The Guardian has posted another leaked document that exposes more of the NSA's cozy relationship with foreign intelligence agencies. In this case, it's Israel benefitting from the NSA's data hauls. As we've seen before, many European countries have a quid pro quo arrangement with the NSA, often exchanging access points for data.
The main difference here is that Israel is receiving raw (unminimized) intelligence data from the NSA. Anything the agency has swept up -- including data on American citizens -- is being handed over to Israel's intelligence, restriction-free.
Details of the intelligence-sharing agreement are laid out in a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart that shows the US government handed over intercepted communications likely to contain phone calls and emails of American citizens. The agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis.
The disclosure that the NSA agreed to provide raw intelligence data to a foreign country contrasts with assurances from the Obama administration that there are rigorous safeguards to protect the privacy of US citizens caught in the dragnet. The intelligence community calls this process "minimization", but the memorandum makes clear that the information shared with the Israelis would be in its pre-minimized state.
This deal with the NSA's Israeli counterpart commenced in 2009. The memorandum continually stresses the privacy protections afforded to American data caught in the dragnet, but the program itself undermines these warnings by providing Israel's intelligence officers with raw data. Nothing in the document implies any sort of legal repercussions for any abuse of American data, which gives the program the appearance of a gentlemen's agreement. Considering intelligence work isn't really the best fit for honorable "gentlemen," the lack of any enforcement measures implicitly allows Israeli intelligence free rein to handle data on American citizens however it pleases.
The NSA doesn't deny it hands over raw data to Israel (how could it at this point?) but the unnamed spokesperson again makes the (unsupported) claim that the data is handled responsibly and protected from abuse.
"Any US person information that is acquired as a result of NSA's surveillance activities is handled under procedures that are designed to protect privacy rights," the spokesperson said.
Right, because the NSA has done such a bang-up job
up to this point handling US citizens' information in a way that protects privacy rights. And that's just the data it still has complete control over. Expecting us to believe that foreign intelligence agencies haven't treated this data with the same level of casual abuse the NSA has would require a leap of credulity even the agency's staunchest supporters would be hesitant to make.
Not only that, but the spokesperson refused to answer further questions about the legality of this program.
The NSA declined to answer specific questions about the agreement, including whether permission had been sought from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (Fisa) court for handing over such material.
This agreement also allows Israel to hold onto any US person's data for up to a year, provided it makes a courtesy call to the NSA liaison once the data is discovered. The pointlessness of this provision can't be emphasized enough. The NSA isn't auditing Israel's use of the data (other than a minimal pre-screen of random samples -- nothing post-delivery) so it's relying on its counterpart to give it a ring if it comes across anything it shouldn't necessarily have. If it doesn't, no one would know and the NSA would presumably be secure in the knowledge that no contact = no US person data.
But not all Americans are created equal. There are much more stringent policies in place to protect any US government data swept up and delivered to Israeli intelligence.
The Israelis were required to "destroy upon recognition" any communication "that is either to or from an official of the US government". Such communications included those of "officials of the executive branch (including the White House, cabinet departments, and independent agencies), the US House of Representatives and Senate (member and staff) and the US federal court system (including, but not limited to, the supreme court)".
One would expect US government communications to be a bit more sensitive, but this seems less about protecting the government from prying eyes and more about keeping a legally-dubious NSA program from drawing unwanted attention from its "oversight." Less government data exposure means fewer chances someone in the US government might be apprised of the situation.
Not only is plenty of raw communications data being given to Israel, but the NSA itself expresses concern in one of the Black Budget docs
that the mutually beneficial data-sharing program is trending towards something more one-sided.
"Balancing the Sigint exchange equally between US and Israeli needs has been a constant challenge," states the report, titled 'History of the US – Israel Sigint Relationship, Post-1992'. "In the last decade, it arguably tilted heavily in favor of Israeli security concerns. 9/11 came, and went, with NSA's only true Third Party [counter-terrorism] relationship being driven almost totally by the needs of the partner…
Later in the document, the official is quoted as saying: "One of NSA's biggest threats is actually from friendly intelligence services, like Israel. There are parameters on what NSA shares with them, but the exchange is so robust, we sometimes share more than we intended."
The NSA is "oversharing" in order to maintain a relationship with one of the only "friendlies" in the Middle East. It suspects it's being taken advantage of, but can't seem to extricate itself from the questionable data exchange it initiated. The Guardian also points to a worrying statement from a previous Snowden leak that refers to "trust issues" resulting from previous Israeli operations.
The NSA grabs more than it needs
and shares this largesse with Israeli intelligence (and other nations), offering only minimal restrictions which are largely unenforceable. And it continues to do this despite "trust issues" and a declining return-on-investment. Furthermore, it allows Israeli intelligence to share this data with "outside parties" (with written permission from the NSA), provided it strips out personally-identifiable information. Again, this agreement to strip out identifiable info relies on trust rather than enforcement procedures, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence considering the NSA's on-record complaint about "trust issues."
This is more evidence the NSA just simply doesn't care about the American citizens whose data it sweeps up. It's more than happy to "ship" it around the world with only the most minute amount of oversight or limitations. To the NSA, data exists solely to be collected and examined, and if legal safeguards need to be undermined, so be it.