Unit 8200: Teaching NSA a Thing or Two About Dark Arts

Those who’ve followed Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying may think they’ve heard just about every depredation they can imagine.  But there could be more to come.

James Bamford spent three days in Moscow with Snowden and wrote about it in Wired.  Today, he has a NY Times op-ed focussing particularly on the Snowden revelations about NSA collaboration with the IDF’s Unit 8200.  None of this is particularly new.  Further, at one point Bamford even dubiously claims that material the NSA shared with Israel might’ve led to some of the blackmail and recruiting of spies, which the Unit 8200 veteran’s letter decried.  I think that’s doubtful because the activities criticized by the refusers involved listening to phone conversations and reading e mail and text messages by Palestinians in the Territories.  It’s hard to believe (though not impossible, I suppose) that NSA spying on U.S. citizens would help 8200 to target Palestinians.

As an aside, it’s entirely possible that my own contacts with Israelis and Palestinians both in this country and abroad are monitored by the NSA and passed on to 8200. A sobering thought, not because I engage in any activity that should be monitored, but precisely because I don’t.

Shin Bet handler, Gonen ben Itzhak (center), and Palestinian collaborator, Mosab Hassan Yousef (right, the “Green Prince”), reap the benefits of Hollywood film festivals, celebrity, and the good life, while other Palestinian collaborators end up in hoods before a firing squad.

It’s worth noting Bamford’s summary of Unit 8200’s offenses:

…They [Unit 8200 refusers] charged that Israel used information collected against innocent Palestinians for “political persecution.” In testimonies and interviews given to the media, they specified that data were gathered on Palestinians’ sexual orientations, infidelities, money problems, family medical conditions and other private matters that could be used to coerce Palestinians into becoming collaborators or create divisions in their society.

For anyone wishing to know how Israel recruits spies and the impact that spying for Israel has on the lives of collaborators, read this riveting and disturbing story.  The 8200 refusers were spot on when they said their job was to drive wedges into Palestinian society.  To make brother hate brother.  Read this and see how such hate plays out in the lives of those Palestinians who are sacrificed on the altar of Israeli security.  Do you think any Shabak agent who runs these Palestinian agents sheds a tear when they’re shot by Hamas?  Does Israel offer them refuge or offer them resettlement in return for the dirty work they did?  Not at all.  Collateral damage.

It’s important to remember as you see pictures of hooded Palestinian collaborators before their execution, that no matter how reprehensible it may be to kill such individuals without trial, collaborators do real damage to Palestinian society.  They get people killed.  Our outrage should be directed as much or more at the Shabak and Unit 8200 which creates the collaborators, as at Hamas for hunting them down and killing them.

Returning to the lessons we here in American can learn about Unit 8200 practices–remember that Israel has progressed much farther down the road to being a national security state than the U.S.  While we may have more powerful technology, capabilities and funding, Israel has far fewer fetters on its spies and spooks.  There are no laws or regulations governing surveillance of Palestinians.  There are, as the refusers correctly noted, almost no strictures on what they may do.

Though Snowden made similar charges against his own NSA brethren, there were limitations on their actions.  They may not have been particularly effective or thorough.  But approvals were necessary for some of the most intrusive activities.

The real value in Bamford’s op-ed is to warn us that what Unit 8200 has wrought in the Mideast could become “best practice” for our own NSA:

It should also trouble Americans that the N.S.A. could head down a similar path in this country. Indeed, there is some indication, from a top-secret 2012 document from Mr. Snowden’s leaked files that I saw last year, that it already is. The document, from Gen. Keith B. Alexander, then the director of the N.S.A., notes that the agency had been compiling records of visits to pornographic websites and proposes using that information to damage the reputations of people whom the agency considers “radicalizers” — not necessarily terrorists, but those attempting, through the use of incendiary speech, to radicalize others. (The Huffington Post has published a redacted version of the document.)

To paraphrase Herzl, if Unit 8200 wills it, it’s no dream.  So many of Israel’s counter-terror practices have become standard fare for the U.S.: from targeted killings to drone strikes to racial profiling for security purposes.  We “learn” from the Israelis.  They are falsely seen as being on the cutting edge and experts in this field.  That’s why U.S. local police forces and other agencies flock to Israel for security training.  It’s why Israeli security consultants are hired to manage airport security around the world.

What the Americans don’t realize is that they’re hearing from Israelis who have no strictures on what they can do.  Israelis for whom the means justify the ends.  There are no ethical qualms among Israeli intelligence operatives at exploiting every possible weakness on behalf of Israel’s interests.  The Palestinians are not human beings.  They are an enemy and this is a war.

What the NSA refuses to realize in adopting the Israeli model is that Unit 8200 is oppressing Palestinians who, while occupied by Israel, aren’t Israeli citizens.  At least technically, from an Israeli point of view, this allows them freer rein in their invasions of Palestinians privacy and rights.  The NSA is often spying on U.S. citizens.  If they bring Israeli spycraft to these shores, then the American intelligence community will be treating its own citizens the same way Israelis treat avowed Israeli enemies.  Is that the standard under which we want the NSA to operate?  Do we wish to allow out own spy agency to treat us as the enemy?