If journalist Lee Smith is right, the Obama administration has gone really far around the bend, and is ready to be hauled off in restraints. Handcuffs or straitjacket, take your pick.
On 29 December, the Wall Street Journal published a story by Adam Entous and Danny Yadron about NSA eavesdropping on the Israeli government, and reporting to the White House which members of Congress and “American-Jewish” advocacy groups were in contact with Israeli officials. The time-frame and the big issue in question were the Iran “agreement” (JCPOA) negotiations, presumably from as early as 2013 to 2015.
Snooping on Israeli officials may be tacky, but it’s not illegal. However, NSA telling the White House the identities of “American-Jewish groups” or their members who were in communication with the Israeli officials would be illegal, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and Executive Order 12333. (The latter clarifies procedures for ensuring that the identifying information of American citizens and private incorporated entities is protected, if it comes up when foreign targets are collected on.)
Although the identification of Congress members in such eavesdropping on foreign targets is a more ambiguous matter, Congress is supposed to have protection too. (Entous and Yadron published a separate background article on measures to codify this in the last three decades.)
But in the case of the Americans exercising their First Amendment rights – i.e., the “Jewish-American groups” – there is very little ambiguity. In the circumstances of this story, the administration would have had to obtain a court order to get access to the identities of the Americans, or “U.S. persons.” And that’s if NSA even still had the data (which it’s supposed to dispose of after a specified period, typically no more than 90 days).
It’s very unlikely that a judge (even on the FISA Court) would have given them a court order. Moreover, the WSJ story doesn’t say anything about the courts being involved.
What it says instead, astoundingly, is that the Obama White House supposedly asked NSA to “share” the information, but didn’t tell the agency what to share.
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.’ ”
If this really happened, it’s a total meltdown of government integrity.
But if it didn’t happen – what’s going on?
That’s the question raised by Lee Smith’s follow-up article, published today (the 31st) at Tablet.
Smith asserts the following clearly: sources in the intelligence community and Congress say the eavesdropping agency didn’t, in fact, “share” with the White House the identities of Americans who were talking about a political issue to Israeli officials.
[A]ccording to multiple sources in Congress and the intelligence community, the NSA never sent the White House any “intercepts” about how the Israeli government was coordinating its talking points with American-Jewish groups or suborning lawmakers, the latter of which would obviously be a very serious violation of criminal law.
But Smith thinks the White House wants political opponents of the Iran “deal” to believe this was happening.
In fact, according to multiple sources reached recently, no one in the American intelligence community was spying on US citizens or our elected representatives, and forwarding their names to the White House; the White House just wanted them to believe this was happening.
Hence, in Smith’s analysis, the story was planted with the WSJ reporters.
As an aside, I give Smith credit for recognizing that the Obama administration does plant such narratives. In fact, it has made a regular practice of doing so, from Day 1 (although the New York Times seemed to get the lion’s share of the narrative-tilling until recently).
But Smith concludes that Obama wants to “spook possible opponents of the Iran deal.”
That’s where I think his (Smith’s) narrative doesn’t quite add up. He acknowledges that, when he posts this caveat:
What’s not clear is why this story came out now, nearly half a year after the deal was signed in July.
That doesn’t make sense – any more than it makes sense for Obama’s aides to “leak” prominently that the administration has been merrily violating U.S. law.
(Another aside: if you read the original WSJ article closely, its most disgusting aspect by far is the seeming attempt of administration sources – quoted in my first block quote above – to deflect responsibility for the criminal activity they were “disclosing” onto NSA. Smith’s narrative doesn’t take note of that, other than to say the administration’s story doesn’t make sense. But inserting the detail about “NSA choosing what to share” would be a way of trying to obfuscate the clear illegality of what’s being alleged – and it’s perfectly in character for the Obama administration.)
Ultimately, I don’t think a planted narrative like this one is about scaring members of Congress over an issue that was basically settled months ago. It seems that this move must be about something the administration expects to happen in the future.
Regardless, the most horrifying aspect of the whole thing to me is that the Obama administration apparently had no qualms about planting this story. If it’s true, after all, it should be investigated immediately (and although I’m not a fan of special prosecutors, Loretta Lynch & Co. can’t be trusted with that task. A special prosecutor would be the right solution for investigating something of this magnitude, in a situation where the administration is clearly untrustworthy).
But if it’s not true, why would the administration plant such a story so publicly, against itself? It would probably “spook” Obama’s political opponents more effectively to spread rumors in a more stealthy and ambiguous manner.
It’s interesting, if not surprising, to see that few began by doubting the veracity of the WSJ story from 29 December. Such skullduggery is quite believable from the Obama administration.
But it’s not believable from the leadership or the rank-and-file at NSA (that would be my going-in assumption, having worked with NSA for many years). For some reason, Team Obama is casually blackening NSA’s reputation and “outing” itself, in thinly- (laughably-) explicated criminal activity, relating to a political crisis point that passed more than three months ago. Hmm.