The United States and United Kingdom's intelligence agencies managed to break the encryption on Israel Air Force drone transmissions and for years have been watching what the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been transmitting to their operators.
The Americans and Brits were also able to breach other Israeli defense system, such at the Air Force's F16 fighter jets, the Arrow missile-defense project, and Israel's military satellites.
The breach was revealed for the first time on Friday morning in documents and photos leaked by former NSA and CIA analyst Edward Snowden, and were exposed at the same time by The Intercept, Der Spiegel and Yedioth Ahronoth.
The release of the document caused an international outcry, and Israeli officials called the US-UK spying operation "a severe blow to our security."
According to the documents, Israel is operating a large fleet of UAVs. These drones collect intelligence on the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and across the Middle East, and have even been used to collect intelligence for a possible Israeli strike in Iran. At least two models of these UAVs are armed with missiles and bombs used for targeted killings. The aircraft operate out of a number of bases in Israel, including Tel Nof, Palmachim, and Ein Shemer.
The documents provide a glimpse into Israel's world of secrets: its list of targets, objectives, preferences and capabilities, as well as a look through Israel's eyes at its enemies. In effect, the US and UK have been enjoying Israel's advanced intelligence capabilities, seeing everything Israel saw.
According to a senior intelligence official, "This is earth shattering. It means that they stripped us naked and, no less importantly, it likely means none of our encrypted communication measures is truly safe from them. This is the most serious leak in the history of Israeli intelligence."
This massive American-British intelligence operation has been ongoing since 1998. Its goal is to crack codes and intercept transmission of major militaries in the Middle East, their air forces, and their advanced weapons systems and radars. American and British intelligence agencies were able to break the encryptions on advanced fighting and surveillance systems used by Hezbollah, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, but the most resources and efforts behind the operation, codenamed "Anarchist," were invested in Israel.
The operation was run by the American NSA (National Security Agency) and its British counterpart, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), out of two bases: Menwith Hill in Britain, a joint surveillance base used by both the UK and US, and the Royal Air Force base in the Troodos Mountains, the highest point in Cyprus. This is a massive base, filled with antennae and interception and decoding apparatus, some located deep underground.
The extent of Anarchist's operations is described in the files Edward Snodwen took from the NSA. The files include screenshots from videos recorded during the drones' operations, which document everything the powerful cameras saw. Among the files are also PowerPoint presentations and internal memos and tasking orders - apparently for and from senior commanders - about the progress of the operation.
In some of the cases, the Anarchist technicians and analysts knew how to ascertain where the photos were filmed, by decoding a special part of the transmission between the aircraft and the base, in which the drone "updates" the base as to where it was. So, for example, on June 24, 2009, the Cyprus base documented the movement of Israeli UAVs near Nablus, and near the Palestinian village of Azzun. In April 2010, they identified drones near Attil.
Spying on Netanyahu
After the 1997 Naval Commando Disaster, in which 12 commandos were killed while on a mission to assassinate a senior official in the Amal Movement, Nasrallah claimed that it wasn't a coincidental ambush that led to the commandos' death, but a planned operation based on accurate intelligence it had obtained. The IDF mocked Nasrallah, saying he was lying and that there was no way for him to know anything about the Naval Commandos’ top secret operations. But it turns out it was actually Nasrallah who was accurate. With a cocky smile, he later presented photos at a press conference from drones that were surveying the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range in the weeks before the raid.
Hezbollah could intercept the drones' communications and figure out which areas the IDF was showing particular interest in.
In the wake of the Naval Commando disaster, the defense establishment invested "unprecedented efforts and resources," according to an official familiar with the issue, in order to encrypt the frequency of the transmissions between the drones and the base. This was happening while the drone became one of the main tools, if not the central one, used by the Israeli defense establishment to gather intelligence and launch special operations. There is almost no operation in the IDF today, nor many operations in other intelligence agencies, in which a drone does not take some part.
Except that now it turns out these efforts were in vain, at least when it comes to the US and Britain who were able to break the sophisticated encryption. A 2008 British intelligence document states with enthusiasm that "This access (to Israel's fleet of drones) is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight into possible future developments in the region." The document further states that "In times of crisis this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up-to-the-minute information and support to US and Allied operations in the area." The document, of course, does not deal with the fact that Israel is also among those allies.
The documents show that the US has invested a lot of effort into monitoring Israeli preparations for a possible strike on Iran. The documents also show the immense American concern that Israel, during Prime Minister Netanyahu's tenure, decides to make significant military moves in the region without coordinating with the US, which could lead to instability.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the US has not stopped spying on Netanyahu and his close aides despite President Obama's decision, in the wake of the leaks from Snowden, to stop spying on friendly heads of states.
According to a former senior official in the American intelligence community, President Obama "ordered to continue, all the more forcefully, spying on several leaders, primarily Netanyahu. We all understood what that order meant: Obama doesn't view Netanyahu as a friendly leader."
The new documents only serve to further strengthen the Wall Street Journal's report, and reveal that since 2009, at least, the US has not only been spying on the prime minister of Israel and his close circle with a constantly expanding scope, but also has been working to collect particularly confidential information on IDF and intelligence community operations on the most sensitive subjects.
