One of the many surprising revelations made by Edward Snowden in 2013 was that the National Security Agency was tapping the phone conversations of world leaders, most famously German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key U.S. ally. That led President Barack Obama in January 2014 to announce that the United States would no longer spy on world leaders and foreign officials. But there was an exception: Leaders would be monitored if doing so served a compelling national security purpose.
Last week, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that while the NSA presumably stopped listening to Merkel’s phone calls, it continued to spy on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the president’s promise not to. If there was a compelling national security purpose to tap Netanyahu’s phone, we don’t see it.
The spying came in the lead up to and during negotiations with Iran on a nuclear agreement, a high-priority initiative for the president and one forcefully opposed by Netanyahu. In the process of that spying activity, according to the Journal, there was collateral damage: 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. In other words, despite the fact that the NSA scrubbed the identities of the non-Israelis, the agency stumbled into spying on U.S. citizens, including members of Congress.
And what did the NSA learn? According to the report, which referenced unnamed officials, stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations learned through Israeli spying operations to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes.
It is unseemly that the United States engaged in spying on Israel to this level. Was getting Israel’s talking points for AIPAC really a matter of national security? We doubt it.
Cynics in the United States and Israel have brushed off this affair. “Everyone knows that the entire world spies on the entire world,” according to Israeli commentator Eitan Haber. But that misses the point. There is an asymmetric relationship at play here that cannot be forgotten. Israel is a small country that faces numerous enemies. The United States is the world superpower. The United States can afford not to tap the phones of allied heads of state. Without exception. Besides, Netanyahu isn’t the one who promised not to.