NSA Never Stopped Intercepting Foreign Leaders' Communications, Swept Up Congress Members In Its Collection
from the another-shitload-of-empty-assurances dept
The Wall Street Journal is reporting the NSA is in the middle of another "incidental collection" mess, this time involving Congress.
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.Technically, spying on Congress is off-limits. In reality, the NSA can grab anything involving conversations with foreign citizens, provided it feels the content of the communications contains "significant foreign intelligence." Even so, the NSA is required to inform oversight committees when it has released unminimized, Congress-related communications to the executive branch. In this case, that information was never turned over to the oversight committees, and the executive branch deferred entirely to the NSA's judgment on the withholding of this information.
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.
That's the little-b bombshell in the Wall Street Journal piece. The capital-B Bombshell is this: despite President Obama's public assertions in the wake of the Snowden leaks, the NSA never turned off its intercepts in foreign countries.
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.The very public indignation of German Chancellor Merkel and other NATO allies led to a quasi-promise: the NSA would no longer listen in on their conversations. But President Obama never specifically named which foreign leaders would be exempted from the NSA's surveillance. Merkel was namechecked and the administration agreed to stop surveillance of certain foreign leaders, but anyone below them (advisors, cabinet members) was still considered fair game. And other leaders, like Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, were never considered for exclusion from NSA snooping.
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.The shocking thing here isn't the surveillance of foreign leaders. That's what we expect agencies like the NSA to do. The shocking thing is the duplicitous nature of the Obama administration, which allowed Congress to be swept up by intercepts that were publicly claimed to have been shut off, as well as allowing behavior it promised to end to continue under its tacit blessing. The administration wanted intelligence it felt would be valuable while simultaneously wanting to protect itself from further blowback.
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.’ ”Cowards.
Further making a mess of things is the NSA's long-running, begrudging intelligence partnership with Israel. As was revealed by the Snowden leaks, the NSA considers its partnership -- in which unminimized US citizen data and content are handed over to Israeli intelligence -- with the country to be lopsided. Israel is viewed as a needy partner which often takes much more than it gives.
However, Unit 8200 (the Israeli NSA) did gift the agency with a surveillance tool. But true to form, the gift horse was more of a Trojan.
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.The multiple levels of hypocrisy and deception are breathtaking. The administration was never truly interested in reigning in the NSA's activities. It was only interested in minimizing the damage it would sustain from the Snowden leaks. It allowed the NSA to do what it wanted while absolving itself of any responsibility. And it never held the agency up to the accountability standards the administration and the intelligence community repeatedly referred to when responding to each successive leak.
On top of it all, the NSA continued to use a surveillance tool it knew was compromised, rather than lose access to the information it obtained with it. And it shrugged off intrusions by a foreign surveillance agency because it's all just part of the spy game -- like telling world leaders you'll do one thing while never actually doing anything at all.