Lee Smith is a Weekly Standard senior editor and Hudson Institute fellow. He also writes a weekly column for the online site Tablet. He is a sober and serious analyst of the foreign policy scene and related matters.
Smith’s April 5 Tablet column hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. In it Smith asks: “Did the Obama administration’s abuse of foreign intelligence collection start before Trump?” Smith argues that the Trump/Russia narrative replays Obama’s abuse of FISA to smear political actors opposing the administration in the lead-up to the Iran deal.
The predicate for Smith’s inquiry is derived from a December 29, 2015 Wall Street Journal article describing how the Obama administration had conducted surveillance on Israeli officials to understand the campaign that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials intended to wage against the Iran deal. The Journal reported that the targeting “also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.”
Smith argued in another Tablet column at the time that the Obama administration had merely used the appearance of spying on American lawmakers to corner opponents of the Iran Deal. “Spying on U.S. citizens would be a clear abuse of the foreign-intelligence surveillance system,” Smith explains. “It would be a felony offense to leak the names of U.S. citizens to the press.”
Smith now confesses his belief that he erred in the previous column: “I believe the spying was real and that it was done not in an effort to keep the country safe from threats—but in order to help the White House fight their domestic political opponents.”
Smith quotes a participant in the political battle over the Iran deal:
“At some point, the administration weaponized the NSA’s legitimate monitoring of communications of foreign officials to stay one step ahead of domestic political opponents,” says a pro-Israel political operative who was deeply involved in the day-to-day fight over the Iran Deal. “The NSA’s collections of foreigners became a means of gathering real-time intelligence on Americans engaged in perfectly legitimate political activism—activism, due to the nature of the issue, that naturally involved conversations with foreigners. We began to notice the White House was responding immediately, sometimes within 24 hours, to specific conversations we were having. At first, we thought it was a coincidence being amplified by our own paranoia. After a while, it simply became our working assumption that we were being spied on.”
This is what systematic abuse of foreign-intelligence collection for domestic political purposes looks like: Intelligence collected on Americans, lawmakers, and figures in the pro-Israel community was fed back to the Obama White House as part of its political operations. The administration got the drop on its opponents by using classified information, which it then used to draw up its own game plan to block and freeze those on the other side. And—with the help of certain journalists whose stories (and thus careers) depend on high-level access—terrorize them.
Once you understand how this may have worked, it becomes easier to comprehend why and how we keep being fed daily treats of Trump’s nefarious Russia ties. The issue this time isn’t Israel, but Russia, yet the basic contours may very well be the same.
Smith has much more, all of it worth reading, in this troubling column.