Why Snowden Hasn't Harmed Israel's Intelligence Services

There was an expectation that the Snowden documents would yield details on Israel's electronic surveillance capabilities, yet Glenn Greenwald has barely reported on Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Edward Snowden is seen in this still image taken from video during an interview by The Guardian, June 6, 2013.
Edward Snowden is seen in this still image taken from video during an interview by The Guardian, June 6, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For over a year now, Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) systems administrator who fled to Russia, has been distributing through the media part of the hundreds of thousands of classified documents he took with him. Many of these reports have seriously damaged the operations of American and British intelligence services. On Monday, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who cooperated with Snowden and wrote most of the reports based on his documents, published on the Intercept website new details on the close cooperation between NSA and its Israeli counterpart - the IDF's Unit 8200. This is only the second time in which the Snowden documents have referred to Israel.

Then report is fascinating and sheds new light on the way Israeli and American intelligence work together on joint targets in the region and elsewhere, in this case Egypt under the previous Muslim Brotherhood government. But it didn't tell us anything we didn't know before. The two countries have a long history of intelligence-sharing which has continued to deepen despite the political pitfalls and lack of personal chemistry between the heads of state. The new details Greenwald adds on the direct line between headquarters, the joint projects against Iran (partly funded by the U.S.) and the use of each other's installations are interesting but hardly surprising.

What is surprising is the paucity of mentions of Israel in the flow of Snowden documents. The two reports so far describe the contours of the US-Israel intelligence relationship but unlike the documents on the electronic intelligence-gathering by the U.S. and its ally, Britain, there have been no reports on actual details of Israel's surveillance methods and its penetration of communication networks. The revelations of eavesdropping programs of the NSA and Britain's GCHQ have caused immense damage to their countries ability to follow potential terror targets and gather information through phone and internet networks. They have lead to acrimonious debates in the west over the line between national security and intrusion on civilians' privacy. The damage done to the intelligence services from the disclosure of their methods to keep tabs on terror organizations is assessed by the NSA at billions of dollars.

Due to the close NSA-Unit 8200 cooperation, there was an expectation that the Snowden documents would yield similar details on Israel's electronic surveillance capabilities. But in the thirteen months since they started to appear, we've yet to read any operational details. The timing of this week's report was meant to embarrass the Obama administration for working with Israel while the Gaza operation was ongoing but in a tense period for the diplomatic relations between Washington and Jerusalem, a reminder of the closeness between their intelligence services boosts Israel's international standing.

Why hasn't Greenwald published any damaging details on Israel's eavesdropping techniques, as he has on the U.S. and Britain? There are four possible reasons.

So many documents, so little time - Snowden hoovered up as many as 1.7 million classified documents, according to some estimates. It's unclear whether this figure is accurate and how many of them have been handed to Greenwald and other journalists, but in every interview, Greenwald promises there are many more revelations to come that will embarrass the NSA. His new and well-funded website was founded mainly upon that promise. It's possible that the Israeli chapter is still to come. And yet, it seems unlikely that Greenwald, who has been a constant and coruscating critic of Israel in his columns over the years, would hold back if he had anything that could harm its intelligence services. Especially as there are other competing journalists with access to some of the documents and any report on Israel's spying activities is guaranteed click-bait.

Special classification - In the months before he fled for Russia, Snowden accumulated as many documents as he could put his hands on. He used passwords of work colleagues to obtain those he had no access to. If he failed in purloining documents relating to joint operations with Israel, of the kind he found on the U.S. and Britain, it would indicate that Israel-related material is stored under a higher classification and different level of total compartmentalization from most NSA employees. This could be due to Israeli requirements or an American attempt to keep these operations separate from its core operations out of concern of Israeli spying. Snowden who showed great creativity in storing up his secret cache would be aware of the value of such material yet he seems to have failed to breach that particular wall of secrecy.

Under threat - There is no evidence but at least one European intelligence analyst has wondered over the last year whether Israel has found a way to pressure either Snowden or Greenwald not to publish damaging details on Israel's capabilities. "It's impossible to believe that Snowden discovered so much about American and British networks yet found so little on Israel," says the analyst who has devoted months to studying Snowden's intelligence heist. "The only explanation I can think of is that Israel found a creative way to get to Snowden or Greenwald and convince them not to use these documents."

Russian interests – Snowden has lived in Moscow for the last year, since escaping there via Hong Kong. Western intelligence agencies are convinced that he and almost certainly his stolen documents are now controlled by the Kremlin's spies, though they're still unsure whether he was in their service (perhaps unwittingly) before he arrived in Russia. The Kremlin has a clear interest in damaging the American and British intelligence-gathering networks as the old Cold War rivalries swiftly reemerge in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The embarrassment and anger caused in the west by Snowden's revelations and the public suspicion of the governments' intrusion into civilians' privacy, have certainly served Russia, which intrudes on its own citizens to a much larger degree, well. Israel's relationship with the Kremlin is much more opaque.

Despite the strategic relationship with the U.S., successive Israeli governments have steadfastly refrained from criticizing Russia for its arms shipments to Syria, its nuclear assistance of Iran and most recently the invasion and annexation of Crimea. Snowden serves Russian interests and the fact that he has so far not published any documents damaging Israel's intelligence operations could be a result of the careful efforts by Jerusalem to build quite links with Moscow since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Glenn Greenwald speaks at a book discussion in Washington, D.C., May 14, 2014.Credit: AFP

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