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A look back at what Snowden told the world about the U.S.-Israel relationship

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Edward Snowden remains exiled in Russia. But the former intelligence contractor and National Security Agency-whistleblower has captured headlines in recent weeks, thanks to a confluence of events.

Snowden is the focus of Oliver Stone’s new biopic, aptly called “Snowden,” which focuses on how Snowden went from a right-leaning CIA employee and NSA contractor to an internationally renowned leaker and whistleblower who blew the lid off mass surveillance in the digital age.


Coinciding with the movie is a new campaign, lead by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to convince President Obama to pardon Snowden because he “provided a public service by revealing a secret, global system of mass surveillance that violated the U.S. Constitution and was adopted without the public’s consent,” as the website puts it. And then there was the House Intelligence Committee report on Snowden, which came out around the same time as the movie and pardon campaign. The report harshly criticizes Snowden as a man who did damage to U.S. national security.

Snowden has sparked a fierce debate in the U.S. over the NSA’s mass surveillance of citizens. But he also revealed a great deal about the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Snowden’s leaks provide an unprecedented look at how the U.S. and Israel share intelligence, and also reveal the tensions in the relationship.

With Snowden back in the news, Mondoweiss reviews what he told the world about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Here is a look at those revelations.

  • The Guardian published the first report on the U.S.-Israel relationship based on the Snowden documents in September 2013. The paper revealed that the NSA shares raw signals intelligence, including information about American citizens, with Israel’s Unit 8200, the renowned military intelligence branch of the Israeli army. (Signals intelligence is electronic signals from communication systems, and can include metadata and content from phone calls, e-mails, text messages and more.) While the agreement on intelligence sharing stresses that Israeli agents cannot deliberately target Americans included in the data and have to comply with U.S. privacy laws, there is no legal force behind those commitments. Tellingly, the document does note that any U.S. government communications must be destroyed by Israel if they happen upon it. James Bamford, a journalist who has closely tracked the NSA over the years, wrote that Snowden told him “that the transfer of intercepts to Israel contained the communications — email as well as phone calls — of countless Arab- and Palestinian-Americans whose relatives in Israel and the Palestinian territories could become targets based on the communications.” Read the document here.
  • The roots of the U.S.-Israeli intelligence sharing arrangement go back to 1968, according to a 1999 document published by The Intercept. That year, President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol signed an intelligence exchange agreement. The historical context for this agreement is key: it came one year after Israel defeated a host of Arab armies in the 1967 war, proving to the U.S. that Israel can be a reliable attack dog during the Cold War against enemies allied with the Soviet Union. Another NSA document, snippets of which were published in The Guardian, states that from the late 1990s-2007, the relationship “tilted heavily in favor of Israeli security concerns.” Read the 1999 document here, and read parts of the document noting the “tilt” towards Israeli concerns here.
  • The NSA’s partnership with Israeli intelligence extends beyond just Unit 8200–it also includes intelligence sharing with the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, according to a 2013 NSA document. The NSA and its Israeli partners spy on countries in North Africa and the Middle East, South Asia and the Muslim-majority nations of the former Soviet Union. Read the document here.
  • The Snowden leaks show the depth of cooperation between the NSA and Israeli military intelligence. But they also show the tensions that exist in the relationship. In August 2013, the Washington Post published the $52.6 billion “black budget” for the intelligence community for that fiscal year. (The “black budget” is so named because a detailed budget for intelligence is not disclosed to the public.) That document reveals that U.S. counter-intelligence operations target Israel. Other Snowden documents also reveal tension. The Intercept revealed earlier this year that U.S. and British intelligence hacked into Israeli drone feeds to monitor Israeli incursions into Gaza, to watch out for a potential strike on Iran and find out about Israeli drone technology that it exports to other countries. And then there’s documents on how Israel spies on the U.S. A 2008 NSA document, reported on in The Guardian, states that the Israelis “target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems” and that a National Intelligence Estimate ranked Israel as “the third most aggressive intelligence service against the US.” Read the “black budget” document here; view photos from Israeli drone feeds here; and check out parts of the 2008 NSA document here.
  • In 2003, and 2004, the Israelis wanted to expand the already-robust intelligence sharing relationship with the U.S. The proposal was called “Gladiator,” and, as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald reported, “Israel wanted the Americans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to fund Israeli activities.” Greenwald reported that the proposal never bore fruition–it was “derailed” because Israel wanted the U.S. to pay for the whole thing. But, Greenwald adds, “documents in the Snowden archive pertaining to those negotiations contain what appear to be two receipts for one or more payments of $500,000 in cash to Israeli officials for unspecified purposes.” Read Greenwald’s article that details “Gladiator” here.
Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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