Republican lawmakers criticized the Obama administration Wednesday after a report that U.S. eavesdropping on Israeli officials during the Iran nuclear negotiations had picked up communications with members of Congress and Jewish American organizations.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced that the panel will look into the findings of the Wall Street Journal report and whether all laws and rules were followed. The House Oversight Committee asked the National Security Agency for copies of its policies on screening intercepted communications from members of Congress.
Several candidates for the GOP presidential nomination also expressed alarm about the report, although it was not immediately clear whether any had participated in the intercepted phone calls with Israeli officials.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said at a campaign event in his home state that he wasn’t surprised because “this administration views Congress, Republicans and even Democratic members of Congress as their enemy,” CBS News reported.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Fox News, “I actually think it might be worse than what some people might think, but this is an issue that we’ll keep a close eye on.”
Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to be more specific, citing secrecy concerns.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), also appearing on Fox News, said he was “appalled” to learn that members of Congress had been caught up in the net cast by the NSA, National Security Agency, and he called for more “targeted surveillance” and more controls on the agency.
The report that the United States continued wiretapping its chief ally in the Middle East, even after President Obama saidin 2014 last year that he would curb eavesdropping on allied leaders, was the latest example of tension between the two governments. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had an often-testy relationship that was particularly strained during negotiations to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.
The Journal reported in its Wednesday editions that the United States had approved continued intercepts of top Israeli officials at a time when Netanyahu was aggressively lobbying against the deal with Iran. The administration believed that Israel had leaked information gleaned from spying on the negotiations to sympathetic lawmakers and Jewish American groups seeking to undermine the talks.
According to the Journal, when the White House learned that the NSA eavesdropping had collected communications with U.S. lawmakers, it feared being accused of spying on Congress and left it to the NSA to determine what information to share with the administration. The Journal said the NSA did not pass along the names of lawmakers or any of their personal attacks on White House officials.
The State Department referred all questions about the wiretapping to the National Security Council. Its spokesman, Ned Price, said the United States generally does not conduct foreign surveillance unless national security is at stake.
“When it comes to Israel, President Obama has said repeatedly that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct,” Price said in a statement. “This message has always been backed by concrete actions that demonstrate the depth of U.S. support for Israel.”
Price noted that the United States agreed to a 10-year military aid package for Israel and added, “More broadly, our support for Israel was an important element in deterring Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapon, and remains a critical part of our efforts to push back against Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”
In Israel, reaction was muted. The prime minister’s office and the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Yuval Steinitz, a Knesset member from the Likud party and a minister in Netanyahu’s coalition, seemed to play down the significance of the report.
“The U.S. is our greatest and most important friend,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio. “We appreciate this. We also enjoy intelligence cooperation with it. That said, the report did not make me fall off my chair.”
But Yisrael Katz, who heads the Intelligence and Transportation ministries, said Israel should lodge an official complaint.
“If the information on the subject turns out to be true, Israel must file a formal protest with the American government and demand it stop all activities of this kind,” Katz told Ynet news.
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.