Congress’s Spies in Tel Aviv

The Wall Street Journal reports: “Israel Spied on Iran Nuclear Talks With U.S.” Sounds like a blockbuster, but this is one of those less-there-than-meets-the-eye stories. It begins:

Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said.

But what did Israel’s “spying” consist of? Despite the Journal’s headline, it is not clear that the Israelis spied on the U.S. at all:

The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel [! — Ed.] intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.

That is not, obviously, evidence of spying, let alone spying on the U.S.

Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said. …

While U.S. officials may not be direct targets, current and former officials said, Israeli intelligence agencies sweep up communications between U.S. officials and parties targeted by the Israelis, including Iran.

It is not exactly page one news that Israel spies on Iran. What is noteworthy here is not that the Israelis wanted to know what was going on in the negotiations with Iran, but rather that the Obama administration tried to prevent them from finding out.

Which put Israel in the same position as Congress: Obama didn’t want Senators and Congressmen to know what was being negotiated, either. What really made the administration angry was that the Israelis shared information about the negotiations with Congress:

The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.

So the Obama administration’s real enemy isn’t Iran, or even Israel–it is Congress! The Journal describes what the Israelis passed on to lawmakers:

Mr. Dermer and other Israeli officials over the following weeks gave lawmakers and their aides information the White House was trying to keep secret, including how the emerging deal could allow Iran to operate around 6,500 centrifuges, devices used to process nuclear material, said congressional officials who attended the briefings.

The Israeli officials told lawmakers that Iran would also be permitted to deploy advanced IR-4 centrifuges that could process fuel on a larger scale, meeting participants and administration officials said. Israeli officials said such fuel, which under the emerging deal would be intended for energy plants, could be used to one day build nuclear bombs.

The information in the briefings, Israeli officials said, was widely known among the countries participating in the negotiations.

One can debate the political merits of the path chosen by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which included his speech to a joint session of Congress. But what seems beyond dispute is that the Israelis’ blowing the whistle on the status of the negotiations, which was followed by the open letter posted by Tom Cotton and 46 other Senators, has made it difficult if not impossible for the Obama administration to make a terrible deal with Iran, force it down the throats of the French and other allies, and then spring it on Congress and the American people as a fait accompli. Which is exactly what the Obama administration had planned on doing.