US Israel Spy War For Iran Deal & Lessons For India

During the same time of the Edward Snowden revelations of the NSA spying dragnet; behind the scenes a secret intelligence war was being waged between the spies of US and Israel.

US was pursuing Iran deal at the time and the White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign against the Iran deal.

Through NSA surveillance the White House learned that Netanyahu had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations obtained from Israeli spies in order to undercut the deal; tutored Jewish-American groups against the deal and even tried to buy out undecided US lawmakers.

This account as reported by The Wall Street Journal, stretching over two terms of the Obama administration, is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and administration officials and reveals for the first time the extent of American spying on the Israeli Prime Minister.

Below are some of the excerpts with added comments from GGI (in italics).

U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress

After Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential election, U.S. intelligence officials gave his national-security team a one-page questionnaire on priorities. Included on the form was a box directing intelligence agencies to focus on “leadership intentions,” a category that relies on electronic spying to monitor world leaders.

When Mr. Obama took office, the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, Unit 8200, worked together against shared threats, including a campaign to sabotage centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear program.

How this intelligence cooperation against shared threats works is explained in detail in our report Digital India in the Age of Information Warfare.

After the leaking of documents by Edward Snowden and the resulting information explosion of snooping and surveillance activities the United States of America went through its own security self assessment. The resulting reports of security analyses of the US communication infrastructure and security systems jolted the entire White House. The National Security Agency of the USA itself was under surveillance by two tech-giants of Israel.

The latest information regarding the NSA’s domestic spying scandal raises an important question: If America’s tech-giants didn’t ‘participate knowingly’ in the dragnet of electronic communication, how does the NSA get all of their data? One theory is that the NSA hired two secretive Israeli companies to wiretap the U.S. telecommunications network. In April 2012 Wired’s James Bamford, author of the book “The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America”, reported that two companies with extensive links to Israel’s intelligence service provided hardware and software to wiretap the U.S. telecommunications network for the National Security Agency (NSA). In 2007 a former Commander of the highly secret Unit 8200 (i.e. Israel’s NSA) told Forbes that the technology of Comverse (i.e. the company that owns Verint) was based on the technology created by Unit 8200. One of the founders of Verint, Jacob “Kobi” Alexander, is a former Israeli intelligence officer. A co-founder and former chairmen of Narus, Ori Cohen, told Fortune in 2001 that even his partners worked on certain technologies for the Israeli intelligence.

Having a foreign contractor, bug the telecom grid would mean that not only the NSA but the Israeli Intelligence as well gained access to most of the domestic traffic flowing through U.S. On the other hand these reports also exposed the moles in NSA who put USA’s national security at stake.

Back to our story, by 2011 and 2012 things start to take a different turn.

In 2011 and 2012, the aims of Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama diverged over Iran. Mr. Netanyahu prepared for a possible strike against an Iranian nuclear facility, as Mr. Obama pursued secret talks with Tehran without telling Israel.

A spy vs spy game began with the two allies snooping on each other after the split over Iran deal. The U.S. closely monitored Israel’s military bases and eavesdropped on secret communications, fearing its longtime ally might try to carry out a strike on Fordow, Iran’s most heavily fortified nuclear facility. At the same time Moscow based cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab discovered three hotels that hosted Iran talks were targeted by a virus believed to be used by Israeli spies.

By 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies determined Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t going to strike Iran. But they had another reason to keep watch. The White House wanted to know if Israel had learned of the secret negotiations. U.S. officials feared Iran would bolt the talks and pursue an atomic bomb if news leaked.

The NSA had, in some cases, spent decades placing electronic implants in networks around the world to collect phone calls, text messages and emails. One tool was a cyber implant in Israeli networks that gave the NSA access to communications within the Israeli prime minister’s office.

Given the appetite for information about Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions during the U.S.-Iran negotiations, the NSA tried to send updates to U.S. policy makers quickly, often in less than six hours after a notable communication was intercepted, a former official said.

By late 2014, White House officials knew Mr. Netanyahu wanted to block the emerging nuclear deal but didn’t know how.

On Jan. 8 a plan was hatched. As per the plan US would invite Mr. Netanyahu to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. Soon after, Israel’s lobbying campaign against the Iran deal went into full swing on Capitol Hill.

