Intelligence Report:Demystifying sigint

Israel need not be concerned by the possibility that the US is spying on Israel, says a former senior Intelligence officer.

“I don't know if the Americans are listening to our communications,” Hanan Gefen, a retired Intelligence Corps brigadier general tells The Jerusalem Report. “But do they really need to listen to us? “Of course, they have the capability of doing it. They have the Sixth Fleet operating in the Mediterranean. They have reconnaissance flights. They have satellites and they have land stations,” says Gefen.
“Cooperation between the two countries and their intelligence communities is very close. The shared interests are almost identical, certainly regarding the war on terror, Iran and other issues. The Americans have very good access to the Israeli establishment – cabinet ministers, Members of Knesset, the media. There are frequent meetings between military and intelligence personnel of the two countries and an intimate strategic dialogue. Thus, the US has no shortage of information about what is happening to us. So should they bother to listen to us?”
Still, there are areas of dispute between Washington and Jerusalem?
“This is true. But as I stressed, they know almost everything they need to know about us. They have great technological capabilities, but do they really need to use them against us? I don’t think so. Therefore, I don’t think we should be concerned if the US is bugging and intercepting our communications traffic. And if America is doing it after all, it should be our smallest concern.”
Who should worry us?
“Above all, Iran. My impression is that Iran has tremendously improved its capabilities in the field of technological intelligence. A testimony of its improving capabilities is their impressive achievements in cyber warfare. Iran has been the prime suspect for cyber attacks against Saudi Arabia in the last year, culminating in the forced shutdown for awhile of Aramco’s [Saudi Arabia’s largest oil company] computers, which affected oil production, and also assaults on US banking and financial institutions. If this is the Iranian cyber performance, we in Israel ought to reach the conclusion that their signals intelligence, SIGINT, which is directed against us, is also good. And if Iran is involved in some innovative measures, sooner or later its protégé, Hezbollah, will have them too”.
Who else is using SIGINT to listen to Israel?
“Russia, of course, which also has satellites and airplanes, and ships in the Mediterranean, and maybe China, which is an emerging super power. But the Chinese are mainly interested in obtaining economic and technological data.”
Signals intelligence is the capability to intercept various types of electronic and communications signals, to listen to them, and, if needed, to decipher them. It is an intelligence-gathering measure aimed at collecting all communication relayed by people and machines using phones (landlines or cellular, including text messages), faxes, radios and computers (emails, chat rooms, Skype) and all other forms of digital and social media.
Gefen knows what he is talking about.
He served for nearly 30 years in a variety of roles as an intelligence officer. Most of his time was spent with Unit 8200, which can be compared to the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s General Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). For four years, beginning in 1993, Gefen was the unit’s commander.
Later, he served as military attaché in China; and for the past 10 years or so, he has worked as a private consultant to Israeli intelligence-related hi-tech firms and subcontractors.
My interview with him was triggered by the sensational revelations of Edward Snowden about the NSA’s worldwide espionage operations, which, if we believe him, are targeting foes and friends alike.
Whatever Snowden’s motives may have been – whether he is a real whistleblower with democratic values on his agenda, or a confused person with a troubling personality, or a traitor to his country – one thing is clear to Gefen. “The NSA gatekeepers, its field security officers and Snowden’s employers failed big time,” he says.
Snowden worked as a low-level IT (Information Technology) technicianinspector for Booz Allen Hamilton, an American technology consulting firm, which provides services to the US government, including NSA. In 2012, he resigned from the company, taking with him secret materials that later he shared with the British Guardian and other leading international newspapers.
His revelations included the claim that NSA bugged the private cellular phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other unnamed world leaders. One of them might have been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I assume Snowden downloaded a huge amount of magnetic data relevant to NSA intelligence collection, its cooperation with friendly security services and information regarding gag orders issued by US Courts to target suspects in terrorism,” Geffen says.
But we have read that not only terrorists were targeted. World leaders of US allies like Merkel were among the victims.
“Bugging her phone? It does not make sense to me. I read Snowden’s document that is relevant to this affair. It is an internal memo from 2006, exchanged between two low-key NSA intelligence desk officials.
