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UPDATE: I am concerned that the source who offered me the information conveyed in this post may face some jeopardy for his actions. Neither he nor I know precisely what that means at this time. I put on notice anyone who might cause him jeopardy: I will fight on his behalf, not just for his sake, but for Israel’s sake.
Unit 8200 is the IDF’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) division and part of the army’s AMAN intelligence service. It is the U.S. equivalent of the NSA, the jewel in the crown of the Israeli army, only slightly lower in status than the famed Sayeret Matkal, Special Forces division. 8200 monitors and intercepts communications of Israel’s enemies and serves as the eyes and ears of Israel’s military and intelligence agencies. It is the one of the most powerful and sophisticated cyber-warfare players in the world, and was jointly responsible (with the NSA) for creating some of the most powerful malware attacks the world has seen. Additionally, Edward Snowden’s NSA leak confirmed that the U.S. spy agency shared unfiltered data with 8200 about U.S. and Israeli citizens who were targets of spying.
The NSA-8200 computer worms, known by names like Stuxnet and Flame, were designed to attack Iran’s nuclear program and delay its purported pursuit of a nuclear weapon. This cyber-sabotage caused substantial damage, in one of the most successful cyber-attacks ever waged by a nation state. In turn, it generated a number of powerful and damaging retaliatory attacks by presumed Iranian cyber-warriors against targets like the Saudi oil company Aramco, American banks, and Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands gambling empire.
Unit 8200’s profile is even more prominent due to the latest in a long line of cyber-attacks, this one confronting the major Hollywood film studio, Sony. Its comedy film, The Interview, portraying the assassination of North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, so angered that nation, it appears to have mounted a successful penetration of Sony’s computer systems. The attack exposed huge masses of data, including embarrassing e-mails among studio executives, actors, directors, agents, and producers. Personal data of company employees and corporate financial information has been compromised as well.
Technology experts have warned for a number of years that such cyber-attacks could pose similar threats to society as conventional weapons do. Additionally, the response of nations to such attacks could escalate into conventional armed conflict. President Obama himself warned North Korea, somewhat ominously that the U.S. would mount a “proportional response” to the assault against Sony. This is the first time that any major leader has warned that an attack on an individual company would result in an official attack by a nation on another. It seems like we’re headed into dangerous and uncharted waters.
Israel is a national security state in which the functions of the intelligence services, including the primary agencies (Shin Bet, Mossad, and Aman), are veiled in secrecy. Israeli media are routinely censored or faced with judicial gags which prohibit them from reporting stories that are ostensibly damaging to national security, but which may only be embarrassing to the top brass.
The names of all officers and agents (except the three chiefs of the services named above) are secret and may not be reported. Even years after military or intelligence service has ended personnel may not be identified. In other western nations, while the identities of covert operatives are secret, those of the chiefs, unit heads and even lower-level personnel of intelligence agencies are widely known and reported. There’s no reason Israel shouldn’t be the same, especially as it considers itself (though some would dispute this) a western-oriented democracy.
The opacity of Israel’s national security apparatus poses a major obstacle to journalists, activists and ordinary citizens who want to know what is done in their names. There is no way to hold intelligence personnel accountable for their actions without knowing who they are and what they’re doing. For that reason, Israeli security affairs are perhaps the most shrouded of all western nations.
The only individuals legally entitled to strike blows for Israeli accountability and transparency are, unfortunately, foreigners. That is why I’ve served as a conduit for brave Israelis willing to buck the tide against the secrecy monolith, by naming names like those of Israel’s intelligence chiefs before they were appointed to their positions; and the name of the IDF commander of Israel’s WMD force.
For that reason, I will name the current commander of Unit 8200: Brig. Gen. Ehud Schneerson. Schneerson, a distant relation to the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, worked his way up the ranks from within 8200.
