The NSA is sharing data with Israel. Before filtering out Americans’ information.

September 11, 2013

NSA headquarters at Forte Meade. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

In the months since Edward Snowden's classified document leaks, the Obama administration has repeatedly assured Americans that the National Security Agency does not intentionally collect information about U.S. citizens. The government has also said that when data are collected "inadvertently," because an American is in contact with a foreign target, the data are protected by strict "minimization procedures" that prevent the information from being misused.

New documents from Snowden reported by the Guardian on Wednesday appear to contradict those claims. They reveal that the NSA has been sharing raw intelligence information with the Israeli government without first filtering it for data on the communications of American citizens.

The relationship was described in a "Memorandum of Understanding" between the NSA and the Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU). The document is undated, but it refers to an earlier agreement "in principle" reached in March 2009. The memo outlines procedures that should be taken by ISNU to protect information regarding Americans and stresses that the constitutional rights of American citizens must be respected by Israeli intelligence staff.

According to the memo, NSA routinely sends ISNU "minimized and unminimized" signal intelligence (sigint) data. In other words, the U.S. government shares intercepted communications with the Israelis without first screening it for sensitive information about Americans.

Israel receives data that "includes, but is not limited to, unevaluated and unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content."

The precautions Israel agrees to use for data on Americans are "consistent with the requirements placed upon the NSA by U.S. law and Executive order to establish safeguards protecting the rights of U.S. persons under the Fourth Amendment," the memo says. The Israelis also promise to use "similar" safeguards for data concerning people in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom; all those countries cooperate closely with the NSA. Israel also agrees not to deliberately target Americans whose information they find in the data.

But these promises are not legally binding. According to the Guardian, the memo states that "this agreement 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 international law."

What's also noteworthy is that the memo allows Israeli intelligence to retain data they identify as belonging to Americans for up to a year. The United States merely requests that they consult the NSA's special liaison adviser at the time they discover such data. But "any data that is either to or from an official of the US government" is supposed to be destroyed as soon as it is recognized.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · September 11, 2013