Media Criticism

Breaking News: NSA Spied on . . . Iran?

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, September 24, 2015, 4:20 PM

Is it just me or is this the dumbest NSA story in a long, long time? NBC News is breathlessly reporting a "top-secret report on a previous NSA operation against"—drumroll, please—Iran:

The document, obtained by NBC News, shows the U.S. bugged the hotel rooms and phones of then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his entire 143-member delegation in 2007, listening to thousands of conversations and learning the "social networks" of Iran's leadership.

The three-page document, called "Tips for a Successful Quick Reaction Capability," recounted what happened when the NSA was asked by the Bush administration for blanket surveillance of Ahmadinejad's September 2007 trip to the UNGA. Ahmadinejad was then in his first term as president but already notorious in the West for questioning the Holocaust and saying Israel should be wiped off the map.

That's right. Stop the presses: The United States spied on the President of Iran.

What's more, NBC has a bold prediction: NSA may do it again. "The NSA will probably spy on foreign leaders like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the UN General Assembly in New York this week, applying a 'full court press' that includes intercepting cellphone calls and bugging hotel rooms, former intelligence analysts told NBC News."

Is there more to the story than this? Actually, no. Having reported that our national signals intelligence agency years ago engaged in signals intelligence under approval from the FISA Court against a foreign enemy head of state, and having predicted that said spy agency may do so again, the body of the story is literally nothing more than an account of the technical means by which it did so. NBC does not even pause to wonder what one would bother having an NSA for if one were going to refrain from spying on the Iranian president.

Not a thing in the account raises any privacy issues, unless you happen to be a member of a presidential delegation from a foreign country to the United Nations. And other than the obligatory comment from a U.N. official tut-tutting about spying on the U.N. itself, nobody seems especially outraged.

Not even the Iranians. The government of Iran didn't comment for the story, but one of the members of the spied on delegation did:

Banafsheh Keynoush, a San Francisco-based Middle East analyst, was Ahmadinejad's official translator in New York. She described herself as "not much surprised" but wondered how successful the eavesdropping could have been.

"At a general level, [the Iranians] have always felt such bugging would take place, but have probably been unaware of the scale of it," said Keynoush. "I don't believe personally that much intelligence that would make the Iranians uneasy could be gathered from these events, because the Iranians would likely mindfully not engage in secretive conversations while in the U.S."

Keynoush also said the Iranians physically and electronically "cleared" conference rooms before sitting down.

My proposed headline for this very silly piece: "Spy Agency Spies; Will Probably Do So Again; Even Targets Not Surprised."

But who knows? It may win a Pulitzer.