My confidential Israeli source tells me that commanders are appointed in a very particular order that alternates between a khnoon (Hebrew slang for ‘computer geek’) and someone who worked his way up in a combat role. Schneerson is considered a khnoon while the previous head, Nadav Zafrir, was a combat officer who served in the Sayeret Matkal.
The confidential source explained his/her motivation for exposing Schneerson’s identity:
“There’s absolutely no justification for the identity of the commander of the largest unit in IDF, which is involved in controversial activities, and in which one of its senior officers is a suspected pedophile, being kept a secret from the Israeli public. Unit 8200 “swallows” billions of Shekels annually from taxpayers, and it fields a force of 10,000 – more than the Shabak (6000) and Mossad (3000) combined! The identities of the chiefs of the Mossad and Shabak have been made public for almost two decades, and the sky didn’t fall. Accountability is a very important principle, just like in the US – where NSA chief makes public statements and participates in public congressional hearings.
The importance of this revelation is further amplified by the recent revolt of seventy Unit 8200 veterans, some of whom still performed reserve duty, who protested against the immoral and destructive role they’d played. Their statement revealed they’d intercepted private communications of Palestinians political leaders in order to probe and identify weaknesses like homosexuality and marital infidelity, which might be exploited for Israel’s advantage:
We…veterans of Unit 8200…refuse to take part in activities against the Palestinians and refuse to…enable the deepening of military rule in the Occupied Territories.
There is a view that service in IDF intelligence is devoid of moral dilemmas and…only…prevent[s] violence and injury to the innocent. However…intelligence is a inseparable part of military rule in the Territories. The Palestinian population…is completely exposed to spying and surveillance of Israeli intelligence. As opposed to Israeli citizens and citizens of other nations, there is no oversight of methods of gathering, tracking or using intelligence information related to the Palestinians, whether they are involved in violence or not. Information gathered damages the innocent and is used for political persecution and creating divisions within Palestinian society through recruitment of collaborators and turning of Palestinian society against itself…Intelligence enables continuing rule over millions of people, authority that is deep and penetrates into every facet of daily life. These things prevent normal life and spark further violence and further distance any end of the conflict.
…We who served in Unit 8200 have a responsibility for this situation and a responsibility to act. Our consciences do not permit us to continue serving this system, which damages the rights of millions of human beings. Therefore…we will refuse to take part in operations against Palestinians. We call upon intelligence officers, currently and in future, and all Israeli citizens, to make their voices heard against these injustices and to act to bring them to an end. We believe that Israel’s future depends on it.
What motivated my source’s dashing brace of candor is Glenn Greenwald’s new report exposing the identity of the CIA’s prime cheerleader for torture. She was the model for the “Maya” character in Zero Dark Thirty. But the real operative, Alfreda Bikowsky, is considerably more troubling and problematic than Jessica Chastain’s movie version.
The CIA has waged a full court press begging U.S. media not to reveal her identity. It claimed she would be placed in danger of retaliation from Islamists who she helped capture or torture. But Greenwald decided to go forward because he believed that the CIA’s primary motivation was to protect itself from further scandal related to the torture report recently released by Congress:
Naming Bikowsky allows people to piece together these puzzles and hold American officials accountable. The CIA’s arguments for suppression of her name are vague and unpersuasive, alluding generally to the possibility that she could be the target of retaliation.
The CIA’s arguments focus on an undefined threat to her safety. “We would strongly object to attaching anyone’s name given the current environment,” a CIA spokesperson, Ryan Trapani, told The Intercept…he added: “There are crazy people in this world and we are trying to mitigate those threats.”
Whatever danger exposure poses to individuals must be mitigated by the even greater danger posed by secrecy. Informed citizens cannot weigh in on these important matters of state without knowing what their government is doing and who is doing it.
Israel is even more opaque than the U.S. and other western nations in these matters. But it is critical to expose this secret world to the disinfectant of sunlight. It is the only way to hold a nation’s servants accountable for their actions. That is a principle that trumps individual safety.
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.