Birds on a Wiretap

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that it's easier for the American president to order a hit on a U.S. terror target than a surveillance operation.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Since the days of Joshua and Rahab, intelligence gathering has been based on footwork, which is why in Hebrew the word for spying is rigul – from regel, the Hebrew word for foot.

Ecclesiastes 10:20 also adds some advice: “Curse not the king, no, not in thy thought, and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber; for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.”

In other words, even the most hidden and closed place is not immune to eavesdropping, whose product can be broadcast through the air or carried via cyberspace. The winged creature from the prophecy might well be Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who sports paratroopers’ wings, or his predecessor at MI, former pilot Amos Yadlin.

While the Shin Bet security service and Mossad are headed by men whose position is equivalent to that of chief of the General Staff, the commander of Unit 8200 – which is larger than either of those agencies but responsible for signal intelligence (SIGINT) – is only a brigadier general (one of five within MI).

The situation is similar in the American intelligence community, where the National Security Agency head’s standard rank is three-star general or admiral, which is similar to the rank of the heads of the other SIGINT and research agencies but a lower ranking than the head of the CIA.

The agreement between the NSA and Unit 8200, which was included in material recently released by Edward Snowden, didn’t arouse much public interest, perhaps because it revealed what’s really important to the Americans – to obey its laws (or at least not get caught violating them).

Many of the documents were instructional materials about what to do and what not to do in order to prevent harming U.S. entities – citizens, permanent residents, and indeed anyone present during the interception of communications within the United States.

These were the fundamental conditions of the agreement with Unit 8200, which formalized the transfer of raw American intelligence material to Israeli intelligence: To destroy any mention of an American source whose identity would emerge when sorting through the material.

For U.S. President Barack Obama, it would be simpler to order the killing of an American involved in terrorism than to have him wiretapped.

Snowden, one of a million civil servants and contract employees with the high-security clearance necessary to access top-secret material, carried out an intelligence super-attack that caused a global shock wave in all the countries offended by the revelations that the United States was monitoring their leaders.

Back home, the Snowden documents sparked an anguished cry from those fearing an invasion of privacy that violates the hallowed U.S. Constitution, but a reading of dozens of them shows that it’s not exactly the way it sounds.

The professional echelons were operating exactly as they were instructed to by the political echelons, which had learned lessons from the blunders, failures and missed opportunities that led to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The intelligence and law-enforcement agencies had to make internal improvements, as well as boost cooperation between them, and that demanded all kinds of changes – including the creation of a huge database of names and phone numbers to facilitate mapping the connections between them, as opposed to the interception of communications, which requires a specific court order.

The need to balance between conflicting values is familiar from the wiretapping of suspects in criminal cases.

There needs to be reasonable justification for listening to a suspect’s conversations and reading his letters, but only by the actual reading or listening does it become clear whether it was truly justified, and then the material must be kept in the case files to be used as evidence. That’s why Israel Police evaluation officers summarize transcripts.

In the American administration, security policy is translated into intelligence guidelines that aim to foil nuclear attacks or the use of advanced technology by terrorists, in accordance with priorities that include what to focus on – including monitoring foreign leaders – and what to disregard.

The problem is not the collecting, but the revealing, and the responsibility for this lies with the president and not the NSA. It was, however, refreshing to hear the screech of the birds when a chick that fled the nest did to them what they had been accustomed to doing to others.

Protesters carry posters depicting German politicians, during a demonstration against NSA monitoring programs and showing solidarity with whistleblower Edward Snowden, in Berlin July 27, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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