WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency routinely shares raw intelligence data with Israel that probably includes sensitive information about Americans, according to the latest top-secret document leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
The 2009 document, a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, says the U.S. government regularly hands over intercepted communications that have not first been reviewed by U.S. analysts and therefore may contain phone calls and emails of American citizens.
The agreement allows for the possibility that intercepts given to Israel might include the communications of U.S. government officials, in which case Israel is supposed to destroy them immediately. Other data on U.S. citizens who aren't in the government, however, can be kept by Israel for up to a year, according to the document, first published Wednesday by Britain's Guardian newspaper.
NSA officials declined to answer questions but issued a statement saying, "Whenever we share intelligence information, we comply with all applicable rules, including the rules to protect U.S. person information."
It's no secret that the U.S. and Israel cooperate closely against intelligence targets of mutual interest, such as Syria and Iran. But providing Israel unfiltered electronic intelligence feeds raises questions about why American officials would trust Israel to respect the privacy of U.S. citizens.
The practice also raises the specter of Israel using U.S. intelligence to carry out operations of which the U.S. disapproves. The Obama administration has condemned, for example, the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists that many analysts believe Israel had a hand in.
"One of the biggest concerns in all intelligence-sharing relationships is that the partner would use the data to take action that would result in killing somebody or doing something outside the scope of what our government might consider appropriate," said a former senior NSA official, who, like others interviewed, asked not to be named in discussing classified information. "The worry is they might go off and bomb somebody and assassinate somebody."
A second former senior U.S. intelligence official said the sort of intercepts shared with Israel would focus on communications in the Middle East and would not include many Americans. But almost any eavesdropping anywhere in the world tends to capture at least some American communication, the former official said. The former officials requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing intelligence.
The implications are unsettling, said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "You can imagine a scenario in which somebody tries to get on a plane and is told by some foreign airline, 'We have you on a list,'" or you try to get a visa and you're told, 'Unfortunately we can't give you one,'" he said.
The agreement requires Israel to consult an NSA liaison officer when it comes across data on Americans, and to adhere to U.S. rules for handling U.S. citizen information that are designed to protect privacy, a process known as "minimization." That would include, for example, blacking out the names of any Americans in intelligence reports derived from the intercepts. But it's unclear how that requirement is monitored or enforced because the agreement expressly states that it is not legally binding.
The sharing of raw intercepts with Israel is particularly notable because U.S. officials say Israel aggressively seeks to spy on the U.S. government, unlike Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, allies who are part of a long-standing agreement to share signals intelligence with the United States.
Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst, is serving a life sentence in prison after being caught spying for Israel in the 1980s. Secret U.S. intelligence budget documents revealed last month by Snowden list Israel as one of the most aggressive countries seeking to spy on the U.S., alongside China, Russia, Iran and Cuba.
The Guardian quoted from other NSA documents it did not publish in which U.S. officials expressed concern about the intelligence-sharing arrangement, citing their worry about trusting Israel.
"One of NSA's biggest threats is actually from friendly intelligence services, like Israel," an unnamed NSA official is quoted as writing in one document. "There are parameters on what NSA shares with them, but the exchange is so robust, we sometimes share more than we intended."
The reason that risks are taken with Israel, the second former official said, is because Israel and the U.S. have many mutual foreign policy interests, and Israel in some cases has greater expertise in Middle Eastern languages and cultures.
"Managing the intel-sharing relationship is always kind of a quid pro quo," the official said. "One country may have access to certain communications that we can't otherwise get, so there are decisions made at fairly high levels whether or not it's worth it to share."