Trump administration surveillance claims may have a precedent in the Iran Deal

John Sexton Posted at 4:01 pm on April 05, 2017

There’s an interesting report at Tablet today which compares Obama administration efforts to push the Iran Deal to the current Democratic attempts to accuse the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia. I’ll note up front that a lot of this is purely speculative, but the comparison is interesting. The jumping off point for the piece is a December 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled “U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress.” Here’s a bit of that article:

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.

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.

Here’s a bit more from a 2015 Fox News story about the same surveillance:

The sweeping up of conversations between Israeli officials and U.S. lawmakers began in earnest earlier this year, ahead of a March visit to Capitol Hill by Netanyahu to speak out against the developing Iran nuclear deal, and continued through this past September, when the deadline for Congress to block the deal passed.

The Tablet piece argues this 2015 story of the inadvertant collection of conversations with U.S. lawmakers has a slightly different ring to it in light of recent accusations that some in the Obama administration were unmasking the names of members of the incoming Trump team, possibly in ways that had no clear foreign policy objective. It begins to look less like an accident and more like a pattern. From Tablet:

“At some point, the administration weaponized the NSA’s legitimate monitoring of communications of foreign officials to stay one step ahead of domestic political opponents,” says a pro-Israel political operative who was deeply involved in the day-to-day fight over the Iran Deal. “The NSA’s collections of foreigners became a means of gathering real-time intelligence on Americans engaged in perfectly legitimate political activism—activism, due to the nature of the issue, that naturally involved conversations with foreigners. We began to notice the White House was responding immediately, sometimes within 24 hours, to specific conversations we were having. At first, we thought it was a coincidence being amplified by our own paranoia. After a while, it simply became our working assumption that we were being spied on.”

This is what systematic abuse of foreign-intelligence collection for domestic political purposes looks like: Intelligence collected on Americans, lawmakers, and figures in the pro-Israel community was fed back to the Obama White House as part of its political operations. The administration got the drop on its opponents by using classified information, which it then used to draw up its own game plan to block and freeze those on the other side. And—with the help of certain journalists whose stories (and thus careers) depend on high-level access—terrorize them.

The article compares this alleged misuse of intelligence to help push the Iran Deal through over the objections of domestic political opponents to the current claims of Russian collusion and concludes it looks like the same playbook.

To make its case for the Iran Deal, the Obama administration redefined America’s pro-Israel community as agents of Israel. They did something similar with Trump and the Russians—whereby every Russian with money was defined as an agent of the state. Where the Israeli ambassador once was poison, now the Russian ambassador is the kiss of death—a phone call with him led to Flynn’s departure from the White House and a meeting with him landed Attorney General Jeff Sessions in hot water.

The incidental collection of conversations was not illegal in either case. The NSA does spy on foreign dignitaries. The question is whether the Obama administration also took political advantage of this legal collection to get a leg up on it’s U.S. political adversaries. I don’t think this article provide enough evidence to say conclusively that it did but it does raise some interesting parallels.