The U.S. National Security Agency routinely shares raw intelligence data with Israel, without filtering it beforehand to conceal information about American citizens, according to a report in the British daily The Guardian, based on documents it received from American whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Details of the intelligence-sharing agreement, signed in 2009, are laid out in a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, Unit 8200, which shows that the U.S. government has transferred 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, although it does mention the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to privacy and the need for American intelligence services to abide by those rights.
According to The Guardian, the disclosure that the NSA has agreed to provide raw intelligence data to a foreign country contradicts assurances from the Obama administration that there are rigorous safeguards to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens. 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.
The five-page memorandum, termed an agreement between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies "pertaining to the protection of U.S. persons," repeatedly stresses the constitutional rights of Americans to privacy and the need for Israeli intelligence staff to respect these rights.
But this is undermined by the disclosure that Israel is allowed to receive "Raw Sigint" -- raw signal intelligence. The memorandum says: "Raw Sigint includes, but is not limited to, un-evaluated and un-minimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content."
Although the memorandum is explicit in saying the transferred material must handled in accordance with U.S. law, and that the Israelis have agreed not to target Americans identified in the data, these rules are not backed up by legal obligations.
"This agreement is not intended to create any legally enforceable rights and shall not be construed to be either an international agreement or a legally binding instrument according to international law," the document says.
In a statement to The Guardian, an NSA spokesperson did not deny that personal data about Americans was included in raw intelligence data shared with the Israelis. But the agency insisted that the shared intelligence complied with all rules governing privacy.
According to The Guardian, the NSA declined to answer specific questions about the agreement, including whether permission had been sought from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court for handing over such material.
The memorandum of understanding allows Israel to retain "any files containing the identities of U.S. persons" for up to a year. The agreement requests only that the Israelis should consult the NSA's special liaison adviser when such data is found.
Additionally, the Israelis are required to "destroy upon recognition" any communication "that is either to or from an official of the U.S. government." Such communications included those of "officials of the executive branch (including the White House, cabinet departments, and independent agencies), the House of Representatives and Senate (member and staff) and the federal court system (including, but not limited to, the Supreme Court)."
The document mentions only one check carried out by the NSA on the raw intelligence, saying the agency will "regularly review a sample of files transferred to the Israeli Sigint National Unit (Unit 8200) to validate the absence of U.S. persons' identities." It also requests that the Israelis limit access only to personnel with a "strict need to know."
Israeli intelligence, according to the agreement, is allowed "to disseminate foreign intelligence information concerning U.S. persons derived from raw Sigint by NSA" on condition that it does so "in a manner that does not identify the U.S. person." The agreement also allows Israel to release Americans' identities to "outside parties, including all INSU customers" with the NSA's written permission.
While NSA documents tout the mutually beneficial relationship of Sigint sharing, another report, marked top secret and dated September 2007, states that the relationship, while central to U.S. strategy, has become overwhelmingly one-sided in favor of Israel, The Guardian reported.
In another top-secret document provided by Snowden that was seen by the newspaper, dated 2008, a senior NSA official points out that Israel aggressively spies on the U.S.
"On the one hand, the Israelis are extraordinarily good Sigint partners for us, but on the other, they target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems," the official says. "A NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] ranked them as the third most aggressive intelligence service against the U.S."
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 Guardian points out that the memorandum of understanding also contains hints of tensions in the intelligence-sharing relationship with Israel. At a meeting in March 2009 between the two agencies, according to the document, it was agreed that the sharing of raw data required a new framework and further training for Israeli personnel to protect information about U.S. citizens.
While it is unclear whether or not this was due to problems up to that point in the handling of intelligence that was found to contain information on Americans, an earlier U.S. document obtained by Snowden, which discusses cooperating on a military intelligence program, bluntly lists under the cons: "Trust issues which revolve around previous ISR [Israel] operations."
The Guardian asked the Obama administration how many times U.S. data had been found in the raw intelligence, either by the Israelis or when the NSA reviewed a sample of the files, but officials declined to provide this information. Officials also refused to disclose with how many other countries the NSA shared raw data, or whether the FISA court, which is meant to oversee NSA surveillance programs and the procedures to handle information on U.S. citizens, had signed the agreement with Israel.
In its statement to The Guardian, the NSA said: "We are not going to comment on any specific information sharing arrangements, or the authority under which any such information is collected. The fact that intelligence services work together under specific and regulated conditions mutually strengthens the security of both nations.
"NSA cannot, however, use these relationships to circumvent U.S. legal restrictions. Whenever we share intelligence information, we comply with all applicable rules, including the rules to protect U.S. person information."