President Obama’s philosophy on surveillance of U.S. allies appears to have been inspired by Bill Clinton’s grand-jury testimony during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The House Intelligence Committee is probing for answers after reports on Tuesday the Obama administration turned a blind eye to NSA spying that netted lawmakers’ private conversations.
A White House official speaking on condition of anonymity gave an excuse for Obama’s policy reminiscent of Clinton’s infamous statement on “sexual relations” with his former intern: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
The administration vowed in 2013 that it would curtail spying efforts after NSA leaker Edward Snowden stole 1.7 million documents.
“We didn’t say, ‘Do it. We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it,'” a source told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
The newspaper reported that Obama’s spying zeroed in on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the president’s nuclear talks with Iran over the summer.
“I actually think it might be worse than what some people might think, but this is an issue that we’ll keep a close eye on,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during a “Fox and Friends” interview on Wednesday. “[Lawmakers] 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.”
Officials told the Journal that Obama wanted surveillance on Netanyahu for diplomatic leverage, but he also needed to avoid a paper trail. An “Oh- s— moment” moment came when it gleaned information on U.S. lawmakers meeting with Israeli leaders and American-Jewish groups, the sources said.
“The House Intelligence Committee is looking into allegations in the Wall Street Journal regarding possible Intelligence Community collection of communications between Israeli government officials and members of Congress,” Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in a statement released Wednesday. “The Committee has requested additional information from the IC to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures.”
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul said he was “appalled” by the revelations.
“You could see how it would stifle speech if you’re going to eavesdrop on congressmen, and that it might stifle what they say or who they communicate with,” the Kentucky senator told Fox News Wednesday.
Fellow candidate Dr. Ben Carson also blasted the White House.
“It is truly disgraceful that the Obama administration has spied on [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, his colleagues and pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress,” the retired neurosurgeon said in a statement. “Not only did he not curtail surveillance of our close friend, he has once again proven himself to be a president that our enemies need not fear and our friends cannot trust. … No doubt President Obama’s former secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew of the administration’s spying efforts on Israel.”
“This administration views Congress, Republicans and sometimes even Democratic members of Congress as their enemy,” added Sen. Ted Cruz at a campaign event in Cisco, Texas, CBS News reported Wednesday. “At times, it seems like they view the American people as their enemy.”
NSA spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Wednesday that he would not comment on “any specific intelligence activities” other than to say the agency only conducts surveillance when there is “a specific and validated national security purpose,” Politico reported.
World leaders who were placed on a “protected” list outside Obama’s surveillance dragnet included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
Top Democrats in Congress laughed off the story as a non-issue.
“I’m not surprised. I kind of think the report is much to do about nothing,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Hill on Wednesday.
Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment when contacted Wednesday by the Washington Post.