Leaked Classified Memo Reveals U.S.-Israeli Intel Cooperation on Egypt, Iran

Top-secret memo, published by Glenn Greenwald, describes deep exchange of information between NSA and IDF Unit 8200; takes pride in 'success stories.'

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Mohammed Morsi in a court cage wearing prisoner garb.
Mohammed Morsi in a court cage wearing prisoner garb.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

After Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s president in June 2012 with backing from the Muslim Brotherhood, the intelligence communities of the United States and Israel expanded their cooperation to keep an eye on what was happening in Egypt.

With approval from U.S. National Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. (ret.) James R. Clapper, the National Security Agency’s signals intelligence agency gave the Israel Defense Forces' intelligence Unit 8200 the task of providing information about “select strategic issues, specifically terrorist elements in the Sinai.”

This information is included in a highly classified NSA memo from April 2013 published Monday morning on The Intercept, the website run by Glenn Greenwald, a partner of Edward Snowden. Snowden had worked in the service of the NSA, during which he gathered American intelligence documents that he subsequently leaked.

Since the memo was written during Morsi’s term in office, before the military coup that overthrew him and led to the presidency of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, it does not tell us whether the exchanges of information about the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and about which Israel’s intelligence-gathering capabilities have been restricted – still continue.

When the document in question was written, Gen. Keith Alexander was in charge of the NSA, and Brig. Gen. Nadav Zafrir was commander of Unit 8200.

The memo was only distributed to the two countries that had signed it, and not to other members of the Anglo-Saxon Five Eyes alliance: Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It details the intelligence relationship between the NSA and Israel, and updates a previous version of a document that Snowden published last year.

The depth of the bilateral cooperation is reflected, among other things, in a term used to describe Unit 8200's task to carry out espionage in Egypt: "tasking" – meaning collection of vital information, as is usual among agencies belonging to the same intelligence community.

According to the document, which describes significant, joint intelligence successes such as those involving the Iranian nuclear program, “NSA maintains a far-reaching technical and analytic relationship with the Israeli SIGINT National Unit [i.e., Unit 2800], sharing information on access, intercept, targeting, language, analysis and reporting. This SIGINT relationship has increasingly been the catalyst for a broader intelligence relationship between the United States and Israel. Significant changes in the way NSA and ISNU have traditionally approached SIGINT have prompted an expansion to include other Israeli and U.S. intelligence organizations such as CIA, Mossad, and Special Operation Division (SOD)" – the latter is evidently a reference to the Pentagon term for the special operations department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

Most of the bilateral intelligence cooperation, if not all of it, concentrates on “targets in the Middle East which constitute strategic threats to U.S. and Israeli interests. Building upon a robust analytic exchange, NSA and ISNU also have explored and executed unique opportunities to gain access to high priority targets. The mutually agreed upon geographic targets include the countries of North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and the Islamic republics of the Former Soviet Union," according to the memo.

"Within that set of countries, cooperation covers the exploitation of internal government, military, civil, and diplomatic communications; and external security/intelligence organizations. Regional Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and 'Stateless'/International Terrorism comprise the exchanged transnational target set. A dedicated communications line between NSA and ISNU supports the exchange of raw material, as well as daily analytic and technical correspondence. Both NSA and ISNU have liaison officers, who conduct foreign relations functions, stationed at their respective embassies [Washington and Tel Aviv].”

The memo continues: “The Israeli side enjoys the benefits of expanded geographic access to world-class NSA cryptanalytic and SIGINT engineering expertise, and also gains controlled access to advanced U.S. technology and equipment via accommodation buys and foreign military sales.

“Benefits to the U.S. include expanded geographic access to high priority SIGINT targets, access to world-class Israeli cryptanalytic and SIGINT engineering expertise, and access to a large pool of highly qualified analysts.”

The author of the memo — the country desk officer of the NSA’s Foreign Affairs Directorate — took pride in what he called “success stories.” First among them was “the Iranian nuclear development program, followed by Syrian nuclear efforts, Lebanese Hezbollah plans and intentions, Palestinian terrorism, and Global Jihad. Several recent and successful joint operations between NSA and ISNU have broadened both organizations’ ability to target and exploit Iranian nuclear efforts. In addition, a robust and dynamic crypanalytic relationship has enabled breakthroughs on high priority Iranian targets.

“NSA and ISNU continue to initiate joint targeting of Syrian and Iranian leadership and nuclear development programs with CIA, ISNU, SOD and Mossad. This exchange has been particularly important as unrest in Syria continues, and both sides work together to identify threats to regional stability. NSA’s cyber partnerships expanded beyond ISNU to include Israeli Defense Intelligence’s SOD and Mossad, resulting in unprecedented access and collection breakthroughs that all sides acknowledge would not have been possible to achieve without the others.”

In September 2011, NSA and Unit 8200 also signed a memo of understanding for cooperation in communications and cyber realms. In January 2012, one of Gen. Alexander’s deputies visited Tel Aviv and specified the NSA’s targets in those fields: cyber threats from Iran, Hezbollah and other elements in the region. In exchange, the NSA would provide Israel with “limited, focused support on specific Russian and Chinese cyber threats.” Additional talks “to further develop this partnership” were held in May and December 2012.

Moreover, under the heads of NSA and Unit 8200, encrypted video communication was inaugurated between both intelligence communities “that allows both sides to broaden and accelerate the pace of collaboration against targets’ use of advanced telecommunications. Target sets include, but are not limited to, Iran nuclear, Syrian foreign fighter movements, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps activities.”

According to the section of the memo entitled “Problems/Challenges:” “The three most common concerns raised by ISNU regarding the partnership with NSA is NSA’s reluctance to share on technology that is not directly related to a specific target, the ISNU’s perceived reduction in the amount and degree of cooperation in certain areas, and the length of time NSA takes to decide on ISNU proposals. Efforts in these three areas have been addressed with the partner and NSA continues to work to increase cooperation with ISNU, where appropriate and mindful of U.S. policy and equity concerns.”

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