The NSA Reportedly Spied on Congress. Is That the Real Scandal?

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Boehner Visits Middle East to Discuss ISIS, Iran
U.S. pols should keep up at least an appearance of independence toward all foreign governments, including Netanyahu's. Photo: Handout/2015 GPO

There’s a lot we don’t know beneath The Wall Street Journal’s report today that the National Security Agency picked up intelligence on meetings with U.S. members of Congress and domestic political groups while spying on the Israeli government after credible reports (subsequently validated by the surveillance) that the Israelis were collecting and leaking intelligence on the sensitive U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.

The story has many dimensions. But, so far, virtually all of the reaction involves two questions: (1) Should the U.S. be spying on our ally Israel? (This was raised immediately if cautiously by Marco Rubio, who’s in a bit of a quandary because he’s normally a fan of surveillance.) And (2) should the Executive branch be spying, even incidentally, on the Legislative branch? (Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra called for an investigation of this possibility and for indictments if it turned out to be true.) These are both important and complex issues. But there should be a third question raised as well: Should members of Congress be consorting with agents of a foreign government to thwart U.S. diplomacy?

Perhaps this question seems obvious in the context of a situation where the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives invited a foreign prime minister to address Congress with the thinly veiled intention of building opposition to approval of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But most Republicans and some Democrats have long adopted the habit of arguing that the U.S. should defer to Israel on all matters relating to the Middle East, to the point of abandoning any pretense of an independent point of view. The dominant position among Republicans was articulated by Mitt Romney in October of 2012: “The world must never see daylight between our two nations,” meaning the U.S. and Israel. No one was under the illusion that Romney was instructing Israelis to move closer to the U.S. 

This was and remains a dangerous and largely unprecedented position. Even if one intends slavish obeisance to a foreign government, there’s something to be said for keeping up the appearance of independence. After all, a lot of the conservatives most determined to carry Bibi Netanyahu’s water in Washington are also outspoken about the U.S. being the unchallenged colossus of global affairs, unconstrained by alliances with Euro-weenie socialists or even friendly relations with Muslim countries. So it would be preferable if American politicians who want to signal to conservative Evangelicals or to Sheldon Adelson that Bibi’s policies will be their own could find a way to do so without meeting with people who are under U.S. intelligence surveillance. Their hatred of Barack Obama is no excuse for disloyalty to the United States. 

Consorting With Foreign Government a Scandal Too