Did Team Obama Abuse Intelligence Collection During the Lead-up to the Iran Deal, Too?
Trump and his associates may not have been the first political opponents the Obama White House targeted with a campaign of spying and illegal leaks, Tablet reported today. The Obama administration may have used information from classified foreign surveillance to smear and blackmail its political opponents during the lead-up to the Iran nuclear deal, too.
In a bombshell report in December of 2015, the Wall Street Journal alleged that Team Obama had spied on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials in order to stay one step ahead of their domestic opponents during the months-long debate about the unpopular deal. According to the Journal, the surveillance of the Israelis “also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups,” which may have been the whole point of the surveillance to begin with.
During the long and contentious lead-up to the Iran Deal the Israeli ambassador was regularly briefing senior officials in Jerusalem, including the prime minister, about the situation, including his meetings with American lawmakers and Jewish community leaders. The Obama administration would be less interested in what the Israelis were doing than in the actions of those who actually had the ability to block the deal—namely, Senate and House members. The administration then fed this information to members of the press, who were happy to relay thinly veiled anti-Semitic conceits by accusing deal opponents of dual loyalty and being in the pay of foreign interests.
This is exactly how Ben Rhodes’ infamous “echo chamber” worked as described by David Samuels in the The New York Times Magazine:
Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums…. ‘But then there are sort of these force multipliers,’ he said, adding, ‘We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them—‘
‘I can name them,’ I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
The echo chamber was Team Obama’s insidious way of keeping politicians in line.
It didn’t take much imagination for members of Congress to imagine their names being inserted in the Iran deal echo chamber’s boilerplate—that they were beholden to “donors” and “foreign lobbies.” What would happen if the White House leaked your phone call with the Israeli ambassador to a friendly reporter, and you were then profiled as betraying the interests of your constituents and the security of your nation to a foreign power? What if the fact of your phone call appeared under the byline of a famous columnist friendly to the Obama administration, say, in a major national publication?
“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.
As Lee Smith explains in Tablet, the Obama administration “redefined America’s pro-Israel community as agents of Israel” in making its case for the Iran deal and they used the same basic template to smear Team Trump, turning innocuous meetings and phone calls with the Russian ambassador into something far more nefarious.
Where the Israeli ambassador once was poison, now the Russian ambassador is the kiss of death—a phone call with him led to Flynn’s departure from the White House and a meeting with him landed Attorney General Jeff Sessions in hot water.
Obama changed the rules on distributing intercepted communications during his last weeks in office so that the intelligence could be “preserved” — which is apparently another way of saying “leaked.” Team Obama’s trail of breadcrumbs may also lead investigators to their systematic abuse of foreign-intelligence collection.
At least two Republican senators have called on Congress to investigate whether Rice had political motives for the “unmasking” Team Trump officials.
“I’m not going to prejudge here, but I think every American should know whether or not the national security adviser to President Obama was involved in unmasking Trump transition figures for political purposes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News. “It should be easy to figure out, and we will.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called for Rice to be subpoenaed. “The facts will come out with Susan Rice, but I think she ought to be under subpoena, and she needs to be asked, ‘Did you talk to the president about it? Did President Obama know about this?’ ” said Paul on MSNBC.