Courageous American journalist Glenn Greenwald had another massive scoop this week, revealing a secret agreement that American spy agency the NSA made with Israel.
A memorandum of understanding between the NSA and Israel’s equivalent agency (which the Guardian published in full), provided to Greenwald by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, shows that American spies share raw intelligence with the Israelis.
Israel receives “raw Sigint” – signals intelligence – from the NSA. Normally, such raw data would be “minimised” before being shared with foreign agencies – so data pertaining to US persons (citizens, permanent residents or corporations) would have to be redacted.
But the memo shows that the Americans agreed to allow Israel to hold such unredacted data on file for up to a year. The Israeli signals intelligence agency is even allowed to share this raw intelligence with “outside parties” (presumably other Israeli government agencies), provided it gets permission from the NSA’s representative in Israel.
The memo makes clear that the terms under which Israel accesses US citizens’ private data also applies to four other countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. So that means Israel is also allowed, under this agreement, to hold UK citizens’ private data for up to a year.
What is “signals intelligence”? The memo spells it out: “transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice and Digital Network Intelligence (DNI) metadata and content”. In other words, the definition includes everything from phone calls and faxes to emails and Skype calls.
Although the memo states that the Israelis agreed not to deliberately target Americans identified in the data, there are no legal enforcement to ensure they stick to this. Indeed, the memo explicitly states that it “is not intended to create any legally enforceable rights and shall not be construed to be either an international agreement or a legally binding instrument according to international law”.
However, as I pointed out previously in this column, when Greenwald first began revealing Snowden’s documents in June, it seems unlikely that Israel has direct access to PRISM – the NSA’s massive global internet spying system, previously uncovered by other leaked documents from, Snowden.
This newly revealed memo seems to suggest that rather than sharing direct access to PRISM with Israel (as it does with GCHQ, Britain’s signals spy agency), to a certain extent, NSA instead picks and chooses the data it shares with Israel – presumably including some collected via the PRISM system.
The memo is an interesting document. On one hand, Israel is given an astonishingly free hand with the private data of American, British and other citizens, including vast amounts of emails and other electronic communications.
On the other hand, as Greenwald points out, the text of the memo does suggest some underlying tensions between the American and the Israeli sides. When the memo was being formulated in March 2009, it was agreed “in principle” to protect information on US persons (implying Israel had previously used it with impunity) and that it was “determined that more formalized training was needed”.
In other documents revealed by Snowden, Israel is revealed to be one of the top targets for American counter-intelligence operations which are “strategically focused against [the] priority targets of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel,” according to documents Snowden shared with the Washington Post.
This means Israel is spying on America – it’s biggest ally — more than most other states in the world.
If this was a Facebook friendship, it would be listed as “It’s complicated”.
While this latest revelation does show that America shares an almost shocking level of raw intelligence data with Israel, it also seems to show that the state’s intelligence agencies are not as trusted as, say, British spy agencies – a far more reliable ally it seems.
Because so much of the world’s internet traffic passes through American companies that are known to be directly accessible to the NSA’s PRISM system (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple et al.), GCHQ and NSA could well be reading your emails – should they consider them worthy of the attention. They are almost certainly storing them in any case.
The question now is – how many of them are they passing to Israel?
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.