The Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry have yet to officially comment on reports published over the weekend that the U.S. and the U.K. had monitored the email traffic of the offices of the prime minister and the defense minister. However, a senior government source said, "Israel will not allow the announcement to pass without comment" and that National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen would have to reach an understanding with his counterparts that "there are things one doesn't do among friends."
Over the weekend, The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel published a list of over 1,000 targets monitored by the National Security Agency and the U.K.'s Government Communications Headquarters. The list, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, included the heads of international aid groups, a senior member of the European Commission, as well as the former Israeli prime minister and defense minister.
One of the reports, from January 2009, describes how the agencies monitored four Israeli targets, foremost among them former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The prime minister's email address was hacked into at a time when tension between Israel and the U.S. was relatively high due to the repercussions of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, cyberattacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, and purported Israeli intentions to strike Iran.
A month after breaking into the prime minister's email, the agents worked on breaking into then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak's email address, and that of his chief of staff, Yoni Koren. Der Spiegel reported that by monitoring the defense minister's email -- email@example.com -- the U.S. and U.K. were kept abreast of Barak's policies concerning Iran's nuclear program, among others. "It wasn't a forum for top-secret operations, but it was one for many internal decision-making processes," reported Der Spiegel. According to The Times, two Israeli embassies also appeared on the list, as well as a "Israeli grey arms dealer," but the paper did not identify them.
Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday that in June 2007, shortly after Barak became defense minister, Israeli security personnel noticed the U.S. had rented an apartment on the same street as Barak's Tel Aviv residence (the apartment had a direct view of the windows of Barak's high-rise residence). The U.S. said there was no connection, but a sizable amount of electronic equipment was witnessed being brought into the apartment. The U.S. told Israel at the time that the apartment was being used by a member of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv's security team.
In a telephone interview with The New York Times on Friday, Olmert said his email address was primarily used by his staff for internal communication purposes. He added that it was unlikely any secrets had been uncovered through this address. "This was an unimpressive target," he said. Sensitive discussions with then-U.S. President George W. Bush, for example, were conducted face to face. "I would be surprised if there were any attempt by American intelligence in Israel to listen to the prime minister's lines," he told The Times. The paper went on to add that Barak, who declined to comment, had said in the past that he operated under the assumption that he could be monitored.
Israeli political leaders appear to be relatively unfazed by the report, however few remain entirely indifferent. A senior political source said that, just as in the tapping scandal of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone, this is yet another case of monitoring a head of state, a fact that is "beyond acceptable." Nevertheless, for Israel to demand clarification from the U.S. "would be going too far," said the source. Political and security-related sources, including one minister, said that confidential communication between the prime minister and senior ministers did not take place through electronic channels. The senior minister said yesterday, "Our rule is: If something is confidential, don't write it down." Case in point, there are neither computers nor cellular telephones in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.
Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said, "We are extremely careful and take into account that not only Arab countries, but also superpowers, are listening to us." Steinitz said that Israel was engaged in nearly complete cooperation with the U.S., the U.K. and Germany on intelligence matters. "We share everything with them," said Steinitz. "Under these conditions, it is unacceptable to behave this way." Steinitz hopes the "rules will become clear" and the sides will commit to "mutual understanding about spying on allies."
Transportation Minister Israel Katz said on Sunday that he would press the cabinet to demand the U.S. cease spying on Israel. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel said on Israel Radio he expected the U.S. to admit wrongdoing. Both Katz and Ariel called on the U.S. to free imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
The value of the information retrieved by U.S. and U.K. agents is unclear. The documents include spare transcripts of conversations and primarily offer clues of additional information located elsewhere. In accordance with a GCHQ request, the media have not published specific details leaked in the reports to protect security considerations. Some of the surveillance leaked in the Snowden documents directly relates to subjects covered by a committee recently appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama. Last Wednesday this panel recommended setting harsh limits to the NSA's intelligence-gathering capabilities, with particular regard to surveillance of foreign heads of state -- especially allies.
Obama suggested on Friday that he intends to make sweeping reforms to the NSA's surveillance programs. "The environment has changed," he said. "Just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should."