By Yossi Melman
October 16, 2008 "Haaretz" ---- In 2006 the Check Point Software Technologies company, which specializes in protecting computer systems from hackers and data theft, wanted to acquire an American company called Sourcefire, which works in the same field. The great advantage of Sourcefire was that its clients include the American Defense Department and the National Security Agency. The U.S. administration, however, by means of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, did not approve the acquisition.
The committee made its decision based on an opinion by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA security officers. The two organizations were afraid that Check Point, which was founded by Gil Shwed and fellow graduates of Unit 8200, the Israel Defense Forces' high-tech intelligence unit, would have access to top-secret information, which it could pass on to Israel's intelligence community.
The fear and suspicion currently is directed not only toward Check Point, but also other Israeli high-tech companies like Verint, Comverse, NICE Systems and PerSay Voice Biometrics, some of which work in data mining and engage in software development for tapping telephones, fax machines, e-mail and computer communications.
The above accusations come from journalist and writer James Bamford, whose new book, "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America" (Doubleday), came out this week in the United States.
Bamford, a former producer for the ABC television network, has spent the last 30 years writing about the NSA - one of the most important and least-known intelligence agencies in the United States, but usually in the shadow of the Central Intelligence Agency. The NSA is responsible for eavesdropping on telephones, fax machines and computers; intercepting communications and electromagnetic signals from radar equipment, aircraft, missiles, ships and submarines; and decoding transmissions and cracking codes. It has contributed immeasurably to U.S. intelligence and national security.
In this respect, the United States resembles Israel: Successes attributed to the Mossad should often be credited to other intelligence units - first and foremost Unit 8200, the Israeli equivalent of the NSA.
This is Bamford's third book, and it affords a look into the mazes of the NSA. In 1982 the Justice department threatened to prosecute him for revealing agency secrets in his first book, "The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization." In his second book, "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency," he described the NSA with a great deal of enthusiasm, which made him the organization's hero of the day. The NSA even organized a party in his honor at headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. His new book, which is critical of the NSA, has sent him back to his starting point.
Bamford's main thesis is that before September 11, 2001, the agency failed along with other intelligence agencies in understanding the Al-Qaida threat, even though it had intercepted members' phone calls and e-mails. This stemmed in part from excessive caution for upholding laws and respecting citizens' privacy. In April 2000, then-NSA director general Michael Hayden (currently the director of the CIA), vividly described to a Congressional committee how, if at that very moment Osama bin Laden were to step onto the Peace Bridge at Niagara Falls and cross into the United States, "my people must respect his rights."
After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the organization swung over to the other extreme. According to Bamford, since September 11 the NSA has had no compunctions about violating the Constitution and has been eavesdropping on American citizens.
One of the outstanding examples in the book, which has been well-covered in the American media, is the fact that the NSA has listened in on bedroom conversations of journalists, military officers and officials serving in Iraq. The NSA may eavesdrop on and intercept transmissions outside the United States, but cannot do so to American citizens without a court order.
Another of Bamford's important assertions, which also concerns Israel, is that the largest telephony and communications companies in the United States - in fact all of them except QWEST - have cooperated with the NSA, allowing it to tap their lines and optic fibers.
The above-mentioned Israeli companies and others are important software and technology suppliers for not only the American telephony companies, but for the NSA itself. Bamford claims that 80 percent of all American telephone transmissions are conducted by means of the Israeli companies' technology, know-how and accessibility. Thus, Bamford believes, the American intelligence community is exposing itself to the risk that the Israeli companies will access its most secret and sensitive digital information.
Bamford does not provide any backing for this thesis; he only points to a circumstantial relationship. The Israeli companies were largely established by graduates of 8200, and therefore he says they are connected by their umbilical cords to Israeli intelligence, and their CEOs and boards of directors include senior Shin Bet officials like Arik Nir or former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy (Nir is the CEO of Athlone Global Security, a hedge fund that has invested inter alia in PerSay Voice Biometrics, and Ephraim Halevy is a member of the Athlone Advisory Board).
To put it mildly, Bamford has no love lost for Israel. In his articles, he publishes claims by American Navy officials who believe Israel maliciously attacked the American spy ship Liberty during the 1967 Six-Day War. He holds that the September 11 attack did not stem from radical Islam's basic hatred of America, but rather from its anger at the United States' support for Israel. He calls the nineteen September 11 terrorists "soldiers" and describes them with a great deal of sympathy - Davids who "only" demolished four airplanes of the American Goliath.
In this context, and apparently because of his deep hostility, Bamford asserts that in light of the problematic record of Israel, which did not hesitate to spy against America on American soil, Israeli companies should not have been given the keys to the kingdom of America's secrets. His attitude toward Israel apparently pushes him over the psychological brink, as his book hardly mentions the close cooperation between the two countries' intelligence communities, mainly in the war against international jihad terror or in monitoring Iran.
© Copyright 2008 Haaretz. All rights reserved