U.K., U.S. Spy Program Hacked Into Video Feeds on Israeli Drones, Fighter Jets

The program, code-named 'Anarchist,' monitored strikes on Gaza and watched out for a possible strike on Iran, The Intercept reports. Israeli source downplays report.

Archive photo of Israeli Heron TP drone, also known locally as the Eitan.AP

When Israel launched airstrikes on targets in Gaza in January 2008, American and British spies had a bird's-eye view from the aircraft, as part of a classified program meant to keep tabs on Israeli military operations, The Intercept reported Friday.

According to the investigative report, American and British intelligence secretly hacked into video feeds captured by Israeli drones and fighter jets in order to monitor strikes on Gaza, watch out for a possible strike on Iran and monitor Israel's drone technology.

An Israeli source speaking to Haaretz downplayed the report, saying that the revelations weren't "very dramatic."

"Our defense operations weren't harmed," the source said. "It goes without saying that foreign intelligence elements in the Middle East detect our operations, just like we detect the operations of other states in the region."

One of the images, showing an Israeli drone, provided by The Intercept. Screenshot from The Intercept

The classified program, code-named "Anarchist," was run by the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters in collaboratin with the U.S. National Security Agency, and targeted Israeli drones from a Cyprus mountaintop. The report is based on documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The internal GCHQ documents, The Intercept said, included still images from footage recorded by drone cameras, including a series, collected in 2009 and 2010, that appears to show drones carrying missiles. Earlier this month, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to lease Heron TP drones from the Israel Aerospace Industries, noting the UAVs can be armed. 

According to the documents, analysts first collected encrypted video signals from the Troodos mountain rage in Cyprus in 1998. The spy program also targeted drones by Syria and by Hezbollah in Lebanon, although the bulk of the program focused on Israel.  

In 2008, GCHQ ordered Anarchist technicians to monitor drones flying over the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, among other "areas of interest."

“This access is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region,” a GCHQ report from 2008 is quoted as saying. “In times of crisis this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up to the minute information and support to U.S. and Allied operations in the area."

National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, who previously served as minister of intelligence, told Army Radio on Friday that the report didn't come as a surprise.

"We know the Americans spy on the entire world, including us, including their allies," he said. "Nevertheless, it's disappointing, in part due to the fact that we haven't been spying, collecting intelligence or decoding American code for decades."

The latest revelation joins a series of reports on espionage between Israel and the U.S. in recent years. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. maintained surveillance on Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during nuclear negotiations with Iran. According the report, President Barack Obama ordered the surveillance, which received congressional support.

Last June, the WSJ reported that a computer spy virus believed to be linked to Israel targeted three European hotels just before each hosted negotiations between Iran and world powers over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. In 2013, leaked documents revealed the U.S. and U.K. hacked into senior Israeli officials' email accounts in 2009, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak.