WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency (NSA) routinely shares “raw” intelligence data with Israel that can include sensitive information about Americans, according to the latest top-secret document leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.
The 2009 document, a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, says the U.S. government regularly hands over intercepted communications that have not first been reviewed by U.S. analysts and are likely to contain phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens.
The agreement allows for the possibility that intercepts given to Israel might include the communications of U.S. government officials, in which case Israel is supposed to destroy them immediately. Data on U.S. citizens who aren’t in the government, however, can be kept by Israel for up to a year, according to the document, first published Wednesday by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The agreement requires Israel to consult an NSA liaison officer when it finds data on Americans and to adhere to U.S. rules designed to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens, a process known as “minimization.” But it’s unclear how that requirement is monitored or enforced, because the agreement expressly says it is not legally binding.
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It’s no secret that the United States and Israel cooperate closely against intelligence targets of mutual interest, such as Syria and Iran. But the sharing of unprocessed electronic intercepts raises the specter that Israel could have used U.S. intelligence to carry out operations of which the United States disapproves. The Obama administration has condemned, for example, the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists in which many analysts believe Israel had a hand.
“One of the biggest concerns in all intelligence-sharing relationships is that the partner would use the data to take action that would result in killing somebody or doing something outside the scope of what our government might consider appropriate,” said a former senior NSA official who refused to be identified. “The worry is they might go off and bomb somebody and assassinate somebody.”
The U.S. decision to provide Israel unfiltered electronic intelligence feeds raises questions about why American officials would trust Israel to respect the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Unlike the allies who are part of a long-standing agreement to share signals intelligence with the United States — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — U.S. officials say Israel aggressively seeks to spy on the U.S. government.
Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst, is serving a life sentence in prison after being caught spying for Israel in the late 1980s. Secret U.S. intelligence budget documents revealed last month by Snowden list Israel as one of the most aggressive countries seeking to spy on the United States, alongside China, Russia, Iran and Cuba.
The Guardian quoted from other NSA documents it did not publish in which U.S. officials expressed concerns about the intelligence-sharing arrangement.
“One of NSA’s biggest threats is actually from friendly intelligence services, like Israel,” an NSA official is quoted as writing. “There are parameters on what NSA shares with them, but the exchange is so robust, we sometimes share more than we intended.”
The former senior NSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity acknowledged that in some cases, there is no way to police what another country does with intelligence it gets from the U.S. electronic spying agency. The reason the sharing continues, the former official said, is because Israel and the United States have so many shared foreign-policy interests, and Israel, in some cases, has greater expertise in Middle Eastern languages and cultures.