The following is the original (unedited) version of an essay written by Matthew RJ Brodsky and published at ‘Comment is Free’ on Sept. 13. It is published here with the author’s permission. See Brodsky’s bio below.
It didn’t take long for media outlets to single out Israel as a result of the cascade of secret documents released by Edward Snowden. The typical strategy is to conclude Israel’s guilt first and then shape the narrative to support that claim, conveniently leaving out any evidence against the theory while employing clever phraseology that most readers wouldn’t think to challenge. And so it is as The Guardian published another NSA document about a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NSA and Israel’s SIGNIT agency, (ISNU). The accompanying article by Glenn Greenwald, “NSA shares raw intelligence including Americans’ data with Israel,” takes a selective focus on Israel and obscures the truth rather than enlightens with facts.
The central argument put forth by Greenwald is that the NSA routinely shares raw intelligence data it gathers with Israel, without removing information about U.S. citizens. While Israel is one of America’s closest allies, it is not a part of the “Five Eyes”—a term used for the core countries involved in surveillance sharing with the U.S.—Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. So what makes this case unique is the fact that the same unminimized raw data might be shared with Israel. This is a problem for Greenwald because “[t]he relationship between the U.S. and Israel has been strained at times, both diplomatically and in terms of intelligence.”
Greenwald writes, “[t]he agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis.” That should not come as a surprise given that a MOU is not a legally binding document. Yet the MOU does not state that it specifically sends intelligence collections on Americans. Furthermore, one cannot tell from the document that if this kind of information is shared, how much, how regularly, and how broadly does it occur?
Absent from Greenwald’s article is the crucial fact that the MOU lays out the terms of the sharing agreement, recognizing the need for more procedures to minimize any information on American citizens. It obligates the NSA to perform routine checks on the program to measure the quality and fidelity of the information being shared and obligates the Israeli Signit National Unit to identify, exclude, and destroy any information it finds about U.S. citizens.
Also missing in the article is a mention of the fact that in June 2013, The Guardian reported that the minimization procedures governing information on U.S. citizens were tightened dramatically in July 2009—a few months after Greenwald claims that this intelligence deal was reached in principle in March. We don’t know how these new rules may have changed the terms of this MOU.
- What the final version of this MOU says;
- Whether it changed after minimization rules strengthened later in 2009;
- What those ‘additional procedures’ to minimize American citizen information are;
- How much, if any, American information actually gets passed along;
- What the periodic, annual reviews have said;
- What the two biannual program reviews have said;
- If the program is even ongoing; or
- What the actual implementation of this program looks like”
Simply put, it takes a rather large journalistic leap to assert that the NSA is routinely sending unminimized information about U.S. citizens to Israel without any protection measures.
The fact remains that the U.S. is engaged in sober and even-handed intelligence gathering. Of course the United States should and does share intelligence with Israel as many of the same people and terrorist groups would target both countries. It is hard to get too concerned up about what Israel might do with any unminimized information that might come its way. They have very real threats along their borders and beyond. It is most likely that their resources are devoted to the terrorist groups and hostile governments in their own neighborhood, rather than the email I just sent my parents.
J.E. Dyer, a retired U.S. Naval officer who blogs as The Optimistic Conservative elaborates:
“It gives me no more heartburn to know that unminimized material may go to Israeli intelligence than to know that it may go to British intelligence. The concerns I have with the NSA program are 4th amendment concerns as an American citizen. The issue is collecting data in the first place without probable cause.”
And that is the central issue here; not Israel as Greenwald suggests.
(Matthew RJ Brodsky is a Middle East expert and former Director of Policy for the Washington, DC-based think tank, the Jewish Policy Center and the Editor of the JPC’s journal, inFOCUS Quarterly. Before joining the JPC, Mr. Brodsky was a Legacy Heritage Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He has briefed and advised members of Congress, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, Special Operations Command, and the National Security Council.)