JERUSALEM—Operating out of a mountaintop facility in Cyprus, British and American intelligence agencies have for years been watching what Israeli military drones are watching, according to documents leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.
The information, published by the Intercept, reveals an intensive surveillance effort against Israel aimed, in particular, at detecting indications of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
The American-British operation was able to crack top secret Israeli codes that gave them access to the cockpits of Israeli fighter planes in combat operations over the Gaza Strip and to the videos being scooped up by Israeli drones over a large part of the Middle East, possibly over Iran as well.
Though the United States and Israel often share signals intelligence, they have had little hesitation about spying on each other as well. Israel declared that it had stopped spying on the United States after the arrest in 1985 of Jonathan Pollard, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy, who had provided high-grade intelligence to Israel. He was released last year after 30 years imprisonment.
Israeli officials did not choose to make an issue of the report in the Intercept, which is associated with Glenn Greenwald, who has made Snowden’s leaks available to international media.
"I do not think that this is the deepest kingdom of secrets," said Yuval Steinetz, a member of Israel’s security cabinet, regarding the latest leak. "We will now have to look and consider changing the encryption, certainly."
The documents, which include videos taken by drones, show that the British-U.S. operation, which has been going on since 1988, was also hacking other nations in the area, from North Africa to Iran, although special focus appeared to be placed on Israel and the possibility that it might launch a strike against Iran. The intercepts were made from a base atop Cyprus’ Troodos Mountains, the highest elevation in the island. The code name for the operation was "Anarchist".
"This access (to Israel’s fleet of drones) is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations," said one document, "and thus an insight into possible future developments in the area."
In 1997, 12 Israeli naval commandos were killed after landing on the Lebanese coast on a mission to assassinate a Shi’ite operative. Eleven were killed in a well-laid ambush. The dismayed Israelis could not understand how Hezbollah could have known the time and place of the commando landing. They would eventually learn that Hezbollah had managed to intercept transmissions from Israeli drones which had been circling the area for weeks, and perhaps other transmissions as well. Israel subsequently invested resources in developing more sophisticated encryption. For Israeli encoders, it will now be back to the drawing board.