Many Israelis were scandalized when documents released by Edward Snowden revealed that their best friend, America, had in 2009 targeted a former prime minister and defense minister for secret surveillance. But their political leaders were not surprised. For years, the United States has been running a complex eavesdropping and surveillance web to spy on friends and foes alike, including Israel. Satellites gather and transmit data to command centers, “informers” operate in the field and the most fertile sources of all are not human but the instruments which bug cell phones, tablets and social networks.
The US National Security Agency, NSA, exposed by its former agent the whistleblower Edward Snowden, can monitor these devices whenever it wants, just by beaming its instruments at a defined country, location, group of people or topics.
If, for instance, NSA electronically obtains a list of Israeli servicemen, their cell phone numbers and credit cards, its monitors can keep each one under constant surveillance.
The same applies to the personnel of Israel’s Air Force, Aerospace industry and other high-tech military manufacturers, such as Elbit and Rafael. Those lists may safely be assumed to be already in the agency’s hands.
To collect videos and images, American spy agencies only have to pan through such data gold mines as YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest, the last of which was recently crowned Content Curation. This is because Pinterest does much of the intelligence watchers’ work for them by assorting the material according to subject and field of interest and so unknowingly providing them with neat data packages.
The network catching on like wildfire of late is WhatsApp.
It is also a favorite of Israel’s elementary schoolchildren for swapping their thoughts and news.
A child may explain he or she can’t join the gang that afternoon because his or her father, an Air Force colonel or captain of a naval vessel, is just home from Crete or Sardinia. This will tell the eavesdropper that Israeli crews have been changed at those bases.
An Israeli officer driving his car only has to consult Waze for a short cut to his secret destination to reveal it to a clandestine watcher.
So who controls these armies of spies and directs their focus?
Those are murky waters which are virtually uncharted, as President Barack Obama implied obliquely in the comments he made at his end-of-year news conference Friday, Dec. 20. To still the uproar against indiscriminate spying on Americans, he promised a review and possibly reforms of the NSA, adding tellingly: “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should.”
Snowden’s revelations about the spies sitting on the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Roussef have got Washington into hot water. They also revealed the negligence of their own security services.
However, Israel, to our certain knowledge, has lived with this unwanted American attention from its earliest days. In the 1980s, when the late Menahem Begin was prime minister, an odd-looking vehicle sprouting a forest of antennae stood permanently and quite visibly beneath his office window in Jerusalem.
His staff identified it quite frankly as a mobile American listening station. The measures used later were a lot more sophisticated. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials, in their turn, had their e-mails intercepted regularly.
But after 2009, Washington introduced a high-powered, multilayered system of intelligence-gathering – especially against Israel, about which neither Snowden nor the Israelis have been forthcoming. This system had a single narrow focus: to pick up the slightest murmur or clue suggesting that Israel was about to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, which it had threatened to do without prior notice to Washington.
Listening in on the laconic conversations Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held with Ehud Barak was not enough. What the spies were told to look for was out-of-the-way conduct, such as an order placed suddenly for a large quantity of aircraft fuel, or the import of an unusual amount of emergency medical equipment.
At the high noon of this period of mistrust, US officers of the highest ranks began dropping in on Israel with increasingly frequency. Every week to ten days, some many-starred general or fast-talking Pentagon official arrived for a visit. They were told to ferret out any signs of Israel getting ready for an attack on Iran in time for Washington to step in and stop it.
These emissaries had two directives:
1. To maintain a tight grip on the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and other IDF generals and keep them in sight at all times;
2. To pick up on their every nuance of speech or behavior for signals of hidden activity too subtle for monitoring devices to register.
The tempo of these visits tapered off when Washington concluded that Israel had given up on a military strike on Iran at that stage.
However, the spying did not.
debkafile’s intelligence sources report that in recent months Israeli complained to the Obama administration about hotel suites which undercover agents had rented in Jerusalem at sites overlooking a secret military installation frequented by high Israeli officials for their most private consultations. The Netanyahu government asked Washington to stop this underhand surveillance. But meanwhile certain other – less friendly – Western spy agencies had caught on and took suites at the same location.
The conclusion from these incidents is that US clandestine surveillance of Israel is unlikely to stop in the foreseeable future – and not just against key figures and military personnel, but also involving economic and industrial espionage.
To combat the expanding exposure of its secrets, Israel has been introducing “sterile spaces” impenetrable to illicit penetration as well as using tricks to misdirect attention. However, the Americans and other interested parties keep on looking for holes in these barriers – and so the contest goes on.