Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Israel's omniscient ears

While I am on the subject of Israel. This is interesting...
With thanks to HHQ for sending it my way!

Israel’s Urim base in the Negev desert is among the most important and powerful intelligence gathering sites in the world. Yet, until now, its eavesdropping has gone entirely unmentioned

Israel’s most important intelligence-gathering installation is only a 30km drive into the Negev desert from Beersheba prison – where those taking part in the Gaza aid flotilla were briefly detained this June. The base, hidden until now, has rows of satellite dishes that covertly intercept phone calls, emails and other communications from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Its antennas monitor shipping and would have spied on the aid ships in the days before they were seized.

Israel’s powerful position in the Middle East is often associated with its armed forces, nuclear weapons arsenal or covert (Mossad) operatives. But just as important is its intelligence gathering – monitoring governments, international organisations, foreign companies, political organisations and individuals. Most of this happens at the installation in the Negev a couple of kilometres to the north of the kibbutz of Urim. Our sources, close to Israeli intelligence, know the base first-hand. They describe lines of satellite dishes of different sizes, and barracks and operations buildings on both sides of the road (the 2333) that leads to the base. High security gates, fences and dogs protect the facility. As you can see on the internet, the satellite images of the base are quite clear. A practised eye easily discerns the signs of an electronic surveillance base. A large circle in the farmland shows the site of a direction-finding antenna (HF/DF) for monitoring shipping.

The Urim base was established decades ago to monitor Intelsat satellites that relay phone calls between countries. It expanded to cover maritime communications (Inmarsat), then rapidly targeted ever more numerous regional satellites. As such, says intelligence specialist Duncan Campbell, it is “akin to the UK-USA pact’s Echelon satellite interception ground stations”. The Echelon system is a network of interception stations around the world, set up in 1996 by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Satellite phones used by the Gaza-bound aid ships were easy targets for this hi-tech equipment.

Our Israeli sources described how the computers are “programmed to detect words and phone numbers of interest” from intercepted phone calls, emails etc, then transferred to Unit 8200 – the headquarters of Israeli signals intelligence – in the city of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. There they are translated and passed on to other agencies, including the army and Mossad.

Unit 8200 and its counterparts – the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the American National Security Agency (NSA) – are less famous than their foreign intelligence and special operations agencies (MI6, the CIA and Mossad). Yet the signals agencies are far bigger.

The Urim base targets many nations, friend and foe. A former analyst at Unit 8200, a military service conscript, said she worked full time translating intercepted calls and emails from English and French into Hebrew. It was “interesting” work, studying routine communications to find the nuggets. Her section listened mostly to “diplomatic traffic and other off-shore [international] signals”. They also searched public internet sites.

The Urim base, said our sources, is the centre of a spying network that taps undersea cables (notably Mediterranean cables linking Israel to Europe via Sicily) and has covert listening posts in Israeli embassy buildings abroad. Unit 8200, which is officially part of the Israeli army, also has secret monitoring units within the Palestinian territories and uses Gulfstream jets fitted out as signals intelligence aircraft.

Excluding television satellites, most satellites, in an arc stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, are probable targets: European, Arab, Russian and Asian, as well as the Intelsat and Inmarsat satellites. Images of the base show 30 listening antennas, making Urim one of the largest signals intelligence bases in the world. The only comparable-sized station is a US facility at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, UK.

Other stations have been known about since the 1980s. There is a large NSA base near the German city of Bad Aibling, and another US base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, just northwest of an airbase with a runway full of B-52 bombers. The main UK base, at Morwenstow, Cornwall, can be spotted through its 20 listening antennas above the cliffs. France has its own network, known as Frenchelon, under the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), which includes several bases in France and its overseas territories.

But unlike these, Israel’s spy facility at Urim remained invisible for decades.

First thought that popped in my head? Blackmail opportunities. 9/11.



  2. regarding the Israeli listening capabilities

    Xymphora says "This isn't a secret, so the point becomes the timing of the 'revelation'." and I agree - why mention it now?

    Then I remembered something written by a lady called Mary Rizzo, who helps run the website

    "consider this fact: not a single word gets printed in papers in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories unless it has first passed through the IDF military and Shabak censors. This means, you know what they want you to know. Ask why... they want you to know what you see. Play the devil's advocate.

    We also have to realise precisely WHAT news they allow out. Today's big scoop is that they have a spy system bigger than Echelon. Oh big surprise! But the point of my thinking on it today is that not only was it picked up in the media that the folks who are going to be pro-Palestinian are reading, but it was published by Salerno in today's Il Messaggero... the point is, the Monday edition of this paper is the biggest one they sell all week, it's got the sport info about the two Roman football teams, so your average person is going to buy it and then read this: Israel spies on you more than any kind of spy operation ever, and this means, they also listen to what you say on the telephone.

    What does that do? It gets average Jane/Joe to NOT talk about Israel then if they aren't going to say something nice.

    wow! We get great gatekeeping going and tell me this is not a Hasbara op? Tell me that they didn't want it this way!

    I also mentioned that for many years Gilad Atzmon and I were chatting on the telephone one or two hours a day. We talked about Israel for 95% of that time. I don't want to make too many comments about it, but the point is, we were aware that we might be listened to, either his phone or mine, so once in a while we would salute the Mossad people directly. If they want you to be afraid, they will get you to shut up by giving it to you in a trustworthy form and making you think it is an intel leak.

    The IDF probably draws up the news they need to get out and assigns journos!!!"

  3. Even more interesting is how the article either deliberately or accidentally misspells the Unit's name. It's actually 8-200 and its name allegedly comes from its founding members: 8 Ashkenazi Jews and 200 Iraqi immigrants who were specialists in wireless communications and had worked for Iraqi Railways.

    Curiouser and curiouser.