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Did the U.S. spy on Israel amid Iran deal lobbying in Congress?

The rift between the U.S. and Israel over the Iran deal was no secret, but according to The Wall Street Journal, that dispute was fed by high stakes political espionage by both countries and ensnared members of Congress. Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal discusses the story with Gwen Ifill.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The rift between the U.S. and Israel over the Iran deal was no secret, but we now learn the dispute was fed by high-stakes political espionage carried out by both countries and ensnaring members of Congress.

    The details were laid out on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal.

    Reporter Adam Entous has been piecing together the story for months, and he joins me now.

    Adam, what is more surprising to you after all the reporting that you have done, that there was spying going on, or that we are — or who we were spying on?

  • ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal:

    I think, for me, it was the unintended consequence, where the president of the United States decides that he doesn't know what Bibi Netanyahu, his counterpart, intends on doing.

    And so he tells his spy agencies to prioritize going and collecting information about what his intentions are. And then what happened, when Bibi Netanyahu came to Congress and launched what was probably the largest lobbying campaign by a foreign government in our Congress, and the NSA, the National Security Agency, is listening very closely to what the Israelis are doing.

    And, suddenly, they're talking every day to members of Congress. And this is a dilemma. What is the proper use of that information? And the White House thought about it. They knew that this was tantalizing. They also knew, if they asked for it, they would get in a lot of trouble, so they decided not to do — to not to decide.

    They decided to tell the NSA, you decide. You figure it out. We will take what you send us. And we're not going to ask for more.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Which is more troubling in the end, the fact that the president had said at some point, you know, we're not going to spy on our friends, with a couple of exceptions — they didn't say who the exceptions were — or the fact that Israel was so intricately involved in U.S. foreign policy-making?

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Right. Right.

    When the president said in 2014 that he would stop spying on our closest friends and allies, the heads of state, he also had a carve-out which he did mention in his speech, if that information that could be gleaned from those leaders was of significant national intelligence, national security purpose, or was important for national security, so he gave himself wiggle room.

    But he didn't define what that process would be, who would be those leaders that would be protected and who wouldn't be protected. And what we discovered when we looked at this closely was, they created a list. It's called the protected list. And the chancellor of Germany, Merkel, was put on that list. It was sort of seen as a no-brainer you would put her on that list.

    She was very vocal in her criticism. Also, Hollande of France was put on the list. When they went to other NATO — another NATO leader, Erdogan of Turkey, they realized, wait a minute, we don't really understand his policy in Syria, so they decided they wouldn't put him on the last, which basically meant that the NSA could target him.

    With Bibi Netanyahu, there was no debate. Of course they weren't going to, as they say, go dark on Bibi. They weren't going to stop collecting against him.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How involved was — well, first of all, is Israel also spying on the U.S., and how much of a problem was it, as the U.S. was collecting this information, that they swept up U.S. lawmakers in some of their eavesdropping?

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Yes.

    I mean, the Israeli government has — they say publicly that they do not commit espionage against the United States. That's their policy. That's what they say their policy is. If you talk to U.S. counterintelligence officials, they will tell you that Israel is probably the number one ally that spies on the United States.

    So, you have a he said/she said here. You're not really sure. With regard to collection that happened incidentally to capture communications or the contents of communications about lawmakers, it definitely was something that, within the White House, they knew they faced a very awkward situation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Wasn't that exactly what some lawmakers had been worried about and had been criticizing the administration on?

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Yes, to a certain degree.

    And the thing to keep in mind here is that there's things that we don't know yet. There are different types of communications that are collected by the NSA, where the prime minister of Israel speaks to a senator on the phone. Is the NSA listening to that?

    Or if the ambassador to Israel goes and meets with 20 lawmakers during this debate and writes a report that he then sends back to his Foreign Ministry detailing the conversations he had on the Hill, what type of communications were they collecting, and which of those were they passing onto the White House, and what were the rules?

    We know what they told — we know what administration officials told us, which is that, no matter what, they minimized — the term is minimized. That means they didn't identify the name of the lawmaker, so it would just appear in the report that the NSA sent that it was a…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    To stay on this side of the law.

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    The rule is to not identify.

    If the White House wants to know, they can ask. But if they ask and the NSA agrees to provide it, then they have to notify the Intelligence Committees.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Briefly, was there any blowback today on this from either Israel or, say, Turkey?

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    I haven't seen much from Turkey.

    From Israel, basically, they said that they were appalled that this would be happening, that the president would be spying on his close ally Netanyahu, and they basically said that they would consider a complaint, some sort of complaint that they would file to try to get the U.S. to stop the surveillance.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's an interesting peek behind the curtain, Adam Entous. You have been doing it all year. Thank you very much.

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Oh, pleasure. Pleasure. Thank you.

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