Elliott Abrams on spying on allies

At NR’s Corner, Elliott Abrams gives his take on the report that the Obama administration spied on the Israeli government. Abrams served for many years as a U.S. foreign policy official and is, of course, a leading pro-Israel advocate. Thus, his is a voice I wanted to hear on this potential scandal.

Abrams believes there should be a strong presumption against spying on allies. He also believes that we should not intercept communications that “logically and in practice intrude on members of Congress and other Americans who are going about entirely legitimate political activity.”

It’s hard to disagree with either proposition.

In support of his view on spying on allies, Abrams invokes an incident that occurred when he served under Secretary of State George Shultz during the Reagan administration:

In the 1980s, when I was assistant secretary of state for Latin America, a CIA officer approached me with a proposal. They had the ability to bug the office of a Latin American leader. They wanted to do it. Did I authorize them to go forward?

I replied that this was above my pay grade and I’d have to ask Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and I did so. Shultz refused to authorize the bug. The leader in question was democratically elected and a friend of the United States — just like those targeted recently by NSA, according to the Journal.

Shultz said such a person had the right to assume he’d be treated better by his friends in Washington than this. Unless there was something vital to our national security — not convenience, not politics — we should be spying on enemies, not friends.

Shultz’s caveat — unless there was something vital to our national security — sets forth what should be required to overcome the presumption against spying on allies. Applied to Israel, it seems to me that knowing whether Israel is going to launch a surprise attack on Iran passes the national security test. This is something we need to know in advance because of the potential effect of such an attack on our interests.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, Obama continued to spy on Netanyahu and his government after we determined that Israel wasn’t going to attack Iran. The relevance to Obama of conferences between Israel officials and members and Congress — to find out what opponents of the Iran nuclear deal were up to — was altogether different.

There is no reasonable argument that learning about these conversations was vital to our national security. Any such argument would, as Abrams says, have no limiting principle.

Abrams concludes:

The administration faced a battle in Congress, and it spied on the other side. That’s the kind of conduct we see in third-world countries where control of the spy agency is one of the ways an incumbent regime holds on to power and defeats its political opponents. It ought to be a major scandal when such practices reach the United States.