The NSA reports allowed administration officials to peer inside Israeli efforts to turn Congress against the deal. Ron Mr. Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador was described as coaching unnamed U.S. organizations—which officials could tell from the context were Jewish-American groups—on lines of argument to use with lawmakers, and Israeli officials were reported pressing lawmakers to oppose the deal.

A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the intercepts said Israel’s pitch to undecided lawmakers often included such questions as: “How can we get your vote? What’s it going to take?”

NSA intelligence reports helped the White House figure out which Israeli government officials had leaked information from confidential U.S. briefings. The agency’s goal was “to give us an accurate illustrative picture of what [the Israelis] were doing,” a senior U.S. official said.

Just before Mr. Netanyahu’s address to Congress in March, the NSA swept up Israeli messages that raised alarms at the White House: Mr. Netanyahu’s office wanted details from Israeli intelligence officials about the latest U.S. positions in the Iran talks, U.S. officials said.

A day before the speech, Secretary of State John Kerry made an unusual disclosure. Speaking to reporters in Switzerland, Mr. Kerry said he was concerned Mr. Netanyahu would divulge “selective details of the ongoing negotiations.”

The State Department said Mr. Kerry was responding to Israeli media reports that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to use his speech to make sure U.S. lawmakers knew the terms of the Iran deal.

Intelligence officials said the media reports allowed the U.S. to put Mr. Netanyahu on notice without revealing they already knew his thinking. However the prime minister mentioned no secrets during his speech to Congress.

Instead, both American and Israeli leaders publicly traded words of admiration amidst tensions surrounding the deal. The NSA intercepts, however, revealed one surprise. Mr. Netanyahu and some of his allies voiced confidence they could win enough votes.

The Indian context

What is important here for the Indian context is that the same Israeli companies that spied on the US, against whom the US lawmakers took serious actions are about to get a major foothold in the Indian market.

These same Israeli companies under investigations by the US agencies are being welcomed with open arms by the Indian government. The Indian government is planning to grant the communication infrastructure installations contract to these same companies under Digital India Smart Cities program. The same Israeli surveillance firm Verint Systems is set to get a contract from the Indian Department of Telecommunications for mass surveillance to facilitate government interception of encrypted electronic communications.

India’s then UPA communications minister Kapil Sibal met Verint’s leadership team in Israel to “devise interception tools for tracking encrypted communication services.” Verint expressed a “desire to work with the government to intercept all forms of encrypted communications.” The Indian government had “identified 15 forms of encrypted communications, including Google’s Gmail, RIM’s Blackberry services, Nokia’s email offerings, Yahoomail and Microsoft Skype, among others, that it claimed could not be tracked by Indian law enforcement agencies.”

While Indians are being bombarded with full-page ads on Free Basics by Facebook and Reliance it is important to understand this issue in context to the Digital India campaign under the shadow of the much wider Information Warfare. Is FreeBasics A Threat To India’s National Security?

There are multiple facets of communication threats from China as well, although Chinese vendors marketing and waging electronic warfare in India is a recent phenomenon. Western firms like Nokia, Ericsson, Lucent, CISCO etc are already established in India conducting deep route penetration into India’s strategic communication and waging direct information warfare. Unfortunately in India there is no comprehensive study of Communication Infrastructure Security (CIS) keeping the above perspective in mind. Under the shiny haze of globalization and liberalization, India never understood nor designed the threat perceptions towards developed nations. This is causing deep trouble in India’s strategic sector in making stringent National security policies.

In 21st century it is very important for great powers or colonial masters or developed countries to monitor India and its neighbouring countries to keep them at bay as a part of the ‘Great Game’ strategy. We can also assess the importance of India in International politics by studying the recent snooping activities of the USA. Three “global heat maps,” which give each country a color code based on how extensively it was subjected to NSA surveillance, clearly show that India was one of the hottest targets for U.S. intelligence. With the color scheme ranging from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance), the heat maps show India in the shades of deep orange and red even as fellow BRICS nations like Brazil, Russia and China who monitored extensively sit in green or yellow zones.  This gives us ample proof about importance of India and its strategic information in global politics.

These are just some of the many such case studies that demonstrate clearly the Indian government’s lack of understanding about even the basic tenets of information warfare. Sadly, without any concept of a comprehensive national security what is at stake is the very sovereignty of our country.

GGI News Analysis

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