Analysis | Trust Google and Not the Pentagon?

The Outcry Over PRISM, and the Question Over an Israeli Connection

There are reports that Israeli high-tech companies may have helped collect communications intel on Americans for the NSA. But if Obama wants to stop those planning terror attacks, he needs intelligence.

George Washington rode a horse and never used a smartphone. Americans don't have identification papers (and thus it is easier to demand that they identify themselves abroad, where they are required to carry passports). The government is nefariously attempting to invade the privacy of its citizens, subjugate them and turn them over to the UN's world government.

The first two statements are factual. The third, the conspiratorial one, is typical of the American right-wing fringe, located somewhere between the fringes of the Republican Party and the Tea Party group.  In a country of 310 million citizens, such fringes can contain several million people. They are ideologically opposed to the idea of encroachment on the space of the individual, wary that the slippery slope will lead to a thought police.

Once there was Fortress America, impervious to blows from abroad; at most, some far outpost in the Pacific was attacked, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Then, intercontinental missiles, aircraft hijackers and electronic warfare  jumped the fortress wall. A great deal of information is needed to thwart attacks, or catch the people who perpetrate them. The policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations for storing this information in order to use it for offensive and defensive action gave rise to PRISM, as revealed by the British daily The Guardian. PRISM gives security, intelligence and law enforcement officials access to people’s phone conversations (or dialogues via Skype and others) and to computer users.

After the initial excitement, the anticipated criticism and the unapologetic justification by Obama, it is not clear what all the fuss is about (it is clearer what the money will be spent on, about $20 million a year, according to a slide from an internal presentation of one of the administration briefings, published by The Guardian.)  Every phone subscriber or email user assumes that their data is being stored by the communications company and the service provider, as it is in banks, credit card companies and many other bodies. These commercial entities can be trusted not to sell the clients’ secrets, not to reveal them without permission – and the government, who seeks to protect national infrastructure and the wellbeing of its citizens, is suspected of malicious motives?

The immediacy of danger to electric, banking, transportation and communications networks could be that it might be not always be possible to follow protocol in obtaining presidential approval. And so a memorandum on Obama’s communications operations was distributed to 18 different agencies in the administration, including Vice President Joe Biden and White House officials, various departments (defense, justice, treasury, state and homeland security) and various intelligence agencies and the military. In case of emergency, powers to thwart an attack are delegated.

The focus is the Pentagon, in which the National Security Agency operates, the equivalent of the Israel’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200. The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, is also one of the heads of the cyber command, which belongs to the strategic command and coordinates the cyber units with the Air Force, Navy and ground forces. This mixed multitude of agencies requires complex coordination. Oversight is also required by the legislative and judicial branches. From responses of Republican senators who were privy to PRISM and approved it, ideologically and in terms of budget, it emerges that neither Bush nor Obama made any effort to ignore the obligation to obtain judicial orders and Congressional approval. 

PRISM's objective was well explained in a video broadcast of one of Leon Panetta's assistants, during Obama's first term. If the search for those planning and those carrying out terrorist acts is like looking for a needle in a haystack, then, he said, first one must have a haystack. A mass of data is being assembled and stored waiting for the moment when it is needed so it can be sifted through and the needle can be retrieved using data-mining tools.

The public outcry over PRISM is typical of Americans. The pendulum swings sharply back and forth – as with the issue of the barriers between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation before 9/11 – to protect the rights of the hijackers. And as usual, there is an Israeli connection. Some people are quick to point out that the world leaders in communication surveillance technology and data-mining are companies that embrace the heritage of the MI’s units for intelligence-gathering, code-breaking and now-cyber warfare, among them Verint and Comverse.

In Israel itself, a distinction has to be made between the work of the Shin Bet security service to thwart espionage and terror attacks, and the uncovering and investigation of crime by the police and a host of other investigative agencies, all of which seek permission from the court for communications surveillance. They also purchase communication data from telephone companies such as the identity of certain subscribers in lists belonging to organizations, locations of antennae and the presence of cellphones at crime scenes.

The largest consumer of this information, Israel Police, has a signal intelligence unit, and up to the end of the last decade had shelled out some NIS 16 million a year to communications companies. Following public criticism of the exorbitant costs and the concern that investigations are not completed out of economic considerations, the cost of annual contracts were cut in half.

That is the difference between fighting terror and fighting crime, and perhaps the difference between power and the treasury in each country. The Americans call it PRISM, and go on to Google and Facebook and their phone companies, paying tens of millions of dollars and copying the whole inventory. In Israel, under the simple heading  “communications research,” an investigating officer has to persuade his superiors that the material is really essential for the case. Only then, if the offender has not yet confessed and turned in his partners in crime, and the keeper of the purse allows it, they go shopping and buy what they need.

Bloomberg