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Breaking the Taboo on Israel's Spying Efforts on the United States

Israel runs one of the most aggressive and damaging espionage networks targeting the U.S., yet public discussion about it is almost nil.

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U.S. intelligence officers have not been quiet in their concerns about Verint (I reported on this matter in CounterPunch.org last September).  "Phone calls are intercepted, recorded, and transmitted to U.S. investigators by Verint, which claims that it has to be ‘hands on’ with its equipment to maintain the system," says former CIA counterterrorism officer Philip Giraldi.  The "hands on" factor is what bothers Giraldi, specifically because of the possibility of a "trojan" embedded in Verint wiretap software.   A trojan in information security hardware/software is a backdoor that can be accessed remotely by parties who normally would not have access to the secure system.   Allegations of widespread trojan spying have rocked the Israeli business community in recent years.  "Top Israeli blue chip companies," reported the AP in 2005, "are suspected of using illicit surveillance software to steal information from their rivals and enemies."  Over 40 companies have come under scrutiny.  "It is the largest cybercrime case in Israeli history," Boaz Guttmann, a veteran cybercrimes investigator with the Israeli national police, told me.  "Trojan horse espionage is part of the way of life of companies in Israel.  It’s a culture of spying."

In a wide-ranging four-part investigation into Israel-linked espionage that aired in December 2001, Carl Cameron, a correspondent at Fox News Channel, reported the distress among U.S. intelligence officials warning about possible trojans cached in Verint technology.   Sources told Cameron that "while various FBI inquiries into [Verint] have been conducted over the years," the inquiries had "been halted before the actual equipment has ever been thoroughly tested for leaks."   Cameron also cited a 1999 internal FCC document indicating that "several government agencies expressed deep concerns that too many unauthorized non-law enforcement personnel can access the wiretap system."   Much of this access was facilitated through "remote maintenance."

The Fox News report reverberated throughout U.S. law enforcement, particularly at the Drug Enforcement Agency, which makes extensive use of wiretaps for narcotics interdiction. Security officers at DEA, an adjunct of the Justice Department, began examining the agency’s own relationship with Comverse/Verint.  In 1997, DEA had transformed its wiretap infrastructure with the $25 million procurement from Comverse/Verint of a technology called "T2S2" -- "translation and transcription support services" -- with Comverse/Verint contracted to provide the hardware and software.  The company was also tasked with "support services, training, upgrades, enhancements and options throughout the life of the contract," according to the DEA’s "contracts and acquisitions" notice.  In the wake of the Fox News investigation, however, the director of security programs at DEA, Heidi Raffanello, was rattled enough to issue an internal communiqué on the matter, dated Dec. 18, 2001.  Directly referencing Fox News, she worried that "Comverse remote maintenance" was "not addressed in the C&A [contracts and acquisitions] process….It remains unclear if Comverse personnel are security cleared, and if so, who are they and what type of clearances are on record….Bottom line we should have caught it."  It is not known what resulted from DEA’s review of the issue of remote maintenance and access by Comverse/Verint.

Bamford devotes a portion of his argument to the detailing of the operations of a third Israeli wiretap company, NICE Systems, which he describes as "a major eavesdropper in the U.S." that "keeps its government and commercial client list very secret."  Formed in 1986 by seven veterans of Unit 8200, NICE software "captures voice, email, chat, screen activity, and essential call details," while offering "audio compression technology that performs continuous recordings of up to thousands of analog and digital telephone lines and radio channels."  NICE Systems has on at least one occasion shown up on the radar of U.S. counterintelligence.  During 2000-2001, when agents at the FBI and the CIA began  investigating allegations that Israeli nationals posing as "art students" were in fact conducting espionage on U.S. soil, one of the Israeli "art students" was discovered to be an employee with NICE Systems.  Among the targets of the art students were facilities and offices of the Drug Enforcement Agency nationwide. The same Israeli employee of NICE Systems, who was identified as a former operative in the Israeli intelligence services, was carrying a disk that contained a file labeled "DEA Groups."  U.S. counterintelligence officers concluded it was a highly suspicious nexus: An Israeli national and alleged spy was working for an Israeli wiretap company while carrying in his possession computer information regarding the Drug Enforcement Agency -- at the same time this Israeli was conducting what the DEA described as "intelligence gathering" about DEA facilities.

 
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