Unit 8200 Refuseniks Make Visible for Israel What Remains Invisible in the US

Last week, 43 reserve members of Israel’s equivalent to the NSA, Unit 8200, released a letter announcing they would refuse to take actions against Palestinians because the spying done on them amounts to persecution of innocent people. The IDF has responded the same way government agencies here would — scolding the whistleblowers for not raising concerns in official channels. But the letter has elicited rare public discussion about the ethics and morality of spying.

One of the allegations made by the refuseniks highlighted in the English press is that Israel used SIGINT to recruit collaborators, which in turn divides the Palestinian community.

The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. While there are severe limitations on the surveillance of Israeli citizens, the Palestinians are not afforded this protection. There’s no distinction between Palestinians who are, and are not, involved in violence. Information that is collected and stored harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed. Intelligence allows for the continued control over millions of people through thorough and intrusive supervision and invasion of most areas of life. This does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence further distancing us from the end of the conflict. [my emphasis]

These refuseniks, apparently, have access both to the intelligence they collect and how it is used. That means they’re in a position to talk about the effects of Unit 8200’s spying. And press coverage has made it sound like something that would uniquely happen to occupied Palestinians.

It’s not.

We know of one way that the NSA’s dragnet is definitely being used to recruit informants (aka collaborators), and another whether it it permissible to use.

The first way is via the phone dragnet. As I have noted, the government has twice told the FISA Court — once in 2006 and once in 2009 — that FBI uses dragnet derived information to identify people who might cooperate (aka inform or collaborate) in investigations. Once people come up on a 2-degree search, they are dumped into the corporate store indefinitely, data mined with sufficient information to find embarrassing and illegal things. Apparently, FBI uses such data to coerce cooperation, though we have no details on the process.

All the revealing things metadata shows? The government uses that information to obtain informants.

One way the government probably does this is by using the connections identified by metadata analysis (remember, this is not just phone and Internet data, but also includes financial and travel data, at a minimum) to put people on the No Fly list, regardless of whether they are a real threat to this country. Then, No Fly listees have alleged, FBI promises help getting them off that life-altering status if they inform on their community.

More troubling still is FBI’s uncounted use of warrantless back door searches of US person content when conducting assessments. As I noted, in addition to doing assessments in response to “tips,” the FBI will use them to profile communities or identify potential informants.

As the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide describes, assessments are used for “prompt and extremely limited checking out of initial leads.” No factual predicate (that is, no real evidence of wrong-doing) is required before the FBI starts an assessment. While FBI cannot use First Amendment activities as the sole reason for assessments, they can be considered. In addition to looking into leads about individual people, FBI uses assessments as part of the process for Domain Assessments (what FBI calls their profiling of Muslim communities) and the selection of informants to try to recruit. In some cases, an Agent doesn’t need prior approval to open an assessment; in others, they may get oral approval (though for several kinds, an Agent must get a formal memo approved before opening an assessment). And while Agents are supposed to record all assessments, for some assessments, they’re very cursory reports — basically complaint forms. That is, for certain types of assessments, FBI is not generating its most formal paperwork to track the process.

So while I can’t point to a DOJ claim to FISC that these back door searches are useful because they help find informants, it appears to be possible. Plus, as early as 2002, Ted Olson said they would use evidence of rape collected using traditional FISA to talk someone into cooperating (aka inform or collaborate); that was the reason he gave for blowing the wall between intelligence and criminal investigations to smithereens.

Indeed, knowing the way the government uses phone dragnet information as an index to collected content, the government may well use phone dragnet metadata to pick which Americans to subject to warrantless back door searches.

It sounds really awful when we hear about Israel using SIGINT — including information we provide without minimizing it — to spy on Palestinians.

But we have a good deal of reason to believe the US intelligence community — in collaboration — does similar things, spying on Muslim communities and using SIGINT to recruit collaborators that end up sowing paranoia and distrust in the communities.

Not only don’t we have a group of refuseniks who, among themselves, can explain how all of this works. But how the FBI uses all this data is precisely what the government intends to keep secret under the so-called “transparency” provisions of USA Freedom Act. While I will provide more detail in a follow-up post, remember that the FBI refuses to count its back door searches, which means it would be almost impossible for anyone to get a real sense of how these warrantless back door searches on US persons are used. It also has asserted it does not need to disclose evidence derived from Section 215 to criminal defendants, which is another way the evidence against defendants gets hidden.

It’s awful that Israel is doing it. But it’s even worse that we’re almost certainly doing the same, but that we can only find hints of how it is being done.

15 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Perhaps this is enough to reinstate the odd tenured professor, fired for privately criticizing Israeli policies, using private resources on their own time. Then again, this isn’t Israel.

  2. RUKidding says:

    “…because the spying done on them amounts to persecution of innocent people.”

