Washington — In Moscow this summer, while reporting a story for Wired
magazine, I had the rare opportunity to hang out for three days with Edward
J. Snowden. It gave me a chance to get a deeper understanding of who he is
and why, as a National Security Agency contractor, he took the momentous
step of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
Among his most shocking discoveries, he told me, was the fact that the
N.S.A. was routinely passing along the private communications of Americans
to a large and very secretive Israeli military organization known as Unit
8200. This transfer of intercepts, he said, included the contents of the
communications as well as metadata such as who was calling whom.
Typically, when such sensitive information is transferred to another country,
it would first be “minimized,” meaning that names and other personally
identifiable information would be removed. But when sharing with Israel,
the N.S.A. evidently did not ensure that the data was modified in this way.
Mr. Snowden stressed that the transfer of intercepts to Israel contained the
communications — email as well as phone calls — of countless Arab- and
Palestinian-Americans whose relatives in Israel and the Palestinian
territories could become targets based on the communications. “I think
that’s amazing,” he told me. “It’s one of the biggest abuses we’ve seen.”
It appears that Mr. Snowden’s fears were warranted. Last week, 43 veterans
of Unit 8200 — many still serving in the reserves — accused the organization
of startling abuses. In a letter to their commanders, to Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu and to the head of the Israeli army, they charged that
Israel used information collected against innocent Palestinians for “political
persecution.” In testimonies and interviews given to the media, they
specified that data were gathered on Palestinians’ sexual orientations,
infidelities, money problems, family medical conditions and other private
matters that could be used to coerce Palestinians into becoming collaborators
or create divisions in their society.
The veterans of Unit 8200 declared that they had a “moral duty” to no longer
“take part in the state’s actions against Palestinians.” An Israeli military
spokesman disputed the letter’s overall drift but said the charges would be
It should trouble the American public that some or much of the information
in question — intended not for national security purposes but simply to
pursue political agendas — may have come directly from the N.S.A.’s
domestic dragnet. According to documents leaked by Mr. Snowden and
reported by the British newspaper The Guardian, the N.S.A. has been sending
intelligence to Israel since at least March 2009.
The memorandum of agreement between the N.S.A. and its Israeli
counterpart covers virtually all forms of communication, including but not
limited to “unevaluated and unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex,
voice and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content.” The memo
also indicates that the N.S.A. does not filter out American communications
before delivery to Israel; indeed, the agency “routinely sends” unminimized
Although the memo emphasizes that Israel should make use of the intercepts
in accordance with United States law, it also notes that the agreement is
legally unenforceable. “This agreement,” it reads, “is not intended to create
any legally enforceable rights and shall not be construed to be either an
international agreement or a legally binding instrument according to
It should also trouble Americans that the N.S.A. could head down a similar
path in this country. Indeed, there is some indication, from a top-secret
2012 document from Mr. Snowden’s leaked files that I saw last year, that it
already is. The document, from Gen. Keith B. Alexander, then the director of
the N.S.A., notes that the agency had been compiling records of visits to
pornographic websites and proposes using that information to damage the
reputations of people whom the agency considers “radicalizers” — not
necessarily terrorists, but those attempting, through the use of incendiary
speech, to radicalize others. (The Huffington Post has published a redacted
version of the document.)*
In Moscow, Mr. Snowden told me that the document reminded him of the
F.B.I.’s overreach during the days of J. Edgar Hoover, when the bureau
abused its powers to monitor and harass political activists. “It’s much like
how the F.B.I. tried to use Martin Luther King’s infidelity to talk him into
killing himself,” he said. “We said those kinds of things were inappropriate
back in the ’60s.
Why are we doing that now? Why are we getting involved
in this again?”
It’s a question that American and Israeli citizens should be asking
* A "Top-Secret Document Reveals NSA Spied On Porn Habits As Part Of Plan To Discredit
'Radicalizers'" Huffington Post, Jan. 23, 2014.
This article was first published at The New York Times.
V. James Bamford is an American bestselling author and journalist noted for his writing about United States intelligence agencies, especially the National Security Agency. Bamford has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, as a distinguished visiting professor and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper's, and many other publications. In 2006, he won the National Magazine Award for Reporting for his article, "The Man Who Sold The War," published in Rolling Stone.
James Bamford is the author of three books on the National Security
Agency, including The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret N.S.A. from 9/11 to
the Eavesdropping on America.