State Dept. won’t say if Kerry saw intel reports referencing communications between Israelis and members of Congress

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( — State Department Spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on Monday on whether Secretary of State John Kerry had seen or been briefed on intelligence reports that referenced communications between members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli officials.

“I won’t talk about intelligence matters from the podium,” Kirby said.

In a Dec. 29 article headlined “U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress,” the Wall Street Journal reported: “The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears—an ‘Oh-s— moment,’ one senior U.S. official said—that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress”

This was happening at the same time that the Obama administration was negotiating a deal with Iran aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Majorities in both houses of Congress and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the deal. But President Obama did not submit it to the U.S. Senate for ratification as a treaty—which would have required a two-thirds majority vote.

Instead, the House voted 162 to 269 against a resolution approving the Iranian nuclear deal, and cloture votes in the Senate aimed at forcing a final vote on a resolution disapproving the deal won a majority in that chamber but not the 60 needed to end a filibuster.

The deal began to take effect on Oct. 18.

“White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign [against the Iran deal],” the WSJ reported in its Dec. 29 story. “They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said.”

The day after the WSJ published this story, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence announced that it was going to look into the matter.

“The House Intelligence Committee is looking into allegations in the Wall Street Journal regarding possible Intelligence Community (IC) collection of communications between Israeli government officials and Members of Congress,” Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) said in a statement. “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.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) also sent a letter on Dec. 30 to Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency. This letter—co-signed by three of the committee’s subcommittee chairmen– instructed Rogers to “provide copies of all guidance (including all formal and informal policies and procedures) governing the process NSA follows in determining whether it has intercepted communications involving the United States Congress, and in screening communication determined to involve the United States Congress (or any summary, synopsis, review or abstract of such communications) for further distribution to any government official, employee or agent.”

Chaffetz told the NSA director to provide these documents by “no later than January 13, 2016.”

At Monday’s State Department press briefing, asked State Department Spokesman John Kirby if Secretary Kerry had seen or been briefed on intelligence reports referencing communications between members of Congress and Israeli officials. Kirby responded that he would not comment on intelligence matters: “Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that some U.S. Administration officials saw intelligence reports that at least referenced communications between members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli officials, particularly regarding the Iran nuclear deal. Did Secretary Kerry see, read, or was he briefed on any intelligence reports that mentioned members of the United States Congress?

Kirby: “I won’t talk about intelligence matters from the podium.” “You won’t deny or confirm that he did?”

Kirby: “I simply will not talk about intelligence matters from the podium.” “Was the Wall Street Journal story accurate?”

Kirby: “I’m not going to get into intelligence matters. You know, President Obama made it very clear that we’re not going to conduct foreign intelligence operations on leaders or—.” “But they did on Netanyahu?”

Kirby: “I’m not going to get into intelligence matters, sir.” “Did Secretary Kerry ever ask for the identity of any member of Congress that was mentioned in one of those reports?”

Kirby: “I simply won’t talk about matters of intelligence. ….”

Associated Press Reporter Matthew Lee: “That prohibition on the intelligence on foreign leaders, that also applies to U.S. lawmakers, does it not?”

Kirby: “Yes, of course.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Dec. 29 article by Adam Entous and Danny Yardon summarized the rules governing National Security Agency intercepts that reference Americans or American businesses as well as communications involving members of Congress:

“NSA rules governing intercepted communications ‘to, from or about’ Americans date back to the Cold War and require obscuring the identities of U.S. individuals and U.S. corporations,” WSJ reported. “An American is identified only as a ‘U.S. person’ in intelligence reports; a U.S. corporation is identified only as a ‘U.S. organization.’ Senior U.S. officials can ask for names if needed to understand the intelligence information.

“The rules were tightened in the early 1990s to require that intelligence agencies inform congressional committees when a lawmaker’s name was revealed to the executive branch in summaries of intercepted communications.”

Written by Terence P. Jeffrey