WASHINGTON: The United States continues to spy on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s communications despite promising to curtail the hacking of its allies.The US National Security Agency’s (NSA) foreign eavesdropping included phone conversations between top Israeli officials and US lawmakers and American-Jewish groups, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing current and former US officials.White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign against the nuclear deal with Iran, according to the unnamed officials, the Journal said.NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the US Iran negotiations, which they learned through Israeli spying operations, the newspaper reported.The NSA reports allowed Obama administration officials to peer inside Israeli efforts to turn Congress against the deal, according to the Journal.Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, was described as coaching unnamed Jewish-American groups on lines of argument to use with US lawmakers, and Israeli officials were reported pressing lawmakers to oppose the deal, the newspaper said.Asked for comment on the Journal report, a White House National Security Council spokesman said: “We 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.”
A 2011 NSA directive said direct communications between foreign intelligence targets and members of Congress should be destroyed when they are intercepted. But the NSA director can issue a waiver if he determines the communications contain “significant foreign intelligence,” the Journal said.During Israel’s lobbying campaign in the months before the deal cleared Congress in September, the NSA removed the names of lawmakers from intelligence reports and weeded out personal information, the newspaper said.Contacted by AFP, the White House did not deny the report, which cites several serving and former US officials, but stressed the importance of its ongoing close ties with Israel.Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem as well as the spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment on the report.Following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the agency’s spying operations, President Barack Obama announced in January 2014 the United States would curb its eavesdropping of friendly world leaders.
A number of such figures, including French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were put on a list declared off-limits to US eavesdropping. Merkel had been embarrassed by the revelation that her cellphone had been monitored and other allies expressed private concerns about the breadth of NSA monitoring.But Obama maintained the monitoring of some leaders, including Netanyahu and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the grounds it served a “compelling national security purpose,” the Journal reported.The US administration decided not to remove or disable the “cyber-implants” it had secreted on foreign communications systems, as they would be hard to replace.Instead, the report says, Obama ordered that some of the hacked systems used by close allies would not be routinely monitored by the NSA, while others would continue to be mined for intel.“Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn’t do that,” one senior US official told the Journal, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Netanyahu’s case, Washington was concerned that Israel was itself monitoring US negotiations with Iran and might try to derail the effort to reach a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.Last March, Israel denied reports in The Wall Street Journal that its security forces spied on the negotiations between Tehran and major powers over Iran’s nuclear capacities.