The National Security Agency's (NSA) continued surveillance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli leaders may also have swept up private conversations involving members of Congress, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday night.
Although President Obama had promised to curb eavesdropping on world leaders who are U.S. allies after Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing the extent of the surveillance, there were a few leaders the White House wished to continue monitoring, including Netanyahu.
The original reason for the stepped up surveillance of Netanyahu, according to the WSJ, was the fear that he would "strike Iran without warning." By 2013, that fear had dissipated. The administration then became concerned about the Iran nuclear deal that was being negotiated. U.S. officials believed that the Israelis were spying on the negotiations and would try to scuttle the deal, the report said.
Further, the Journal reports that intercepted conversations between Israeli leaders confirmed Israel's knowledge of the talks, as well as its intent to undermine any nuclear deal with Iran by leaking its details. When Netanyahu and his top aides came to Washington to talk with Jewish-American groups and members of Congress to lobby against the deal, the NSA was there to pick up the conversations.
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Senior officials told the WSJ that those conversations collected by the NSA raised fears "that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress." The White House wanted the information anyway, however, because it "believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu's campaign."
So in order to avoid leaving a trail, the White House left it to the NSA to figure out what to share, and the NSA obliged, deleting names of members and any personal attacks on the administration.
National Security Council Spokesman Ned Price wouldn't comment on the intelligence activities written about in the Wall Street Journal's story, but he said in a statement, "[W]e 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."
He added that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security is "sacrosanct" and "backed by concrete actions that demonstrate the depth of U.S. support for Israel."
The office of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said only that it was looking into the matter.
Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said the committee would also be looking into the report.
"The Committee has requested additional information from the [Intelligence Community] to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures," Nunes said in a statement Wednesday.
Before a campaign event in Cisco, Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz said he wasn't surprised that the administration was trying to intercept Netanyahu's communications, or even that conversations including members of Congress may have been swept up by the NSA, "because this administration views Congress, Republicans and sometimes even Democratic members of Congress as their enemy....At times, it seems like they view the American people as their enemy."
The allegations "are total nonsense," a spokesman for the Embassy of Israel in Washington told the WSJ.
Before Netanyahu came to address Congress, the NSA had intercepted Israeli messages that said Netanyahu wanted the "the latest U.S. positions in the Iran talks," the Journal wrote, signaling to to the administration that Netanyahu intended to use his address to reveal sensitive details about the negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry then said as much to reporters on the eve of the speech.
Kerry justified his accusation by pointing to Israeli media reports, but those reports were a convenient source, given that "Intelligence officials said the media reports allowed the U.S. to put Mr. Netanyahu on notice without revealing they already knew his thinking. The prime minister mentioned no secrets during his speech to Congress," wrote the Journal.
CBS News' Mark Knoller and Walt Cronkite contributed to this report.