Tough on an ally, easy on an enemy
Two ongoing news stories that broke this past week show the Obama administration’s contrasting styles towards America’s top Middle East ally and a rogue nation that continues to flout international law. Obama and his top officials have no problem playing hardball with Israel, but become like Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story, who doesn’t like confrontations, when dealing with Iran.
First, last Tuesday The Wall Street Journal (Google link) reported that the administration excluded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the list of foreign leaders it would not spy on after Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA regularly spied on friendly heads of state. Quoting current and former U.S. officials the spying on Netanyahu was deemed by Obama to be a “compelling national security purpose.”
Of course the reason for this was Netanyahu’s objections to the Iran nuclear deal. The fear was that Netanyahu would leak sensitive information he had been told by the United States in order to torpedo the deal. (Israel insisted that the secret details that it learned came from spying on Iran.)
The more significant scoop of Journal though, is that by targeting Netanyahu, the administration also spied on lawmakers who were in contact with Netanyahu as the administration sought to build support for the deal.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus of The Jewish Press explained that if the article is true, the administration was treating Israel and its supporters as enemies.
Most shockingly, the Obama administration also used these terror-hunting tools to scoop up information about members of Congress working to develop their own policy position — one at cross-purposes with the administration. It will be interesting to see what “compelling national security purpose” the administration comes up with for this eavesdropping.
The revved-up spying on Netanyahu yielded information about how much Israel knew about the details of the Iran deal. It also uncovered coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal and lobbying discussions with U.S. lawmakers about the deal.
If true, the NSA was gathering, and handing over to the White House, information on the actions of private U.S. citizens and organizations composed of such citizens. This kind of domestic spying hasn’t been done since the days of Richard Nixon. And when Congress found out about that, there was a political firestorm, months of important hearings led by Senator Frank Church, and an avalanche of legislative reports and new laws to make sure it all never happened again.
The qualification “if true” about the Journal article is necessary because Lee Smith, writing in Tablet, raised significant doubts about the actual spying. Smith rather writes that the administration want Congress to believe that it has engaged in such intrusive spying as a means of spooking Congress against fighting against the deal in the future.
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. Why? The Journal story only coheres if these purported intercepts are understood as part of the White House’s aggressive campaign to spook possible opponents of the Iran deal.
Recall, if you can, how high the stakes were. In July on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the president hinted broadly at anti-Semitic conceits to scare off Democrats inclined to go against the deal. New York Senator Chuck Schumer got the full “dual loyalist” treatment when he came out against the agreement. Obama told New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez that his opposition to the deal came not out of conviction but because he was beholden to “donors and others.” The New York Times gave the administration an assist when it charged that Republican Congressmen and Senators opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are more loyal to the Prime Minister of Israel than the president of the United States: a Times editorial described the “vicious battle” as “the unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader against their own commander in chief.”
The poisonous environment that the administration created in order to sell the Iran deal spooked plenty of people on Capitol Hill. After all, the president accused Senators of dual loyalty, and the administration got the paper of record to drag them through the mud. In this atmosphere, would a fantasy in which the NSA was listening in on their calls and sending reports back to the White House be the weirdest thing for a Congressman to believe? No. Indeed, these were precisely the fears that the White House wanted to stoke.
J.E. Dyer at Liberty Unyielding finds Smith’s analysis convincing but wonders:
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.
Although the Congressional part of exercising oversight over the deal ended months ago there remains Congressional oversight over the deal’s implementation.
As week as the deal was in its conception, the administration has not even addressed issues with Iran outside of the nuclear realm.
For example, when Congress tightened visa requirements last month, which would require visitors to Iran to apply for visas to enter the United States, Iran objected and Secretary of State John Kerry assured his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that the administration was prepared to issue visas to get around the law. This led to a Congressional backlash against the administration with a letter authored by Rep. Robert Dold (R – Ill.) asserting that it was “beyond belief” that the administration would allow Iranian complaints to “supersede a newly-enacted U.S. law designed to protect the American people from terrorism.”
This was followed last week (conveniently overlooked in the end of the year news cycle) by the administration deciding to delay indefinitely the imposition of sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile test in October, which the United Nations determined to be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1929.
Keep in mind that the two issues that the administration caved to Iran on are not nuclear and that the administration continually insisted that the deal was only about Iran’s nuclear program and that it would maintain other sanctions based Iran’s other violations of international law. Kerry said in testimony before the Senate in July, “And Iran only says that they would treat the imposition of any new nuclear-related sanctions as the ground to cease performing. But they are clear and we are clear that we have all other kinds of authorities.”
Despite this we have the administration rolling over not once, but twice, in recent weeks to Iran on non-nuclear sanctions. (The visa waiver issue wasn’t even a sanction, though it was related to Iran’s status as a state sponsor of terror.)
On one hand the Obama administration has eavesdropped on congressional conversations with Israel, or, at the very least wants people to believe it has; on the other it has folded quickly to Iranian demands that it not impose any complications to Iran’s efforts to do more business American companies.
The disparate treatment of Iran and Israel makes the administration’s refrain that “No administration has done more for Israel’s security than this one,” ever hollower and hollower.