US and British intelligence agencies spied on the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Ehud Olmert, according to documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The documents referred to email intercepts, but did not detail what information might have been exposed.
The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel reported Friday that Olmert, as well as then-defense minister Ehud Barak, were among more than 1,000 high-profile targets of surveillance in more than 60 countries; the documents were dated between 2008 and 2011. Israel’s Ynet added that the surveillance extended to email intercepts at Netanyahu’s office when he took over from Olmert as prime minister in March, 2009.
Netanyahu’s office did not formally respond to the report, but sources in Jerusalem were quoted saying that the Israeli leadership had not “fallen of their chairs” at the news that they were spied upon. Netanyahu “is cautious and suspicious,” does not have a computer in his office, does not use email and does not have a private phone, Israel’s Channel 2 reported, “so they’d have to find other ways” to spy on him.
Olmert, who did respond to the news, said the email address in question was not a particularly sensitive one. Olmert’s office said there was “zero” likelihood of any security damage.
Israel was seeking clarifications from the US over the affair, Channel 2 said, in order to ensure that the surveillance was not continuing. It quoted an unnamed White House source saying blandly that the US “works like all countries to obtain information.”
The key issue of interest to the US at the time was Israel’s intentions as regards possibly attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Ynet report said, given Israel’s refusal to promise the US that it would not attack, or to commit to giving the US advance warning of any such attack. Barak, who was tasked by Netanyahu with coordinating with the US over Israel’s handling of the Iran crisis, has frequently remarked that he always worked under the assumption that he was working under round the clock surveillance by international agencies, the Ynet report noted.
Working in tandem, the NSA and the British General Communications Headquarters intercepted the communications of “senior European Union officials, foreign leaders including African heads of state and sometimes their family members, directors of United Nations and other relief programs, and officials overseeing oil and finance ministries,” according to The New York Times.
The documents show that the agencies monitored an email address described as “Israeli prime minister.” Olmert, who filled the top job for much of the relevant period, confirmed that the address was used for correspondence with his office, but said that such correspondence was mainly handled by staffers. The same address was used by Netanyahu, Ynet reported (Hebrew).
The email traffic at that address was not encoded, and emails related to speeches, communications with the public and other non-sensitive issues, Hebrew media reports said Friday night.
The Ynet report said that the US interest in the email address would also have been in monitoring contacts between the Prime Minister’s Office and right-wing, pro-settlement groups, since the US at the time doubted the accuracy of what Israel was telling it about the scale of its building in West Bank settlements, and may have hoped to obtain more accurate information.
Olmert described the email address as an “unimpressive target,” saying that it was unlikely any sensitive information was compromised. He added that the most delicate talks with then-US president George W. Bush took place privately, according to the Times report.
The leaked documents also revealed that in February of 2009, spies intercepted the emails of Barak. Ynet reported that the relevant email address in the defense ministry, Minister@mod.gov.il, was used by both Barak and his chief of staff, Yoni Koren, as well as administrative assistants. The address was used also to communicate with other government offices.
The Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was also reportedly targeted, as were two Israeli embassies.
The interception of Olmert’s email came at a sensitive time, while he was dealing with international condemnation of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, according to the Times. Relations between the US and Israel were also tense, as they are today, over Israel’s preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. According to the report, the allies were also at odds over cooperation on a wave of cyberattacks against Iran’s major nuclear enrichment facility.