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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wiretapping game: American paranoia

Experts in Israel and the world were not shocked when the Snowden documents began to be revealed. Senior intelligence officials in the West, as well as in Russia and China, know that over a decade ago the American intelligence agencies became devouring monsters that deal in all kinds of espionage, the scope of which is unmatched by any other country.

The size and capabilities of the systems used by China and Russia to gather political, economic, military and industrial intelligence do not come close to the electronic and cyber espionage systems operated by the National Security Agency in cooperation with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Since the terror attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, the Americans have developed the ability to deal with masses of information all over the world (they began this process a few years prior to the attack, but the disaster made the Americans realize they were facing a third world war in which the enemy is global jihad).

So, now the Americans have digital capabilities (super computers, for instance) and scientific-technological abilities that allow them to not only intercept and record the phone conversations and Internet chats of tens of millions of people, but also to extract from these recordings the specific details they are interested in. 

In addition, the Americans also have speedy and direct access to the server farms of key elements in the communications and Internet fields, such as Google. But most importantly, they have a large appetite for gathering information through technological means to make up for the difficulties American intelligence agencies have traditionally faced in their efforts to recruit and activate quality human intelligence sources.

Seeds of paranoia

Another reason for this appetite for technological intelligence is what can be referred to as diplomatic- intelligential paranoia. Its roots are in the Cold War era, when often times the CIA could not deliver the goods and the US was repeatedly caught by surprise. There were also a number of incidents at the time which justified Uncle Sam's fear that its allies were transferring to the Soviets sensitive information and secretly cooperated with them. 

One example of this is the spy Günter Guillaume, who in the 1970s operated as a mole in the office of West Germany's chancellor. Guillaume disclosed NATO's military and diplomatic secrets to his handlers in East Germany, which passed on the information to the KGB in Moscow. When the affair was exposed in 1974, Chancellor Willy Brandt was forced to resign.

But the Cold War ended long ago, and today there does not seem to be any legal, moral or practical justification for eavesdropping on the phone conversations of the West's leaders, America's allies. 

But the paranoia and the sense that 'we, the Americans, can eavesdrop without getting caught,' led former President George W. Bush to authorize the wiretapping, and it has continued since then without supervision. The absurd part is that the NSA apparently never made use of the information it gathered from the monitoring of the phone conversations of friendly leaders.

President Obama was not even aware he had at his disposal such a goldmine of information. It is important to note that American intelligence officials do not excel in analyzing the information they gather and therefore do not produce intelligence of the necessary quality and accuracy. But that's another story.

They spy on Israel, too

State Department documents leaked by Private Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks indicate that American diplomats also take part in the wiretapping game. Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state in the Bush Administration, instructed her people around the world to ask for the phone numbers of senior officials in their host countries. It is safe to assume that these and other phone numbers obtained since then ended up on the desk of the NSA director and were used until recently by technical teams operating out of US embassies in friendly European or Middle Eastern countries.

Despite the strong alliance and tight intelligence relations between the US and Israel, which are based on mutual trust, the Americans conduct intelligence-gathering operations in Israel which can sometimes be defined as espionage.

But what's really surprising, and even irritating, is that on a number of occasions in recent years the US complained to Israeli security elements that Israel was spying on American diplomats serving in the Jewish state and in the Palestinian Authority. 

The Americans further claimed that Israeli intelligence personnel were breaking into the homes of American diplomats to install wiretapping equipment or copy information from their computers. The Americans did not have sufficient evidence to prove their claims, while Israeli intelligence and security officials dismissed them as "ridiculous." There are good reasons to believe the Israelis.

Discin in America

The suspicion of American government officials, which motivates them to invade the privacy of foreign leaders, is not limited to wiretapping and intelligence. In another expression of what can only be defined as paranoia on the part of the Americans when it comes to Israel, in 2011 the consular department at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv delayed the issuing of an entry visa for then-Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin, who was invited to speak at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

Diskin asked for a 10-year visa and declared that he wished to visit the US for business and travel. He was told that he would be notified as soon as the visa would be issued, but the notification did not come. Instead Diskin was asked to answer various questions sent to him via email. 

A few weeks later Diskin, who had just completed his tenure as the head of Israel's internal security agency, was informed that he would be given a three-month visa. Uncle Sam's representatives did not bother to explain to Diskin why his request for a 10-year visa was denied, but the refusal was clearly connected to the fact that Diskin was a top-notch security official and apparently to his plans to enter the high-tech field as a second career.

Perhaps the US Embassy employees thought Diskin was planning to work for a hostile element in Washington. But the real reason most likely had to do with the stubborn and arrogant adherence of American bureaucrats to irrelevant rules, particularly when "natives" are involved.

In response to the insult, Diskin told the embassy he was withdrawing his request for a visa and would not be travelling to the US. The embassy eventually decided to grant Diskin a 12-month visa, instead of the 10-year visa most Israeli citizens receive. Diskin, who wanted to put an end to the farce, demanded that the US Embassy return his passport without issuing a visa.

American Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who respects Diskin, learned of the affair at a social event. Shapiro, who was apparently embarrassed and also realized that the affair could become an unnecessary scandal in the press at a time when the Obama Administration was going out of its way to convince the Israelis that the relations between the US and Israel were strong, acted fast, and within a few days Diskin was given a 10-year visa.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz also had a hard time getting a visa to the US because he was born in Iran, this despite the fact that the Americans new exactly who he was.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to notice the state of mind that connects the claim that Israeli intelligence personnel break into the homes of American diplomats with the restrictions placed on the entry of a Shin Bet director to the US and the monitoring of the phone conversations of leaders and senior officials in countries that are America's allies.

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