Breaking the Taboo on Israel's Spying Efforts on the United States
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A former senior counterintelligence official in the Bush administration told me that as early as 1999, "CIA was very concerned about [Israeli wiretapping companies]" -- Verint in particular. "I know that CIA has tried to monitor what the Israelis were doing -- technically watch what they were doing on the networks in terms of remote access. Other countries were concerned as well," said the intelligence official. Jim Bamford, who notes that Verint "can automatically access the mega-terabytes of stored and real-time data secretly and remotely from anywhere," reports that Australian lawmakers in 2004 held hearings on this remote monitoring capability. "[Y]ou can access data from overseas," the lawmakers told a Verint representative during the hearings, "but [the legislature] seems restricted to access data within that system." The Australians found this astonishing. In 2000, the Canadian intelligence service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, conducted "a probe related to allegations that [Israeli] spies used rigged software to hack into Canada's top secret intelligence files," according to an article in the Toronto Star. Several sources in the U.S. intelligence community told me the Canadians liaised with their American counterparts to try to understand the problem. According to the Bush administration official who spoke with me, "the Dutch also had come to the CIA very concerned about what the Israelis were doing with this." The Dutch intelligence service, under contract with Verint, "had discovered strange things were going on -- there was activity on the network, the Israelis uploading and downloading stuff out of the switches, remotely, and apparently using it for their own wiretap purposes. The CIA was very embarrassed to say, ‘We have the same problem.’ But the CIA didn’t have an answer for them. ‘We hear you, we’re surprised, and we understand your concern.’" Indeed, sources in the Dutch counterintelligence community in 2002 claimed there was "strong evidence that the Israeli secret service has uncontrolled access to confidential tapping data collected by the Dutch police and intelligence services," according to the Dutch broadcast radio station Evangelische Omroep (EO). In January 2003, the respected Dutch technology and computing magazine, C’T, ran a follow-up to the EO story, headlined "Dutch Tapping Room not Kosher." The article states: "All tapping equipment of the Dutch intelligence services and half the tapping equipment of the national police force [is] insecure and is leaking information to Israel."
"The key to this whole thing is that Australian meeting," Bamford told me in a recent interview. "They accused Verint of remote access and Verint said they won’t do it again -- which implies they were doing it in the past. It’s a matter of a backdoor into the system, and those backdoors should not be allowed to exist. You can tell by the Australian example that it was certainly a concern of Australian lawmakers."
Congress doesn’t seem to share the concern. "Part of the responsibility of Congress," says Bamford, "is not just to oversee the intelligence community but to look into the companies with which the intelligence community contracts. They’re just very sloppy about this." According to the Bush administration intelligence official who spoke with me, "Frustratingly, I did not get the sense that our government was stepping up to this and grasping the bull by the horns." Another former high level U.S. intelligence official told me, "The fact of the vulnerability of our telecom backbone is indisputable. How it came to pass, why nothing has been done, who has done what -- these are the incendiary questions." There is also the fundamental fact that the wiretap technologies implemented by Verint, Narus and other Israeli companies are fully in place and no alternative is on the horizon. "There is a technical path dependence problem," says the Bush administration official. "I have been told nobody else makes software like this for the big digital switches, so that is part of the problem. Other issues," he adds, "compound the problem" -- referring to the sensitivity of the U.S.-Israel relationship.