NSA eavesdropping on allies: Is Israel also being spied on or in on the spying?

Israel knows it is a victim, does all it can to limit NSA spying and believes the Europeans are overreacting.

Man with computer 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
Man with computer 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
Amid reports that the US National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the personal conversations of as many as 35 world leaders, including major allies like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, all sorts of perspectives are emerging about Israel’s possible role in the situation.
Based on the latest revelations from former NSA agent Edward Snowden’s files, most of the world has been delving into the questions of did US President Barack Obama know about the full extent of the program or not and how much of it has he halted.
But Israel-focused commentary has both emphasized Israel’s role as a “victim” of American spying, but as the cautious ally who avoids US surveillance better than others; and as the “aggressor” who allegedly infiltrated the communications of France’s Élysée Palace.
Those who say that Israel is one of the NSA’s many victims take a different tone though than the Europeans.
Germany, France and others are demanding that the US sign a new non-spying pact, threatening otherwise to limit counterterror cooperation.
Israeli commentators and some former intelligence officers are expressing puzzlement that the Europeans are surprised.
According to this version of events, all allies spy on each other all the time, and Israelis are particularly cautious about using secure lines as opposed to cellphones, not because they are most afraid of Iranian spies, but to avoid the NSA listening in.
In this account, Israel knows it is a victim, lives with it as “part of the game” in intelligence, does all it can to limit NSA spying and believes the Europeans are overreacting.
Then again there has not been a report yet about the NSA listening in on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s calls.
The Israel as “aggressor” narrative cites a Le Monde report last week that produced a document in which NSA officials briefed French intelligence that neither they nor four other close allies had breached the Élysée’s communications, but then hinted to the French that Israel could have been responsible.
Next, this narrative cites a five-page document, titled “Memorandum of Understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart (the ISNU),” disclosed by The Guardian in September, which indicated that the US sends “unminimized” communications to Israel, including that of US citizens.
“Unminimized” means ignoring the various safeguards the NSA usually follows when analyzing these communications, including a process of filtering out all extraneous information not relevant to national security.
Although the document formally obligates Israel to observe the same safeguards, it does not cite any enforcement mechanism or concrete “teeth” to ensure compliance (though Israel does have several obligations to report certain issues to an NSA liaison). In fact, to keep the agreement classified and keep it away from international judicial bodies, the document specifically says it has no “legally enforceable rights,” it is not an “international agreement” and it is not “legally binding” under “international law.”
Technically, this five-page document has nothing to do with Israel aggressively listening in on foreign leaders’ cellphones.
But a byproduct of the agreement could be an unofficial partnership in which the US and Israel jointly set up listening capabilities (since Israel has massive access to communications collected by the US), with Israel doing the review on the US’s behalf so that the US has plausible deniability.
Some anti-Israel commentators have not surprisingly latched onto the latest reports and other claimed but unverified “reports” of Israeli spying on US telecommunications companies, leaping to the conclusion that the reports are “proof” of an undefined US-Israel-American Jews conspiracy, in which Israel and American Jews “direct” US policy regarding Israel.
One angle that has not (yet) been jumped on is if the current revelations of US spying on allies might have implications for the fate of Jonathan Pollard.
So is Israel a victim or an aggressor?
In intelligence, the real answer, like for most countries, is often to some extent both, and the complete answer, in spite of Snowden’s best efforts, is likely never to see the light of day.