Friday, November 13, 2009

Spying in America

The News, March 22, 2009


Spying in America

By Omar R. Quraishi

When you read a title such as the one above you normally would think of the Soviets, now Russians, the North Koreans, the Iranians or the Cubans -- but would you ever think of the Israelis? Perhaps you should.

Alternet ( is an excellent internet resource for those who are interested in the latest news about America, Europe and indeed the rest of the world, something you cannot find in The New York Times, The Washington Post or Times. This past week, while trawling through the website, I came upon an excellent article -- surely the kind you will never find in the mainstream American press.

Titled 'Breaking the Taboo on Israel's spying efforts on the United States' by Christopher Ketcham (who has written for Harper's, Vanity Fair, Salon, GQ, Counterpunch and several other magazines and websites), the article breaks down several myths. And before going into some of the things he has spoken off, I would like to clarify that what he writes isn't really conspiracy theories. It is more along the lines of investigative journalism. In fact, I myself would be the last journalist in this country to speak of a Zionist conspiracy against Islam or Pakistan or believe a story of 4,000 Jewish people not showing up to work at their WTC offices on the morning of Sept 11 or blaming RAW/MOSSAD/CIA for everything bad that happens in Pakistan or the Islamic world.

According to Ketcham, Israel runs one of the "most aggressive and damaging espionage networks" targeting America. The irony is that discussion and debate in the public sphere on this is virtually zero. Asks a counterintelligence officer in the US government, Ketcham claims, and he will say that Israel is no friend of America.

Before getting into the details of spying activists that Ketcham talks about, one may ask, why there is no public debate in America on this issue. The answer can be found in the very strong hold that several Israeli lobbying groups exercise over members of the US Congress. Any government representative or senator who takes an independent view of Israel -- speaking out against its perceived interference in American politics and in shaping that country's policy agenda -- is brought to heel by these lobbying groups and by some sections of the mainstream media. The tactic usually used is to equate questioning of Israel's status in the US policy matrix with unequivocal support for the Palestinian cause, even if that may not be at all the reality. Because of this, the issue itself becomes sensitive. And because of this kind of atmosphere, a kind of 'void' is created, one where "facts should sit" but which is instead filled with "hallucinations of conspiracy theory".

The effect, according to Ketcham, is "the less the truth is addressed, the more noxious the falsity that spreads". So, in a way, the lobby not only manages to stifle any valid questioning of Israel's apparent disproportionate influence in Washington but, by doing so, it creates a situation where any attempt to debate and/or examine/scrutinise this special relationship is relegated to the realm of conspiracy theory.

The fact of the matter is that if one looks at the case of naval intelligence officer (and a Jewish American) Jonathan Pollard in detail, it will become evident that Israel's spying in America is a well-documented fact. Ketcham says that every year the FBI prepares a report for Congress on economic and industrial espionage by foreign countries and that the threat posed to America by Israeli agents is second only to that from China. He adds that in 1996 the Defence Intelligence Service, an agency within the US Defence Department, issued a warning that for Israeli intelligence services the "collection of scientific intelligence in the US" was the "third highest priority" -- after information on Israel's Arab neighbours and information on secret US policies or decisions related to Israel.

Wiretapping and bugging are routine methods adopted by intelligence agencies of practically every country. You expect the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi to be bugged by the Indians and vice versa in Islamabad. But you don't expect the Pakistanis to bug the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. This, apparently, is a norm between America and Israel, especially in US embassies in Middle Eastern countries.

To collect scientific and quasi-military intelligence, Israel has set up various enterprises and some of these instances have in fact been documented, says the writer. For example, he writes, the national Israeli airline El Al, is often the conduit of such agents into the US as has been Zim, an Israeli shipping company. Another example he mentions is an undercover operation that penetrated an American company which was providing weapons-grade uranium to the US Defence Department. As a result of this, Israeli agents managed to basically steal and take to Israel around 80 kilogrammes of uranium.

More intriguing are the claims by a best-selling author, journalist and expert on the subject, James Bamford, in his recent book The Shadow Factory. He claims that because of the way many Israeli technology firms have developed joint operations with hi-tech American firms, much of what the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) does and collect is possibly exposed to Israeli eyes and ears as well.

Israeli firms also provide technology to major American telephone providers such as AT&T and Verizon for wiretapping. (According to one estimate, these two phone companies account for 90 per cent of all communication traffic in America.) One particular firm, Verint, headed by a former Israeli intelligence officer, is believed to provide the technology to Verizon for all its wiretapping has clients (most intelligence and police services) in at least 100 countries around the world. One of the chief concerns aired by US officials is that Verint data can be accessed from anywhere in the world by those given access to it.

Bamford claims in his book that the management of Verint, in fact of all other such Israeli firms, maintain close connections with the Israeli intelligence services and that this is limited to not just Mossad or Shin Bet (the internal security service) but also to Unit 8200 -- part of the IDF and thought to be Israel's own version of the NSA. One of Israel's biggest newspapers, Haaretz, says that the technology used by most Israeli communication companies and offered to American and other firms is based directly on technology that was developed by Unit 8200 of the Israeli army. So what is the end result? The entire US communications traffic is bugged by companies that have close links to Israeli intelligence services and, worse still, the US government has no legal oversight of these companies. Even the contracts that these companies have with the NSA are considered out of legislative bounds and kept secret because they are passed off as trade secrets, Bamford writes. He also mentions another Israeli company, NICE Systems, which, he says, is "a major eavesdropper in the US" and which keeps its government and commercial client list "very secret". NICE too was set up by former officers of Unit 8200 and showed up at least once on US counterintelligence radar. Between 2000 and 2001 CIA and FBI agents invested allegations that Israeli nationals posing as 'art students' were in fact spies. It was found out that at least one such 'art student' was a NICE employee.

Ketcham says that both the Australian and the Dutch intelligence services, since 2002, have approached the Americans with concerns over Verint. So, again, Israel's potential for spying is a matter of record. He cites a story in C'T, a respected technology and computing magazine published in The Netherlands, which said that "all tapping equipment" of the Dutch intelligence services and "half the tapping equipment" of the national police force was "insecure and is leaking information to Israel". He says that Australian lawmakers actually confronted Verint on the remote access of data to which Verint promised that it would not be done again implying that it was done nonetheless. Again, the worrying thing is that this is not the route adopted by the US Congress, which is stifled by an array of pro-Israeli lobbying groups and a culture which clamps down on any talk which debates the US-Israel relationship.

Perhaps the words of former CIA counterterrorism officer Philip Giraldi say it all: "Most of the people in the agency were very concerned about Israeli espionage and Israeli actions against US interests. Everybody was aware of it. Everybody hated it. But they wouldn't get promoted if they spoke out. Israel has a privileged position and that's the way things are. It's crazy. And everybody knows it's crazy".

The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News. Email:

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