    How quaint of Unit 8200 to see things this way. Why it’s so last Century to think that something like spying on Palestinians amounts to persecution, for heaven’s sake. Plus who cares if Palestinians, of all people, are persecuted anyway? Isn’t that what they’re there for?

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Not an original thought but worth repeating: the “third world” is not a phase of development leading, if interruptedly, to “first world” status. The first world owes its existence to the third world and vice versa.

  4. orionATL says:

    these individuals engaged in a remarkable act of conscience and courage. unit 8200 is precisely what the united state’s nsa is destined to become.

    as has been noted here, the u.s. and israel share communications obtained from their govt spying efforts.

    the info is shared unfiltered as i understand it, a very unusual thing for the u.s. to do. thus palestinian-americans have their communications stolen by the u.s. govt and then passed on to israel. the israeli government then uses this info against families and contacts of those americans. this is one of the most immoral activities associated with u.s. govt’s spying that i have heard of.

    having closely followed the case of professor stephen salaita at univ of illinois c-u, i wonder now if certain professors and other palestinian-americans who speak out and organize against israel vis-a-vis the palestinians (juan cole, john mearshimer) might not be victims of a very widespread israeli government-american zionist plot to track and then shut down their public criticism of israel.

  5. What Constitution? says:

    Remind me, again, somebody, why the “legitimacy” of this can be explained by “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”?

  6. Bose in St. Peter MN says:

    It’s downright disgusting if allegations prove true of Israeli operatives threatening closeted LGBT Palestinians with outing them unless they “collaborate.”

    You fathered a kid by someone other than your spouse? Let’s talk. Mental health or addiction in the family which could destroy you? Really, we’d love to collaborate on a thing or three.

  7. wallace says:

    quote”While I will provide more detail in a follow-up post, remember that the FBI refuses to count its back door searches, which means it would be almost impossible for anyone to get a real sense of how these warrantless back door searches on US persons are used. “unquote

    Warrantless. Back door searches. On US persons. Really? Nawww. I don’t believe it!!! I mean,…how could that be happening??? After all, our current God fearing FBI director is the quintessential embodiment of law abiding, ethics bound, perfect human beings..I mean..I’m shocked!! Shocked I tell you!!! After all, in order to cleanse his grasshopper body and mind of all immorality and evilness, took a double major in religion and Alchemy….er…chemistry at William & Mary and wrote his senior thesis on theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr!! And THEN, armed with the righteousness of godlike ethics, confronted the Bush DOJ evildoers in a historical hospital room battle of biblical proportions, whereby he shielded the world from a coup d’etat of law, thereby earning his place in the annuls of Great Moments In DOJ Internal Conflict!!! I mean..if that weren’t enough, he then spent Bush’s second term, and Obama’s first, voluntarily submitted to honing his talents on the Corporate grindstone, earning millions as a top official at Lockheed Martin!! My god. How much can one human being withstand!!! Apparently, to enter the granite palace of the FBI, those endowed with the childhood memory of being held at gunpoint by a rapist, one must further submit to the Tao of the 67th wealthiest man in the world Wall Street Hedge Fund torture master who water boarded his soul into accepting millions of dollars as a token of worship to “radical truth and transparency” as decreed by the Masters of Order by memorizing verbatim, the entire 123 page Corporate Culture bible of Connecticut-based Bridgewater Associates !!!! (do I hear standing thundering applause !!)


    I mean…we should be on our knees in thankful praise!!!

    ummm…..except…there’s one little problem.

    quote”It also has asserted it does not need to disclose evidence derived from Section 215 to criminal defendants, which is another way the evidence against defendants gets hidden.”unquote

    Naaw. James Comey wouldn’t stand for that…would he? I mean..after all..he makes all new FBI agents visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial!! That’d be Principle #6, “Be radically transparent,” Principle #18, “Be self-reflective and make sure your people are self-reflective” and Principle #19, “Teach and reinforce the merits of mistake-based learning.”

    Mistake based learning??? Ut oh. I smell a skeleton in James Comey’s closet. ..


    bartender.. one bottle of that Michigan cult beer TwoRollingEyes and a shot of DoubleFacePalm.

  8. William A. Hamilton says:

    Danny Casolaro, a free-lance investigative reporter who was found dead in his hotel room in Martinsburg, West Virginia in early August 1991, after spending 12 months on a full-time investigation of the Justice Department’s theft of PROMIS database software from INSLAW, Inc., told the colleague who had suggested he undertake the investigation, that he had discovered that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was administering an unauthorized copy of PROMIS, known as Main Core, at FEMA’s Culpepper, Virginia data center under the Continuity of Government (COG) Program for hand-off to the U.S. Army and the Defense Intelligence Agency in the event of a national catastrophe and the imposition of martial law.
    Casolaro told his colleague that Main Core contained domestic spying intelligence information collected by other agencies.

    Perhaps what you are writing about bears some kind of connection?

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