intercepted Congressional communications, and further, allowed agency employees to screen private work-related conversations involving prominent members of Congress.
This new discovery prompts serious legal questions. Under the constitutional rule of law, there are three co-equal branches of government, the legislative, executive, and judicial. The alleged spying by the White House on the deliberative process of the Congress is not only a violation of US laws, but threatens to give the White House an unequal position in negotiations with Congress on controversial issues.
In a letter to the President, Congressman Chaffetz proffered multiple queries including “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.”
The one-page letter also requested any and all guidance documents, including formal and informal policies used to determine whether a particular telephone conversation involved a member of Congress. The lawmakers also wanted to know with whom the NSA shares its information.
The latest NSA eavesdropping allegedly caught Israeli officials trying to persuade undecided Congressman to oppose the Iran deal and unknowingly gave White House advisors inside information to use on Congress to blunt an embarrassing loss for President Obama.
But did the White House really let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold? Senior officials told the Wall Street Journal that “We didn’t say, do it, but we didn’t say, don’t do it,” either.
Another issue to consider is that the NSA is a military organization whose mission is to collect electronic metadata from foreign governments – not on the US government or American citizens. However in a highly technological society US Big Brother has the tools to monitor just about anyone. It remains to be seen if Congress will impose controls to preserve the independence of the three branches of government and ensure the will of the people is applied inside the beltway.
In the past, intelligence protocols required disseminators of the intelligence to notify lawmakers if their conversations were inadvertently scooped up, but House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) said he doesn’t remember any notification. This creates room for executive branch abuse.
“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,” Nunes said. “The Committee has requested additional information from the IC to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures.”
The holiday bombshell elucidated that some Senior White House staffers knew the NSA collection could be construed as an abuse of executive branch power. Nevertheless, in an effort to seize the upper-hand in the Iranian nuclear deal negotiations, White House advisors allowed NSA officials to continue collection of conversations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top advisors, even if they were talking to members of Congress.
President Obama’s relationship with Israel has always been tenuous, however the US and Israeli spy agencies have always worked together on the volatile Middle East region. The NSA’s counterpart, Israel’s Unit 8200, shared threats, including the Stuxnet computer worm that targeted Iranian industrial control system that monitored/controlled a large industrial nuclear facility in an effort to sabotage centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear program. Both the NSA and Unit 8200 spent decades inserting electronic chips in networks that collected phone calls, text messages as well as emails.
“The WSJ report that NSA spied on Congress(ional) and Israel(i) communications (is) very disturbing. Actually outrageous. Maybe (an) unprecedented abuse of power,” Pete Hoesktra (R-CA) said in a tweet during the Christmas break. Another read, “NSA and Obama officials need to be investigated and prosecuted if any truth to WSJ reports. NSA loses all credibility. Scary.”
And then there’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.), who blasted the CIA for spying on the Senate Committee members in charge of collecting all the information about George W. Bush’s torture program. Ms. Feinstein took to the well of the Senate to personally lambaste the CIA and said, “The CIA’s search of the staff’s computers might well have violated … the Fourth Amendment.” She also laminated that there are “grave concerns” that the CIA spying may have “violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.” It must be noted that there has never been any CIA firings over this matter and in fact could now be used as a precedent on future actions.
Before Kentucky Senator Rand Paul decided to run for president, he made national news by consistently calling out the government on unwarranted NSA surveillance tactics. Over the weekend Paul told Fox News “I’m appalled by it and this is exactly why we need more NSA reform. The debate in Washington right now is (sic) unfortunately been going the other way since the San Bernardino shooting. Everybody’s saying ‘Oh, we need more surveillance of Americans.’ In reality what we need is more targeted surveillance.”
As the House returns to DC this week, many lawmakers are calling on Party leaders to investigate the potential abuse of power. “If the latest reports are true, laws were broken and there must be accountability for all responsible,” Lee Zeldin (R-NY) said in a statement. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Zeldin recalled a closed-door debate that involved world leaders and who should be on the spy list.
“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 Chancellor Angela 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 officials. Putting the spying of Israeli leadership aside for a moment, in what interpretation of national security can the president of the United States justify using National Security Agency assets to spy on members of Congress? Is this really for national security or is it for political gain? The Obama administration must disclose the entirety of its role in this questionable activity. The United States Department of Justice should appoint a special prosecutor and the United States Congress should investigate the Obama administration and National Security Agency to pursue full clarity and accountability regarding this deeply troubling activity.”
But in 2014 “Nothing NSA does can fairly be characterized as ‘spying on members of Congress or other American elected officials,” is how then-NSA Director Army General Keith Alexander describe the NSA data collection process.
Such disclosures reinforce the wisdom of our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “That government is best which governs least.”
Part II to this article will review the depth of the CIA’s involvement in the private sector’s data collection efforts, and the influence of Israeli intelligence practices on American methods and processes under the Constitutional’s rule of law.
Watch San Diego 6 TV segment: https://youtu.be/VSlBXjXISLQ