JERUSALEM -- While reports of the extent of the NSA’s eavesdropping on world leaders and millions of allied citizens caused fierce indignation worldwide last month, Israel mostly shrugged.
The U.S. also listens in on Israel, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom recently told Israeli media, and columnist Amir Oren wrote that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a “U.S. intelligence target since the 1980s.” Some Israeli observers saw the indignation as naive.
According to excerpts (Hebrew website, video includes some English) from an interview with Israeli Channel 10, Wendy Sherman, under secretary for Political Affairs, avoided directly answering the question whether the U.S. was “spying on Israeli political figures.”
Welcoming reliance on Israel’s “vaunted capabilities in terms of intelligence,” Sherman said, “we will have to talk about these things together” to ensure partnerships and relationships are respected (The full interview will be broadcast Sunday evening).
A detailed report in the New York Times revealed the National Security Agency also tracked “high priority Israeli military targets,” including Israel’s Sparrow missile system, a recent testing of which touched frayed nerves in the region in September.
This report met with a mellow shrug, too. “This doesn’t surprise me,” energy minister Silvan Shalom told local media Sunday. Shalom, a former foreign minister, said that upon taking public office, he was advised to assume “the whole world was listening” and that his phone was monitored constantly. “This was the basic working assumption,” Shalom said.
“Everyone listens to everyone else all the time,” Dov Weissglass, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told Israel Radio. Anyone in relevant circles knows that “sensitive issues are not to be communicated by electronic means,” he said.
In the past, the U.S. has kept tabs on Israeli officials on its home turf, too. In 2010, an Israeli linguist named Shamai Leibowitz who worked for the FBI translating wiretapped conversations among Israeli diplomats in the U.S. was sent to prison after pleading guilty to leaking classified transcripts to a blogger.
The leaked NSA documents show its tight relations with Israeli counterparts to be a two-way street. While the Israelis are “extraordinarily good SIG-INT [the interception of communications -- signals intelligence] partners ... they target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems,” an NSA official said, adding that Israel’s intelligence services were ranked “third most aggressive against the U.S.”
According to Israeli media, officials called the leak “scandalous,” and protested (without admitting responsibility for the attack) to counterparts in the White House, Pentagon and CIA.
Intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz wouldn’t comment directly on the reported leak and said that as Israel and the U.S. were considering increasing the already tight intelligence cooperation, such reports were “not helpful and best avoided by both sides.”