In the Midrash, Jerusalem is called the navel of the world. The Talmudic text says that Israel is the center of the world, Jerusalem is the center of Israel, and the Beyt Ha’Mikdash is the center of Jerusalem. It appears the NSA has made a similar discovery. Due to the city’s height (2,600 feet above sea level) and its commanding position relative to the surrounding terrain, it is an auspicious location for an NSA “listening station” that can pick up the signals from U.S. satellites located in a large portion of the overhead skies. That’s why, in this interview Ronen Bergman recorded for Israel’s Channel 10, he alludes to this Talmudic tradition updated for the modern age of spies, satellites and drones. By the way, once the story was aired on live TV, it was removed from the video version of the news program available online. Presumably, either the censor wanted to enable Israelis to hear this news, but not anyone else; or else the station got it on air before the censor discovered it. Thankfully, my Israeli source located the 40 second YouTube version of the segment preserved for posterity.
The shocking aspect of this is that Israel secretly permitted the U.S. to erect such an array of satellite receivers in Israel’s second largest city (I haven’t been able to identify where specifically the facility is located yet). Though, it’s already known that the U.S. maintains another listening facility in the Negev, on Mt. Keren, that engages in land-based spying on Iran using radar, Ronen Bergman has exposed this new facility for the first time.
There are differences between the two. The Negev base, according to this Time article (written by the somewhat reliable duo of Karl Vick and Aaron Klein) is designed to pick up the possible launch of Iranian missiles targeted at Israel. This facility has a two-fold purpose. It is meant to reassure Israel that the U.S. will use its most advanced tracking technology to enable Israel to defend itself. It will also presumably prevent Israel from launching a surprise attack on Iran that the U.S. would be unaware of.
The Jerusalem spy station serves an entirely different purpose. Its satellite dishes track U.S. satellites around the world and presumably up and download information from them that can be relayed to other facilities where the data can be analyzed. A second Israeli source informs me that this facility is part of Israel’s participation in what has been called ‘Five Eyes,’ but which, if true, should now be called ‘Six Eyes.’ Here is what I wrote about this in an earlier post, in which I reported that Israel had launched a satellite meant to spy on Iran:
My source added that Israel is the 6th – unofficial and undeclared – member of Five Eyes. This means that the original trusted members of the intelligence alliance–the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK–decided to open their ranks to Israel, a nation not known particularly to play by the rules when it comes to intelligence matters.
I should add that one U.S. reporter and one analyst, both with intelligence expertise, had not heard of any such Israeli role. So what I can say is that both Yossi Melman (Hebrew) and my own source have confirmed Israel’s membership in Five Eyes. Either they are tooting Israel’s horn undeservedly; or the U.S. wants this protocol kept secret and refuses to allow a murmur about it to seep out.
Allowing the placement of such a base on Israeli soil is a major gift from the Israeli people, since it allows no other country anything remotely similar. Further, Israel has allowed the NSA access to the omphalos of the universe, it’s holy city (at least in Israel’s eyes). But there is the payoff that the data collected by the NSA is shared with Israel’s Unit 8200. Add to this the news released some time ago that the NSA shares unredacted intelligence that includes raw data from and about U.S. citizens, and you can understand just how wide open is the pipeline between the spy agencies of the two countries. This alarms the hell out of me. I don’t trust unregulated spooks to exercise any restraint in the exploitation of such data. This entire process should simply never have existed and be stopped immediately.
There is a earlier history of such wide open intelligence collaboration between the Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies. In the 1950s, the CIA funneled funding to U.S. labor unions which was transmitted to the Israeli Histradut (national workers union). Yossi Melman writes:
Secret funding from the United States Central Intelligence Agency was channeled by American trade unions to the Histadrut labor federation, and from the Israeli union to Africa to finance various activities. Among other things the money was used to post an impressive array of Mossad agents in the African states. Many young intelligence officers, such as David Kimche…spent their early working years in Africa.
Like Five Eyes cooperation, the African project advanced both U.S. and Israeli interests in Africa. There, Israel was viewed as a fellow colonial state that had thrown off the yoke of British rule. Africans were much more receptive to Israel than they would be to the U.S. Hence Israelis could move more freely and report back to the Americans what they’d learned about the liberation movements seeking to overthrow their colonial rulers.
Now, of course Israel’s image has turned about as ugly as that of the former Ugly American. Israeli intelligence and military operatives harvest cash by the bushel load, rigging elections, offering lethal weapons to dictatorial regimes, and ripping blood diamonds from African earth.
There is another important question to answer: why now? Why reveal this story now? Ronen Bergman doesn’t create these stories ex nihilo. He has Israeli intelligence sources who provide them to him. Why did those sources decide now was the right time to tell the world about this formerly secret base.
I maintain that it’s clearly connected to the U.S. brokered peace talks with the Palestinians. John Kerry is, presumably, exerting enormous pressure on the far-right government to be more responsive to Palestinian interests. Bibi naturally doesn’t want to respond favorably to such pressure. What better way, though not a very effective one in my opinion, than by both reminding the Americans, and revealing to the world how responsive Israel has been to U.S. needs by allowing this facility on Israeli soil. It serves as a reminder: what Israel gives it can take away. Further it says: you have some nerve demanding that we compromise on matters of existential import regarding the Palestinians when we’re so good to you in all these other ways.
If this is the message, it’s not being broadcast in a way that will find a receptive ear in Washington. American spooks don’t like their cover blown, no matter the reason or motivation. If Bibi thought this would make a positive impression on the Obama administration, he’s naïve. But my guess is that this isn’t intended for Obama’s ears. It’s intended as ammunition for the Lobby in making its case both about Iran sanctions and the Kerry peace talks. Members on Capitol Hill can use this new development as grist for the pro-Israel mill in their future Israel-related legislative deliberations.
This is yet another example of how out of synch Israel is with the U.S. administration. Bibi speaks over Obama’s head instead of directly to him. There is no direct communication. No point of common contact.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.