The latest batch of “top secret” documents to be leaked to the web magazine The Intercept by fugitive former NSA advisor Edward Snowden, showing that the US had spied on Israeli air force operations for more than 18 years, is as interesting for its timing as its revelations.
For three years, the magazine has published Snowdon leaks almost exclusively. This time, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, it released files exposing a joint operation by US and British intelligence agencies codenamed Anarchist. For almost two decades, Israeli air force operations, mainly by drones, were monitored and their transmission feeds intercepted from the British intelligence base in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, as well as the NSA base in Menwith Hill, north of Manchester, England,
The magazine story included some exaggerations, including a statement that “US and British spies had a virtual seat in the cockpit” of Israel’s drones. It was also suggested that Israel’s drones were armed with missiles, which is hardly a secret.
At some point, Israel acted to protect its drone fleet’s “downlinks” to headquarters, so that many of the feeds grabbed by the Troodos analysts were found to be encrypted or scrambled, showing up like the black-and-white snow on a TV screen.
On Friday, Jan. 29, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu called US Vice President Joe Biden and demanded an explanation of what Israel considers its senior ally’s perfidy.
Biden used US collaboration with Britain to point a finger at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – an organization similar to Israel’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200.
It is no secret that Britain serves the American NSA as a willing and productive “subcontractor,” with no interest of its own, military or otherwise, in the contents of the videos Israeli drones or other feeds relayed to the “pit” in IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. London. The Brits were simply performing the bidding of “big sister” for very good reasons:
As a senior member of the “Five Eyes” grouping of intelligence organizations along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the UK obediently carries out whatever intelligence mission it is entrusted by the US.
In return, London receives priceless American intelligence data on domestic and external threats to Britain, as well as generous funding for MI5, MI6 and the GCHQ and technologies. The Americans share exclusive confidential data with the UK and they cooperate in many fields of intelligence.
Israel’s indignation over hostile spying by America and Britain on its air force operations, which has in fact been known for years, detracted attention from the equally important question of why this Snowdon bombshell was dropped now.
After quitting the NSA and fleeing the US, Snowdon won political asylum in Russia. He lives in Moscow. It may be assumed that the files he lifted from the NSA were either handed over to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence, or at least, their release was subject to their control.
So how did the Snowdon files on Anchor serve Moscow’s agenda?
Two pressing interests stand out:
1. The Russian military effort in Syria currently focuses strongly on dislodging the rebel forces concentrated in a southern strip adjoining the Israeli border. Until now, the Israeli air force felt free to block its enemies’ intrusions into that strip and counted on its superior avionics and electronic warfare measures to outwit Russian interference.
The disclosure of Operational Anchor at this time was intended to show Israel that its much vaunted technological superiority is a myth and highly vulnerable to US and British espionage.
It was therefore meant to be understood as Moscow’s Keep Out of Syria warning to the Israel air force.
2. Another implied warning was directed to Riyadh, three days before the conference on a political solution for ending the Syrian war opened in Geneva on January 29, under the joint US-Russian aegis.
This conference depends for much of its success on Saudi-backed opposition rebel groups playing ball. But those groups have been encouraged by Riyadh to play hard to get.
Moscow used the Snowdon files to advise the Saudis not to fall into the error of counting on the Israeli Air Force being free to operate in Syria in support of their goals, just as they were wrong to expect Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel was certainly not taken aback by the “exposure” of Operation Anchor, since its military and defense organizations have always been on alert for America to use its best technology and limitless funds to stay on their tail.
Although Israel's failure to spot these alien intercepts in real time is certainly a matter of concern, an objective, factual analysis shows that the damage in real terms is minor, for the following reasons:
1, US and British intelligence were hardly likely to transfer the transmissions they picked up to a hostile third party for use against Israel.
2. Operations carried out by Israeli drones and other aircraft are often released to the public by the IDF Spokesman’s Office.
3. The Americans were not able to hack into the most important, secret and critical missions, as claimed, because they were conducted amid transmission hush. Such top-secret sorties are autonomous, with no “downlink”, or transmissions to base; their results evaluated behind closed doors after it is over and they return.
4. Decryption generally takes time, so it should be assumed that the US monitors needed a day or more to crack their encryption, by which time the feeds were largely irrelevant.
All the same, the secret tapping into live video feeds from Israeli drones and fighter jets by US and British espionage agencies for 18 years, the monitoring of Israel's military operations and close watch for potential strikes, is an extremely serious matter. It is cause for alarm in Israel’s counterintelligence agencies and accentuates the need to tighten coordination among the superabundance of bodies responsible.