The London headquarters' instructions to the Anarchist technicians were clear. For example, on July 29, 2008, an order was received to follow the operations of Israeli drones in the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the borders of Lebanon and Syria. Operations in these areas were important, the order said, "so that assessments can be made on what possible actions maybe (sic) taking place."
Elsewhere it said that the operations against the Israeli drones should alert the Americans and British of the "outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas ... our ability to collect and track and report this activity is important for the initial detection and tip-off for any potential pre-emptive or retaliatory strike against Iran."
In addition, the documents state, Israel "provide(s) many countries with their UAVs," such as India, so its drones' operations and capabilities must be monitored. The Americans and the British were interested in knowing exactly what type of radar had been mounted on these drones, and not necessarily out of intelligence considerations - rather possibly out of commercial considerations.
The Intercept writers Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke, reported that the IDF censor enforces a strict policy on Israeli media, barring any reports on the use of armed drones as a central part of its targeted killings in the territories, unless when citing non-Israeli media. This time, the site's report provides unequivocal proof in the form of internal documents and photos from Operation Anarchist.
Some of the photos taken by the Heron (Eitan) UAV during takeoff and landing, released for the first time on Friday morning, clearly show missiles attached to the wings of the massive aircraft. According to its specifications, the aircraft is also capable of carrying a payload of up to one ton. This is a big and powerful drone, even more so than the Reaper - the largest drone in the American fleet. Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, confirmed to the Intercept that it's possible the images are documenting drones that can carry payloads.
"The images offer rare visual evidence to support reports that Israel flies attack drones — an open secret that the Israeli government won't acknowledge," the Intercept concludes.
The Hermes 450 drone has been sold to several other countries, and was even used by British forces in Afghanistan and by the American Border Patrol on the Mexican border. In August 2009, the Anarchist technicians documented a big spike in Israeli drone operations in the Gaza Strip, during which Israel bombed one of the tunnels Hamas had dug on the Israel-Egypt border. Three Hamas militants were killed in the strike.
It was not just transmissions by drones that were decrypted, intercepted and documented. On January 3, 2008, while IAF pilots were conducting a series of strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, they were unaware of the fact someone else was sitting in the cockpit with them. This was the first time the Americans and the British managed to decrypt Israeli F16 jets transmissions and see everything the pilots could see. The NSA's internal newsletter proudly told its handful of readers that day that the organization's analysts were able to crack the transmissions which "showed a target on the ground being tracked." That day, nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes in Gaza.
Chris Woods, a world-renowned expert on drone warfare, told Intercept that "There's a good chance that we are looking at the first images of an armed Israeli drone in the public domain." According to Woods, "it's incredible that it took 12 years since the first reported Israeli drone strike in 2004 until these photos came to light." In 2012, a British intelligence analyst reports "regular collects of Heron TP (drones) carrying weapons."
In addition, it was revealed that the US and UK's intelligence service were monitoring the Black Sparrow missile, the target missile used by the Arrow missile-defense program. This allowed the Americans and Brits to gather valuable intel about Black Sparrow.
Black Sparrow is a target missile launched from F15 planes, and in its most common version simulates the launch and flight path of a ballistic missile or a cruise missile. Black Sparrow is produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems along with the American Raytheon. The Black Sparrow's job is to simulate missiles for Arrow tests, and well as other missiles used against Israel. For example, the defense establishment reported that during a special test conducted on April 1, 2015, the David's Sling missile-defense system was able to intercept a Black Sparrow missile in flight.
The monitoring of Black Sparrow was part of a sub-operation of Anarchist, which was codenamed "Runway."
The documents reveal the many technical details used by the powerful computers in Britain along with the base's antennas in Cyprus, in order to intercept the drones' transmissions, and how the analysts there match the way each transmission is decoded to the type of transmission in order to decode it in the best possible manner.
But alongside the intelligence agencies' extensive capabilities, it was revealed that a part of the decoding process is done with commercial off-the-shelf software anyone can easily obtain and operate. A document titled "ISUAV Video Descrambling," which includes instructs to new soldiers stationed to the base, lists video descrambling programs that should be used in order to improve the quality of the image, include AntiSky and Image Magic.
Der Spiegel raised questions in its Friday issue on a recent deal signed between the Israel Aerospace Industries, Airbus and the German Defense Ministry to lease Heron TP UAVs for German army operations, as from now on all German activities might be exposed to American and British intelligence agencies. German authorities said in response that they intend to use a different encryption system.
The Operation Anarchist documents also expose wide-scale interception of transmissions from Hezbollah, Syria and Iran's air forces. So, for example, Anarchist technicians monitored Iranian Ababil III drones flying over Syria as part of the aid Iran gives the Assad regime. This information was immediately passed on to the White House. A short while later, the Anarchist technicians received orders from the commanders in Washington that there is "presidential interest in further samples of the Regime launching attacks upon the general populous (sic)."
Later, unnamed US officials leaked to the press that the US has unequivocal proof that Iran was providing military aid to Syria, which at the time was dramatic news. A British intelligence report from 2009 determined that "Iran also has an effective UAV industry and their technology has been exported to a number of terrorist organizations."