The Snowden documents describe collaboration with Israel's Sigint National Unit, Unit 8200, which gets raw NSA eavesdropping material and provides it in return. But they also mention the agency’s tracking of “high priority Israeli military targets,” including drone aircraft and the Black Sparrow missile system.
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The NYT reviewed documents obtained by Snowden and shared by The Guardian. According to the paper, America's largest intelligence agency, with 35,000 workers and $10.8 billion a year, is listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world.
Half of the intelligence material presented to the president on daily briefing comes from NSA intelligence collection, it was noted.
The report mentioned an NSA operation targeting Iran's supreme leader. "In May 2009, analysts at the agency learned that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was to make a rare trip to Kurdistan Province in the country’s mountainous northwest. The agency immediately organized a high-tech espionage mission, part of a continuing project focused on Ayatollah Khamenei called Operation Dreadnought."
"The NSA team studied the Iranian leader’s entourage, its vehicles and its weaponry from satellites, and intercepted air traffic messages as planes and helicopters took off and landed."
"They studied Iranian air defense radar stations and recorded the travelers’ rich communications trail, including Iranian satellite coordinates collected by an NSA program called Ghosthunter. The point was not so much to catch the Iranian leader’s words, but to gather the data for blanket eavesdropping on Iran in the event of a crisis."
But in a world of ballooning communication, the agency is sometimes simply overwhelmed. In 2008, the NSA’s Middle East and North Africa group set about updating its Sigint collection capabilities. The reduction in volume was treated as a major achievement, opening the way for new collection on Iranian leadership and Saudi and Syrian diplomats, the report said.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said US spying has gone too far in some cases, an unprecedented admission by Washington in the row with Europe over widespread surveillance.
"The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," he told a conference in London via video link.
'They want to know our true intentions'
The New York Times report did not raise many eyebrows in the Defense Ministry, former Mossad Chief Danny Yatom estimated.
"This tapping isn't out of the ordinary and as such, isn't a surprise," he said, but leveled some criticism: "On the one hand, the Americans slam friendly countries like Israel when they suspect it tries to reveal intelligence related to them, and on the other, they recklessly tap communications from these countries.
"Those who listen in on Chancellor Merkel, also listen in on Israel, its leaders and its army," he added.
Yatom estimated that "this tracking in not necessarily about gaining knowledge about Israeli technological developments, but about finding out what Israel intends to do with these tools."
The US administration, Yatom analyzed, is interested in understanding the Israeli leadership's intentions with regards for a possible attack in Iran, or what its actual position concerning the negotiations with the Palestinians, compared to its formal statements.
"With regards to drones they surpass us on developments anyhow, and where they don’t, the information goes through to them regardless," he said.
It should be noted that in recent years the Air Force has come to rely more and more on drones, and most of its operational flight hours were registered to unmanned aircraft. However, much of the process of drone development and test runs was made in direct cooperation with the Americans.
Yatom added that American tracking of Israeli communications was known in the past: "We had evidence that the Americans are listening to Israeli transmissions. This was well known, that the large antenna system on top of the US embassy in Tel Aviv is equipped to receive all sorts of transmissions. To my knowledge, these issues were never discussed in professional meetings or between leaders as part of the game of silent acquiescence.
"As far as I know, the information the Americans tracked was well kept, and no damage was caused to Israeli security."
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