What the Latest Snowden Leaks Tell Us About the Israel-Russia Relationship

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Edward Snowden on a screen as he speaks via video conference at another event earlier this month. Credit: Reuters

One day, perhaps decades from now, when the full story of the efforts made by the United States and other nations to find out if and when Israel was planning to attack Iran’s nuclear program, and if need be to prevent the operation from being carried out, a number of reputations will take a serious hit. But until that story can be told, we have to make do with tidbits. Such as the latest revelation from the cache of U.S. National Security Agency files stolen by its former employee Edward Snowden.

The details which were published at the end of last week on the Intercept website of Snowden’s accomplice, Glenn Greenwald, and simultaneously in Germany by Der Spiegel and in the Israeli tabloid Yedioth Aharonoth, are fascinating in themselves but tell us very little we did not now or could surmise before. Perhaps, the most telling feature is the name chosen for the joint American-British operation – “Anarchist.” This name encapsulates the fear in western governments of an Israeli strike on Iran, that they believed Israel could plunge the region, and perhaps them as well into anarchy. It’s easy to imagine who the anarchist was, from their perspective. 

But the fact that the two nation’s signal intelligence (SIGINT) services, NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) were tracking, per Snowden, flight-paths of Israeli combat aircraft, drones and even missiles, and found ways to crack their encrypted communications back to base, is hardly remarkable. Unlike the superlatives in the reporting, particularly in Yedioth Aharonoth, this isn’t really spying or a hostile act of espionage and certainly not “breaking in to Israel’s holy of holies” as the tabloid describes it. As one former member of Israel’s intelligence community said over the weekend, “when a plane or a missile is in the air, everyone is going to be tracking it and trying to find out what it is saying – no one expects anything else. We’re tracking them, they’re tracking us.”

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

Despite the way some of the reports portrayed this, Operation Anarchist is not a sign of the deterioration in U.S.-Israel or Israel-U.K. relations, it is simply what militaries and intelligence-collecting agencies do on a daily basis, against friend and foe. 

Neither was this some monumental fashla (cock-up) of the Israeli Air Force, who had to be aware that the Americans, anxious for any indication that Israel was on the warpath, were tracking them. Israel has various channels of coordination with the British bases in Cyprus, in recent years they have only intensified, they were most likely aware that the radar and listening devices on the nearby island could also be used to keep tabs on them. There have been suggestions that the success in cracking the encrypted communications was an operational-security lapse on the Israeli side, this may be the case, but the shared resources of NSA and GCHQ, with their super-computers, dozens of satellites, hundreds of listening posts around the globe and thousands of analysts represent the most formidable SIGINT operation in the world – it’s hardly a failure if they succeed in hacking you. 

As has usually been the case with many of the Snowden revelations, what is more interesting than the substance of what he and his partners have published, is the when and the why. Two-and-a-half years since Snowden absconded, many believe defected, first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he lives to this day, this is the first significant report from his trove relating to Israel. So why is it coming out now?

The not entirely consistent narrative of Snowden and Greenwald has been that hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million of, files he hoovered up before absconding, are no longer in his hands and are now being mined for nuggets of journalistic value. Most western intelligence agencies believe that the Russians have received some kind of control or access to the files, in return for shielding Snowden (Greenwald has denied this strenuously) and suspect that the Russians may even have had some form of involvement in his actions before he left Hawaii. Whatever the truth, the timing can’t be a coincidence. Greenwald is no fan of Israel and he would have certainly have trawled the files early on for any mention of it – so what took him so long? If it was up to him, he surely wouldn’t have waited.

Unlike other Snowden reports, this one is about an operation that is no longer in effect, at least by now, the Americans have no reason to believe an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent. Also, one of the interesting details in the footage from Operation Anarchist, what look like missiles being carried by the Israeli Heron TP drone, are no longer a surprise since less than three weeks ago, Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that Germany would be buying the Heron TP and disclosed the detail that they could be armed.

It hardly seems a coincidence that that specific detail is no longer new. In other words, at this point of publication, there is absolutely nothing in the report which is surprising or damaging to Israel. Though neither country have ever admitted it, it is widely believed in the west that the Israeli and Russian intelligence communities have an unwritten agreement not to embarrass each other in public. The coordination between the two countries over the last few months surrounding Russia’s deployment of forces to Syria are also proof of the discreet but intensive level of the relationship.

The timing of the latest report and the fact that it contains nothing which damages Israeli interests (and perhaps even allows Israeli analysts to assess to what degree its communications systems have been vulnerable to outside surveillance) lends credence to those who believe that Snowden and the purloined information he brought with him is under Russian control. 

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