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Israel likely behind cyber-spy hacking on French president

January 30, 2014 at 1:42 am

Glenn Greenwald is on a roll. This column has followed his historic coverage of Edward Snowden’s leaked National Security Agency documents with great interest. Last week there was another intriguing revelation that implicated Israel.


In a Le Monde article co-written with a French journalist, Greenwald revealed that Israel had almost certainly been behind a May 2012 hacking attempt on the French president’s network.

According to an unnamed expert quoted in Greenwald and Jacques Follorou’s article, the attack “was not part of an act of sabotage… [but aimed] to be permanently installed invisibly at the centre of the Presidency”.

The NSA document revealed by Snowden, and published by Le Monde, does not explicitly state that Israel’s officially sanctioned hackers were behind the attack. However, reading between the lines, it seems fairly certain they were.

After the attack, the French media had speculated that the Turkish or American governments had been behind it. Top men in the French intelligence services demanded an April 2013 meeting at the highest levels of the NSA.

An NSA memo described the preparations for the meeting, even giving American agents a phonetic guide on how to pronounce the names of top French spooks Bernard Barbier and Patrick Pailloux.

If the memo’s author is to be believed, the NSA seemed initially not to have known who was behind the attack.

NSA’s cyber-attack division “TAO asked most of NSA’s close 1st/2nd Party Partners whether they were involved (CIA, GCHQ [Britain], and CSEC [Canada] were the most likely suspects); everyone has denied involvement”.

And then comes the key line. The NSA “intentionally did not ask either the Mossad or the ISNU [Israeli SIGINT National UNIT] whether they were involved as France is not an approved target for joint discussion”.

This is a pretty telling assessment. “First party partners” is a reference to other US spy agencies such as CIA, and the “second party” are those of the other members of the so-called “Five Eyes” — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

According to one analysis of the Snowden revelations to date, Israel does not even fall under the third-party category of “allies” such as France and Germany (who we now know the US routinely spies on across the board) but under the lesser circle of “friends”.

So why would the memo even raise Israel here unless there were serious reasons to suspect their culpability for this attack? It seems that Israeli government hackers did it.

Quite why Israel would want to spy on the French president is uncertain. Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have both been firm friends of Israel — despite cosmetic disagreements that amount to little in practice.

This latest scoop adds to the emerging picture of Israel’s global spying operations and internet warfare we see in the Snowden documents. It is a relatively small glimpse so far.

The main focus of the documents, of course, has been the NSA and its global spying operations.

With the aid of key allies such as the UK’s GCHQ, NSA indiscriminately scoops up billions of emails, phone calls, metadata and other internet communications. The operation is truly unprecedented in world history, and its scale makes the Stasi of the former East German regime look like a pack of cautious amateurs.

There has been a couple of titbits about Israel so far in the documents. As I previously wrote, the most concerning was Greenwald’s revelation that the US passes Israel some of its raw intelligence – data collected by US spies before it has been “minimised” (in other words: removing data pertaining to US or UK citizens).

Another Snowden-leaked document shared with the Washington Post, however, shows that US agencies are concerned about the prospect of Israeli spying – on the United States. American counter-intelligence operations are “strategically focused against [the] priority targets of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel,” said the document.

One of the earliest Snowden revelation revealed the NSA’s “Boundless Informant” system, which apparently aggregates millions of pieces of data snooped by NSA and its allies off of phone and internet lines.

I previously wondered why occupied Palestine and surrounding countries which Israel considers enemy states did not seem to be particularly high priority targets. And I speculated that Israel may run its own, more junior, version of the PRIM snooping system.

Further recent revelations about massive NSA spying on the private calls and internet communications of millions of people in France show that the Snowden documents do still have more detailed breakdowns of the Boundless Informant data for specific countries.

Hopefully, there are more revelations to come about NSA spying in occupied Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and other regional countries. Such revelations should hopefully tell us more about Israeli cyberwarfare and spying.

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.