A Government Answerable to No One

The Edward Snowden March 2009 memo which reveals that the National Security Agency (NSA) is illegally spying on American citizens and then passing the raw information it obtains on to Israel is particularly shocking because it demonstrates with documentary evidence just how Washington’s inside the beltway crowd places its relationship with Israel above its responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. But equally interesting is the tale of the dog that did not bark in the night. The crowds of angry Americans concerned about their loss of privacy gathering in front of the White House failed to materialize because the story, unreported in most of the media, quickly disappeared down the memory hole. The Washington Post placed it on a back page while The New York Times did not report it at all, Managing Editor Dean Baquet calling it a story that was neither "significant" nor "surprising" as determined by his "news judgment." The Times own Public Editor Margaret Sullivan disagreed, however, as did most of the readers’ comments on the failure to include it in the paper. Some commenters noted that the Times is frequently inclined to avoid stories that are critical of Israel.

Perhaps the much better reported role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in pushing for a war against Syria in spite of the overwhelming objections of the American people had something to do with it, the mainstream media being unwilling to excoriate Israel and its friends twice in one week. But to be fair to the Israelis, they are not the villains in the piece even if they did aggressively seek information on Americans, which one should presume to be the case. It was the newly inaugurated President of the United States and the government he headed that took the steps to share its intelligence on Americans. Israel might have requested or even demanded the information but it was up to the White House to say "no."

Israel gets away with abusing its privileged position because the very people we Americans elect and pay to protect us mostly believe it is safer to go along with perceived Israeli interests than to oppose them. As they are fixated on the two year election cycle they are not terribly interested in the long term consequences of their actions. If Israel murders an American or two in the course of "defending" itself, congress and the White House will always look the other way and sometimes even praise the killers, as it did with Rachel Corrie and Furkan Dogan. But Israel is only partially to blame for the cynical political maneuvering that led a president to secretly permit an agency dedicated to national security to provide raw information on American citizens to another government with which it is not in any actual alliance and that has a history of behaving irresponsibly. Indeed, the Jonathan Pollard and Ben-Ami Kadish espionage cases, the Lavon Affair, and the attack on the USS Liberty all suggest that Israel will not hesitate to harm the United States and even kill American citizens if it thinks it will gain something by so doing.

Some observers attempting to exonerate the White House and NSA point out that the memo of understanding in question is not signed, possibly suggesting that it was not ever acted on. But if that were so, the NSA could have denied that there was any such arrangement. Instead, it commented that "Any U.S. person information that is acquired as a result of NSA’s surveillance activities is handled under procedures that are designed to protect privacy rights," which sounds like a confirmation of what the memo describes. And it is also a bit of a fudge. The memo makes clear that Israel is being given "raw" and "unminimized" intelligence, which means that it is not being examined or scrubbed to remove information about Americans. In the first paragraph the memo states explicitly that the material being provided by NSA to the Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU) is "including but not limited to Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) technology and equipment and raw SIGINT data signals intelligence information that has not been reviewed for foreign intelligence purposes or minimized."

That means nothing being turned over to Israel is being reviewed in advance to protect US citizens. Most of the remaining text of the memo goes on to ask that Israel comply with NSA rules on the use of information relating to American citizens. It also and characteristically insists that any communications to or from officials of the US government be destroyed "upon recognition." The beast knows how to protect itself, apparently, but it imposes no sanctions if Israel does not comply with any of the conditions or guidelines, stating specifically that "this agreement is not intended to create any legally enforceable rights…" making the entire procedure toothless from Tel Aviv’s point of view. And yet another Snowden memo cited by the Guardian notes that there have been "Trust issues which revolve around previous Israel operations," suggesting that NSA has for some time been aware that it is being diddled.

The NSA, by refusing to address the issue at all, is also failing to reveal just how much sensitive information has been given to Israel. Since it is unaware of what exactly is included in the SIGINT it might also have no idea how much intelligence it has been passing. Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard gave Israel enough top secret information to fill a room. One has to suspect that NSA might be going far beyond that in its attempt to satisfy Israeli demands. Another Snowden derived US intelligence community assessment dated September 2007 also reported by the Guardian notes how the NSA-Israel relationship has "become overwhelmingly one sided in favor of Israel…‘tilted heavily in favor of Israeli security concerns…driven almost totally by the needs of the partner.’" An NSA report one year later notes dyspeptically how Israel targets "us to learn our positions on Middle East problems…a National Intelligence Estimate ranked them as the third most aggressive intelligence service against the US"

So where is the White House on all of this? Echoing the NSA, President Obama has insisted that there are strict safeguards on information relating to American citizens that is accidentally acquired. But if Obama has indeed authorized the passage of signals intelligence to Israel without any screening and without any effective controls on how it is used, which would include phone calls, emails, and metadata relating to American citizens, why isn’t he being forced to answer questions regarding what exactly he has done and how that fits in with his assertions about respecting privacy? Or broader questions about national security? Where are the Republicans and the so-called progressives concerned about the constitution and civil liberties who should be demanding answers? As soon as the subject turns to Israel they become very shy, apparently, but these are all symptoms of a government that has pari passu become only answerable to itself, particularly when the media is uninterested in a story that it finds embarrassing. It is not what the Founders of the United States envisioned and it hardly benefits the American people, but it is what we have. Unfortunately.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.