Report: US spied on Netanyahu during talks on Iran deal

President Barack Obama meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House in Washington, D.C.,. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images)

President Barack Obama meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, D.C., October 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The United States monitored phone conversations between top Israeli officials and U.S. lawmakers as well as U.S. Jewish groups in the U.S., current and former U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal.

The National Security Agency’s foreign eavesdropping included conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides, and private conversations held between Israeli officials and U.S. lawmakers, according to the report published late Tuesday afternoon, citing  more than two dozen unnamed U.S. officials.

The White House declined comment on the issue.

“As a general matter, and as we have said previously, we do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said. “This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike.”

Price in the statement outlined in detail the Obama administration’s work on behalf of Israel.

“No Administration has done more for Israel’s security than this one, from support for the Iron Dome missile defense system, which has saved countless Israeli lives, to an unprecedented munitions package valued at close to $2 billion that will ensure Israel continues to have access to state-of-the-art munitions for years to come,” Price said.

The White House planned to use the intercepted information to counter Netanyahu’s campaign against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill, according to the Journal. A senior White House official told the Journal that the NSA decided what to share with the White House, and that while the Obama administration did not specifically order the eavesdropping, it did not order it halted.

Responding to the article, Israel’s intelligence and transportation minister, Yisrael Katz of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, said Wednesday that Israel does not spy on the United States and expects the same from Washington intelligence agencies. He called the United States “our great friend.”

If the Wall Street Journal reports turn out to be true, Katz told the Hebrew-language Ynet news website, “Israel will file a formal protest with the American government and demand it stop all such activities.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., among the front-runners in polls for the Republican presidential nomination, said Israel’s concerns were legitimate.

“They have a right to be concerned about the fact that while some leaders around the world are no longer being targeted, one of our strongest allies in the Middle East, Israel, is,” he said in comments delivered to the Fox News Channel and reported by The Hill.

The intercepted conversations showed the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiation reportedly learned through Israeli spying operations to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal, and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, the officials told the Journal.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s spying operations on friendly countries in 2013, an action that had been a closely held secret. Obama promised the following year to curb the eavesdropping.

The monitoring of Netanyahu continued, however, since it served “a compelling national security purpose,” the Journal reported, citing U.S. officials.

Israeli and U.S. intelligence units have been spying on each other since Obama took office, often using shared intelligence tools. The United States ramped up the spying in 2011 and 2012 while the U.S. held secret talks with Iran, due to concerns that Netanyahu would order an Israeli attack on Iran without U.S. knowledge, and later due to concerns that Israel would find out about the secret talks and leak them.

The eavesdropping later was used to get inside Israeli efforts to turn Congress against the Iran nuclear deal. The NSA removed the names of lawmakers from intelligence reports and removed personal information that could identify the lawmakers, the officials told the Journal.

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