Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, meeting with President Obama earlier this year. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters
According to the Guardian's report about a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) between the NSA and Israel's Signit agency, (ISNU), the "NSA shares raw intelligence including Americans' data with Israel". This has been interpreted as meaning that the NSA routinely shares raw intelligence data it gathers with Israel, without removing information about US citizens.
While Israel is one of America's closest allies, it is not a part of the "Five Eyes" – a term used for the core countries involved in surveillance sharing with the US – Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. So what makes this case unique is the fact that the same unminimized raw data might be shared with Israel. This is a problem, the Guardian reports, because "[t]he relationship between the US and Israel has been strained at times, both diplomatically and in terms of intelligence."
So let's take a closer look at the memorandum. "[T]he agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis," the Guardian notes. That should not come as a surprise given that a MOU is not a legally binding document. Yet, the MOU does not state that it specifically sends intelligence collections on Americans. Furthermore, one cannot tell from the document that if this kind of information is shared, how much, how regularly, and how broadly does it occur.
Absent is the crucial fact that the MOU lays out the terms of the sharing agreement, recognizing the need for more procedures to minimize any information on American citizens. It obligates the NSA to perform routine checks on the program to measure the quality and fidelity of the information being shared and it places a similar obligation on the Israeli Signit National Unit to identify, exclude, and destroy any information it finds about US citizens.
As the Guardian itself earlier reported, the minimization procedures governing information on US citizens were tightened dramatically in July 2009 – just months after it is said that this US-Israeli intelligence deal was agreed in principle, in March. We don't know how these new rules may have changed the terms of this MOU.
• what the final version of this MOU says;
• whether it changed after minimization rules strengthened later in 2009;
• what those "additional procedures" to minimize American citizen information are;
• how much, if any, American information actually gets passed along;
• what the periodic, annual reviews have said;
• what the two biannual program reviews have said;
• if the program is even ongoing; or
• what the actual implementation of this program looks like.
Simply put, it would be an unwarranted claim to assert that the NSA is routinely sending unminimized information about US citizens to Israel without any protection measures.
The fact remains that the US is engaged in sober and even-handed intelligence-gathering. Of course, the United States should and does share intelligence with Israel – as many of the same people and terrorist groups would target both countries. It is hard to get too concerned about what Israel might do with any unminimized information that might come its way. They have very real threats along their borders and beyond. It is most likely that Israel's resources are devoted to the terrorist groups and hostile governments in their own neighborhood, rather than the email I just sent my parents.
JE Dyer, a retired US naval officer who blogs as the Optimistic Conservative elaborates:
It gives me no more heartburn to know that unminimized material may go to Israeli intelligence than to know that it may go to British intelligence. The concerns I have with the NSA program are fourth amendment concerns as an American citizen. The issue is collecting data in the first place without probable cause.
And that is the central issue here; not Israel.