Congress Totally Cool With Israel Spying on U.S. Officials Negotiating With Iran

Mossad reportedly listened in to nuclear talks and used the information to lobby Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republican greeted the news with a big shrug.

03.24.15 6:48 PM ET

Israel is spying on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks? No problem, key Democrats and Republicans in Congress say. It’s just part of the game.

“I don’t look at Israel or any nation directly affected by the Iranian program wanting deeply to know what’s going on in the negotiations—I just don’t look at that as spying,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said. “Their deep existential interest in such a deal, that they would try to figure out anything that they could, that they would have an opinion on it… I don’t find any of that that controversial.”

The Wall Street Journal reported late Monday evening that Israel spied on U.S. diplomatic negotiations to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Then the Israelis shared that inside information in an attempt to undermine support for the deal with U.S. lawmakers.

Of course, the White House only found out about this because it too was spying—on Israel.

But if lawmakers were upset by this turn of events, they weren’t showing it Tuesday. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, for one, joked that he was more concerned that Israeli intelligence hadn’t shared what they learned with him.

“One of my reactions was, why haven’t they been coming up here sharing information with me? I mean Israel. I haven’t had any of them coming up and talking with me about where the deal is, so I was kind of wondering who it was they were meeting with. I kind of feel left out, if you know what I’m saying,” Corker said.

If anything, lawmakers said they were perturbed that the Israelis were being accused of spying—not that they did any actual surveillance. Learning the details of the nuclear talk, lawmakers argued, was less like “spying” and more like information gathering.

“There’s no non-pejorative way to use the word ‘spying.’ That is a pejorative accusation. That’s not the phrase I would use to describe what I read… They care deeply about the negotiation, as they should, they’re getting information about it, and they have an opinion about it,” Kaine said.

Several lawmakers interviewed by The Daily Beast said that the Israeli government had not told them anything they weren’t already aware of in broad strokes. Corker said he speaks regularly with foreign ministers and officials from foreign governments, who from time to time pass on relevant information about the nuclear deal discussions.

“No one from Israel has told me anything that I haven’t already known,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. He added: “I hope we’re spying on the Iranians.”

Congressional frustration over the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran reflects a deep concern by many lawmakers that they’ve been cut out of the loop: worries about whether they’re being briefed in sufficient detail, all the way to the extent to which they’ll be given the chance to vote on any future deal.

“If you think about it, if the White House was doing the normal advise and consent [function] with the Senate, then it wouldn’t be necessary to get our information [elsewhere],” said Corker.

The day the report was published also happens to be the date of a requested deadline that Congress had set out for a nuclear deal. No deal has yet been reached by the P5+1, the parties negotiating an agreement. But the leaks about the talks—and the surveillance on those talks—continues.

A senior congressional staffer called Obama administration allegations of Israeli spying “deeply irresponsible innuendo and destructive hearsay,” telling The Daily Beast that “these unsubstantiated allegations are all the more galling in light of the fact that this Administration has leaked, consistently and aggressively, details of Iran proposals to the front page of The New York Times and other news outlets, as well as to sympathetic think-tankers and pro-Iranian groups outside of government.”