The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.
But it wasn’t really all the spying and eavesdropping and general sneakiness that irked Washington:
The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.
“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter…
The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.
Where the story really gets amusing though is when The Journal explains how Israel says it actually got the information and how Washington learned about what the Israelis were up to:
Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers…
Current and former Israeli officials said their intelligence agencies scaled back their targeting of U.S. officials after the jailing nearly 30 years ago of American Jonathan Pollard for passing secrets to Israel.
While U.S. officials may not be direct targets, current and former officials said, Israeli intelligence agencies sweep up communications between U.S. officials and parties targeted by the Israelis, including Iran…
As secret talks with Iran progressed into 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Israel’s communications to see if the country knew of the negotiations. Mr. Obama didn’t tell Mr. Netanyahu until September 2013.
So breaking that down, the US spied on Israel and discovered that Israel was spying on the US, which under normal circumstances would be fine, but this time the Israeli spying was aimed at undermining US diplomacy, so this spying was unacceptable, but Israel contends that in fact, it did not spy on the US to obtain the sensitive information but in fact gathered it from spying on other countries.
And while the prime minister’s office denies that it conducted any espionage against the US, the Israelis can’t for the life of them figure out why Washington would underestimate their ability to conduct espionage:
A senior official in the prime minister’s office said Monday: “These allegations are utterly false. The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States”...
Israeli officials, who said they had already learned about the talks through their own channels, told their U.S. counterparts they were upset about being excluded. “ ‘Did the administration really believe we wouldn’t find out?’ ”
Maybe they’re right, Washington shouldn’t have been surprised because after all, the US probably built the system that Israel used to do the spying:
Americans shouldn’t be surprised, said a person familiar with the Israeli practice, since U.S. intelligence agencies helped the Israelis build a system to listen in on high-level Iranian communications.
Moving past the comedic value here, the allegations certainly aren’t doing anything to improve the relationship between The White House and Netanyahu in what was already an extremely contentious time for US-Israeli relations. And for anyone who thinks Washington is going to let this slide, here’s a quote from a senior US official:
“If you’re wondering whether something serious has shifted here, the answer is yes.”