In it, one of them is boasting that he had received from another US official a list of 200 phone numbers, of which 34 belonged to world leaders. My intelligence experience tells me that the NSA wanted to verify the phone numbers and make sure that they were the correct ones and that the persons on the other side of the line were indeed the respective leaders.”
What you are saying is that probably it was more of a test rather than a serious long-term bugging operation, right?
“Exactly. There is a long way between verification and bugging. One has to understand that on German soil, there are American military bases and airfields and American servicemen who have been targeted in the past by terrorists. It is only reasonable for US intelligence to try to defend them and expose terrorist plots against them. It is the duty of US intelligence to obtain and collect maximum relevant information by all means – by cooperating with German security agencies as well as by independent work. And since there is a great deal of cooperation between the US and Germany within the framework of NATO and on bilateral issues, I don’t see the logic in bugging Merkel’s phone.”
Nevertheless the revelations have caused great damage to US relations with Germany, France, Spain and its other allies.
“No doubt about that. But it is limited damage. Because of his low-level position, Snowden did not get to see the contents of real gems of intelligence. For example, he got his hands on a memo detailing a bugging operation against a terrorist or state officials, but he did not see and did not have the transcript of what was said in that intercepted conversation.
“In this affair, there are three major players: the media, the politicians and the intelligence agencies. The media are celebrating and even fueling the fire. Sure, they are raising important questions about the delicate balance between democracy and security and the invasion of privacy. I can also understand the game played by the politicians, each according to his ideology and worldview. This is understandable and fine with me, though sometimes a great deal of hypocrisy is manifested.”
In what way?
“In the way the politicians pretend to be surprised. They know that almost every country that has SIGINT capabilities is trying to maximize its collection efforts.
Western world leaders are warned by their security chiefs that their communicationsmight be bugged and they certainly take precautions – not out of fear of potential US operations, but mainly because the Russians are at work. So what are they making a big fuss about? They are now under pressure from the media and public opinion in their respective countries.”
And the third player – the intelligence communities?
“I tend to believe that the security services aren’t taking the affair too seriously. They know that SIGINT is an important tool in the war against terrorism. There are intimate relations between the NSA and the equivalent units of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the EU and other allies, such as Japan, South Korea, Israel and other nations. I have no doubt that soon after the dust of this scandal settles, all parties involved will be back to square one – the ‘good’ guys will soon return to go after the ‘bad’ guys – cooperating in the war against global terrorism and other shared interests with exactly the same means and technologies.”
Though Gefen admits that excessive surveillance might have been used by the NSA, one has to understand the reasoning for it.
“It is rooted,” he says, “in the 9/11 intelligence failure. The US found out that its own security services were not talking to each other and were not sharing information. As a result, a decision was made to restructure the intelligence community, to invest huge budgets in order to make sure that another terror attack of the same scale would not be repeated, and to change the law.”
Gefen adds that during the Bush administration, and as part of its war on global terrorism, NSA was permitted to intercept phone calls inside the US. “Let me make myself clear,” he says. “The new legislation did not permit listening to American citizens, but it did permit it to intercept and collect the communication in NSA libraries and archives.”
For what purposes?
“In case they suspect a US citizen at home or abroad is involved directly or indirectly in a terrorist plot. What happens is that the authorities go to special courts authorized to deal with security matters and ask to be issued a warrant to conduct surveillance against the suspect. When they are equipped with the court order, they can then to go to the archives and see if the suspect’s communication has already been intercepted; and if it has, the investigators can learn a great deal about his past patterns and behavior.”
It sounds like George Orwell’s Big Brother has become reality?
“Yes it does. But we should not forget that we are in a war on global terrorism.
Terrorists are sophisticated; they have a lot of electronic means and take advantage of modern communications. They can plot attacks by communicating with each other via a landline, a cellular phone, a fax machine; they can send text messages using WhatsApp, Viber, SMS, emails, Facebook, LinkedIn and many other social networks. They can use Internet cafés and create their own codes. The world had to fight back and invent ways to follow the terrorists and monitor them. In that regard, I have only admiration for the NSA and its innovative ways to penetrate and monitor and put suspects under surveillance.”
How would you rate Unit 8200 in comparison?
“I want to be modest. NSA is really in a league of its own. But we have nothing to be ashamed of.”