Israel said it was disappointed, but claimed not to be surprised, by the revelation that the US and British intelligence services have spied on its air force operations for at least 18 years. The intel breach was described by one Israeli security source Friday as “an earthquake… the worst leak in the history of Israeli intelligence.”
The US and UK cracked the IDF’s special encryption system for communication between fighter jets, drones and army bases, Israel’s military censor approved for publication Friday, after the long-term spying operation was reported in two overseas publications. The two countries have reportedly used this access to monitor IDF operations in Gaza, watch for a potential Israeli strike on Iran, and keep tabs on the drone technology that Israel exports.
Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz claimed Friday that he was not surprised by the exposé, because Israel is aware that “the Americans spy on the whole world, and also on us, also on their friends.”
“But still,” added Steinitz, a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “it is disappointing, inter alia because, going back decades already, we have not spied nor collected intelligence nor hacked encryptions in the United States.”
Based on documents and photos leaked by US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden, which had previously been classified, the reports said the US and Britain have for years been able to track the transmissions of Israeli aircraft, and effectively view images and videos broadcast to IDF commands during drone operations in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and near the Jewish state’s northern border.
The tracking has been done from a Royal Air Force installation in the Troodos Mountains, near Mount Olympus, the highest point on the island of Cyprus, according to The Intercept, which, along with German newspaper Der Spiegel, first published the documents.
The IDF encryption code was cracked as part of a major intelligence operation that has been conducted by the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, since 1998, the Ynet news site reported. Throughout the operation, many ciphers for advanced weapons systems used by Hezbollah, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Syria were broken.
However, much of the focus of the operation, code-named Anarchist, was Israel.
“This is an earthquake,” a senior security source — who spoke on condition of anonymity — told Ynet. “It means that they have forcibly stripped us, and, no less important, that probably none of our encrypted systems are safe from them. This is the worst leak in the history of Israeli intelligence.”
The US and the UK, said The Intercept, have been “monitoring [Israeli] military operations in Gaza, watching for a potential strike against Iran, and keeping tabs on the drone technology Israel exports around the world.”
In the photos leaked by Snowden, shots from video recordings taken by Israeli aircraft can been seen in detail, as well as slides prepared by members of the US and British intelligence organizations explaining the significance of the findings.
“This access is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region,” a GCHQ report from 2008 read, The Intercept reported. “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.”
In 2008, according to The Intercept, the NSA’s internal newsletter, SIDToday, enthused that on January 3, after an Israeli airstrike on terror targets in Gaza, analysts had “collected video for the first time from the cockpit of an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter jet,” which “showed a target on the ground being tracked.”
In another leaked document, intelligence analysts are requested to record and send a video of IDF operations to GCHQ. “Due to the political situation of the region, there is a requirement for Israeli UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) operations in certain areas to be intercepted and exploited so that assessments can be made on what possible actions maybe [sic] taking place,” the request, dated July 29, 2008, reads.
Twenty snapshots identified by The Intercept in the documents include several video stills taken from Israeli drones, dating between February 2009 and June 2010.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal late last month, even after US President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would limit spying on friendly heads of state, the NSA kept watch on Netanyahu and top Israeli officials as the Jewish state sought to thwart the nascent deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
In the process, the agency caught some conversations with US lawmakers, according to the report.
According to the Journal report, some of the exchanges in question involved Israeli strategy around the Iran nuclear deal that Netanyahu ardently opposed, as did congressional Republicans. In some cases the NSA overheard Israeli officials trying to convince undecided lawmakers to oppose the deal, which Congress ultimately failed to block.
The White House declined to comment on specific intelligence activities carried out by the US. But White House officials said the US doesn’t spy overseas unless there’s a specific, validated national security reason to do so, emphasizing that the principle applies both to world leaders and regular citizens.