The top secret PowerPoint presentation on PRISM prepared for NSA analysts.
The top secret PowerPoint presentation on PRISM prepared for NSA analysts. Photo by Haaretz
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U.S. President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in San Jose, Calif. , Friday, June 7, 2013. Photo by AP

Were Israeli companies Verint and Narus the ones that collected information from the U.S. communications network for the National Security Agency?

The question arises amid controversy over revelations that the NSA has been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans every day, creating a database through which it can learn whether terror suspects have been in contact with people in the United States. It also was disclosed this week that the NSA has been gathering all Internet usage - audio, video, photographs, emails and searches - from nine major U.S. Internet providers, including Microsoft and Google, in hopes of detecting suspicious behavior that begins overseas.

According to an article in the American technology magazine "Wired" from April 2012, two Israeli companies – which the magazine describes as having close connections to the Israeli security community – conduct bugging and wiretapping for the NSA.

Verint, which took over its parent company Comverse Technology earlier this year, is responsible for tapping the communication lines of the American telephone giant Verizon, according to a past Verizon employee sited by James Bamford in Wired. Neither Verint nor Verizon commented on the matter.

Natus, which was acquired in 2010 by the American company Boeing, supplied the software and hardware used at AT&T wiretapping rooms, according to whistleblower Mark Klein, who revealed the information in 2004. Klein, a past technician at AT&T who filed a suit against the company for spying on its customers, revealed a "secret room" in the company's San Fransisco office, where the NSA collected data on American citizens' telephone calls and Internet surfing.

Klein's claims were reinforced by former NSA employee Thomas Drake who testified that the agency uses a program produced by Narus to save the personal electrical communications of AT&T customers. 

Both Verint and Narus have ties to the Israeli intelligence agency and the Israel Defense Forces intelligence-gathering unit 8200. Hanan Gefen, a former commander of the 8200 unit, told Forbes magazine in 2007 that Comverse's technology, which was formerly the parent company of Verint and merged with it this year, was directly influenced by the technology of 8200. Ori Cohen, one of the founders of Narus, told Fortune magazine in 2001 that his partners had done technology work for the Israeli intelligence.

International intel

The question of whether intelligence communities outside the United States were involved has been raised. According to The Guardian, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain's intelligence agency, secretly collected intelligence information from the world's largest Internet companies via the American program PRISM. According to a top secret document obtained by The Guardian, GCHQ had access to PRISM since 2010 and it used the information to prepare 197 intelligence reports last year. In a statement to the Guardian, GCHQ, said it "takes its obligations under the law very seriously."

According to The Guardian, details of GCHQ's use of PRISM are set out in a 41-page PowerPoint presentation prepared for senior NSA analysts, and describe a "snooping" operation that gave the NSA and FBI access to the systems of nine Internet giants, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.

Given the close ties between U.S. and Israeli intelligence, the question arises as to whether Israeli intelligence, including the Mossad, was party to the secret.

Obama stands by spies

At turns defensive and defiant, U.S. President Barack Obama stood by the spy programs revealed this week.

He declared Friday that his country is "going to have to make some choices" balancing privacy and security, launching a vigorous defense of formerly secret programs that sweep up an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day and amass Internet data from U.S. providers in an attempt to thwart terror attacks.

Obama also warned that it will be harder to detect threats against the United States now that the two top-secret tools to target terrorists have been so thoroughly publicized.

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama assured the nation after two days of reports that many found unsettling. What the government is doing, he said, is digesting phone numbers and the durations of calls, seeking links that might "identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism." If there's a hit, he said, "if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation."

Tapping thwarted terror attack

While Obama said the aim of the programs is to make America safe, he offered no specifics about how the surveillance programs have done this. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., on Thursday said the phone records sweeps had thwarted a domestic terror attack, but he also didn't offer specifics.

U.S. government sources said on Friday that the attack in question was an Islamist militant plot to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009.

Obama asserted his administration had tightened the phone records collection program since it started in the George W. Bush administration and is auditing the programs to ensure that measures to protect Americans' privacy are heeded - part of what he called efforts to resist a mindset of "you know, `Trust me, we're doing the right thing. We know who the bad guys are.'"

But again, he provided no details on how the program was tightened or what the audit is looking at.

Obama: 100% privacy is impossible

The furor this week has divided Congress, and led civil liberties advocates and some constitutional scholars to accuse Obama of crossing a line in the name of rooting out terror threats.

Obama, himself a constitutional lawyer, strove to calm Americans' fears - but also remind them that Congress and the courts had signed off on the surveillance.

"I think the American people understand that there are some trade-offs involved," Obama said when questioned by reporters at a health care event in San Jose, California.

"It's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," he said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity."

Obama said U.S. intelligence officials are looking at phone numbers and lengths of calls - not at people's names - and not listening in.

The two classified surveillance programs were revealed this week in newspaper reports that showed, for the first time, how deeply the National Security Agency dives into telephone and Internet data to look for security threats. The new details were first reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post, and prompted Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to take the unusual and reluctant step of acknowledging the programs' existence.

Obama echoed intelligence experts - both inside and outside the government - who predicted that potential attackers will find other, secretive ways to communicate now that they know that their phone and Internet records may be targeted.