Recently reported comments made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about the U.S. government's intelligence-sharing practices with Israel, paired with rare public protest last week by members of a secretive Israeli spy unit, are raising new and troubling questions.
The series of developments concerns Snowden's revelation last year that the NSA routinely gave unedited communications of U.S. citizens to Israeli intelligence units, including names and other private information of Arab-Americans and Palestinian-Americans with family in the region, which Snowden told Wired reporter James Bamford in August risked turning their relatives into targets for abuse.
Last week, 43 members of Israel's Unit 8200 accused the organization of harming innocent civilians and using intelligence for political persecution. The reservists told their commanders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu in a letter—written before recent unrest in Gaza—that they refused to "continue serving as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories."
"There's no oversight on methods of intelligence or tracking and the use of intelligence information against the Palestinians, regardless if they are connected to violence or not," the letter read.
It is not yet clear if the information that the reservists say was used to target civilians was provided by the NSA. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Bamford writes:
Among his most shocking discoveries, [Snowden] told me, was the fact that the N.S.A. was routinely passing along the private communications of Americans to a large and very secretive Israeli military organization known as Unit 8200. Mr. Snowden stressed 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.
It appears that Mr. Snowden’s fears were warranted....
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[D]ata were gathered on Palestinians’ sexual orientations, infidelities, money problems, family medical conditions and other private matters that could be used to coerce Palestinians into becoming collaborators or create divisions in their society.
Israeli officials have denied the abuses detailed in the letter. "The intelligence corps has no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place," a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force told the Guardian. "Regarding claims of harm caused to civilians, the IDF maintains a rigorous process which takes into account civilian presence before authorising strikes against targets."
But as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out, "Everything about this is disturbing. There have long been concerns about the NSA and other intelligence agencies using the information they have access to try to coerce innocent people, threatening to embarrass them or reveal secrets."
The NSA's spying programs have faced public scrutiny since the scope of their surveillance, and their routine monitoring of U.S. citizens, was revealed in 2013. Among the documents in the Snowden leak was a memo from General Keith Alexander, then director of the NSA, on the agency tracking which pornographic websites their targets visited, and how that information could be used to damage reputations of "radicalizers."
"It should... trouble Americans that the N.S.A. could head down a similar path in this country," Bamford writes. "Indeed, there is some indication, from a top-secret 2012 document from Mr. Snowden’s leaked files that I saw last year, that it already is."
"While the NSA insisted it never did such things," Masnick continues, "this latest revelation suggests that the NSA clearly enabled the Israelis to do exactly that—often using communications and metadata of Americans, handed over willy-nilly to the Israelis to do just that."