Top Democrats in Congress are brushing off a report that U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between Israeli government officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it is no secret that the U.S. and Israel spy on each other, even though they are allies.
Engel, a staunch supporter of Israel, said he met twice behind closed doors with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer during the heated debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran. He said Dermer presented the Israeli government’s case against the deal.
The New York congressman indicated he decided to oppose the deal based on details he learned in briefings from U.S. officials, rather than arguments made by the Israelis. He said he wouldn’t be concerned if his conversations with Dermer happened to be caught by American intelligence.
“I assume that everything I say — someone is listening. I am careful that what I say in public is what I say in private,” Engel said. “You just have to assume that when you’re a public person, what you say [could be monitored] … I don’t know what this really tells us.”
Engel’s comments come one day after The Wall Street Journal published a report saying the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on communications between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli officials during the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran.
Private conversations with congressmen and American Jewish groups were reportedly swept up by the agency as Israeli officials lobbied against the Iran deal, according to the Journal.
The report raised eyebrows because it revealed how the U.S. continues to spy on some allies despite Obama’s pledge to reduce the scope of NSA snooping on friendly governments following disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.
Republicans pointed to the surveillance as another example of Obama’s poor treatment of Israel.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms Rubio defends Trump: 'This whole flip-flop thing is a political thing' Rubio: Shutdown would have 'catastrophic impact' on global affairs MORE (R-Fla.), a 2016 presidential candidate and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Fox News on Wednesday that U.S. spying on allies “might be worse than what some people might think.”
“They have a right to be concerned about the fact that while some leaders around the world are no longer being targeted, one of our strongest allies in the Middle East, Israel, is,” he said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said his panel is looking into the details of the report and whether the intelligence community “followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures.”
NSA rules require the agency to scrub the identities of U.S. officials and corporations that are mentioned in intercepted communications. Senior U.S. officials are permitted to ask for names if it helps to clarify the intelligence, according to the Journal.
Lawmakers’ names and personal information were removed from the reports during Israel’s lobbying campaign against the deal, the paper reported.
Intelligence agencies are “required to keep congressional oversight committees fully informed of intelligence activities,” according to a senior administration official.
“From what I can tell, we haven’t had a problem with how incidental collection has been handled concerning lawmakers,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffSchiff to Trump: Taxpayers will 'bear the brunt of your broken promises' Dems knock Trump on Earth Day Five questions for the House's new Russia investigator MORE (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Journal.
The White House on Wednesday would not confirm or deny the report but said “the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said intelligence officials “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.”
Democrats in Congress gave cover to the White House, emphasizing the story pointed out the NSA did not target lawmakers. A senior House Democratic aide said collection on members of Congress was “unnamed and inadvertent.”
The aide argued that if surveillance of lawmakers was “occurring in a substantial way,” the White House would not have been surprised by then-Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress in March without consulting with Democrats.
Engel said the story might cause another “bump” in the U.S.-Israel relationship but predicted it would be easily overcome.
“I have every confidence this does nothing to hurt the relationship,” he said.” Countries are all big boys and big girls, they understand this is the way of the world."