Surveillance by the Government: A Hot Issue in U.S. — Old Hat in Israel — But Did Israel Help American Agencies Do It? (Updated)
Did Israel help the National Security Agency (NSA) collect a massive database of phone calls and e-mails involving American citizens? Some reports have pointed to U.S. government purchases from Israeli high-tech companies of hardware and software — for the collection and analysis of huge amounts of information.
After Israel’s government was asked to provide a response, on a subject where “no comment” is usually all we get, a senior officer who worked for a long time in the field of communications intercepts did have something to say.
“America is our strategic ally, so it so clear that we neither spy on the USA nor against its citizens,” said a Brigadier-General who is a former commander of Unit 8200 of Israel’s military intelligence agency Aman. He asked not to be named. Unit 8200 is being mentioned in some media reports, in a form of innuendo, as a likely accomplice of the NSA in its counter-terrorism surveillance programs.
The Australian edition of Business Insider has this headline:
DID YOU KNOW?: Two Secretive Israeli Companies Reportedly Bugged the US Telecommunications Grid for the NSA
A few comments are in order, when almost every day there are new leaks about the surveillance programs run by the United States government since 9/11. Israel has been doing a lot of the same things, but with a minimum of complaint within Israel.
Years ago, and even since the founding of Israel in 1948, most of its citizens have weighed the conflict between security requirements and how to protect civil rights. They have clearly opted for security, above all.
Obama Administration officials say that with the vast amount of information collected by the highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA), only a tiny fraction is ever looked at — and only when there is believed to be a connection with foreign terrorist groups.
In Israel, the police have the authority to demand details of telephone calls for any criminal investigation. If a crime has been committed, police will obtain logs of cellphone calls in the immediate geographic area — just before and after the crime. That sort of high-tech investigating has helped solve crimes.
The domestic security agency Shin Bet (the initials of Sheruti ha-Bitachon, which means Security Services) has even broader authority — and capabilities — to intercept calls and e-mails within Israel. Shin Bet is roughly equivalent to America’s FBI and Britain’s MI5, and the Israelis have been on strongly on the look-out for communications involving foreign spies and terrorists — long before America woke up to the global peril on 9/11.
It can fairly be said that the surveillance powers of Israeli government and police agencies are far wider than those of U.S. officials, who insist that they obey laws barring them from spying on American citizens.
As for published claims that two high-tech companies that were founded in Israel — Narus Systems and Varint — helped the NSA run its controversial communications intercepts, suggestions that Israelis are physically present at NSA facilities and working with the American interceptors and analysts seem to be little more than speculation.
Yes, it would be no surprise if equipment used by the NSA — at its headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland, and at many unacknowledged facilities around the world — is designed or made in Israel. (Our book includes information on high-tech accomplishments by Unit 8200 of Israel’s Aman agency, and veterans of Unit 8200 often become leaders in the internet and communications industries.)
Yet it would be unfair to suggest that Israelis are carrying out the intercepts, collection, and analysis of information. The Americans at the NSA are quite capable of doing it all on their own.
In reluctantly discussing the counter-terrorism programs that have been revealed, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, insists that information about U.S. citizens is ignored. Clapper adds that leaks to the news media on this subject have damaged America’s ability to keep an eye and ear on terrorist groups.
It is not surprising to see reports that the Department of Justice has launched an investigation into who is leaking all these secrets about surveillance programs. The leak seems more like a gusher.
There are strong indications now that the United States and Israel are focused on similar dangers. The latest leak — describing an NSA tool (“Boundless Informant”) for keeping track of the internet and phone-call information intercepted all around the world — includes a list of countries that are targeted: Iran above all others. Israel has also had its focus on Iran, hoping to stop its nuclear program, for a decade.
NSA documents suggest that intercepts are fully approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and overseen by the Department of Justice — in the name of investigating terrorism and/or the spread of nuclear weapons.