“GCHQ files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden include a series of ‘Anarchist snapshots’ — thumbnail images from videos recorded by drone cameras,” The Intercept reported. “The files also show location data mapping the flight paths of the aircraft. In essence, U.S. and British agencies stole a bird’s-eye view from the drones.”
An Israeli official downplayed the significance of the report on Friday, telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the revelations weren’t “very dramatic.” Israeli military operations were not harmed in the process, the source told Haaretz, adding that “it goes without saying that foreign intelligence elements in the Middle East detect our operations, just like we detect the operations of other states in the region.”
Officials at the NSA couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, and have historically declined to comment on classified programs.
Anarchist was first started in 1998, according to The Intercept. It occasionally hacked into the feeds of drones operated by Syria and Hezbollah, but the bulk of the effort was focused on Israel, which has long had a complicated relationship with the United States when it comes to spying and intelligence collection. A summary of the CIA’s budget, also released by Snowden, notes that Israel is a “priority” target for U.S. counterintelligence operations. Although allies, the United States and Israel have a history of spying on one another.
Photographs from the program appear to show Israeli drones equipped with missiles. Israel has long declined to discuss the arming of any of its unmanned aircraft, saying they are used for surveillance and to mark targets so that fighter jets and others manned aircraft can carry out airstrikes.
A 2008 British military document quoted by The Intercept suggested the Anarchist program was “indispensable” for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military operations and gaining insight into possible future developments in the region.
“In times of crisis,” it said, “this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up to the minute information and support to U.S. and Allied operations in the area.”
Military technology experts do not consider hacking into a video feed from a manned jet or drone to be difficult. In 2009, for example, U.S. defense officials acknowledged in media reports that Iranian-backed militants in Iraq had used off-the-shelf software costing about $26 to hack the video feeds of Predator drones.
Air Force officials said that year that they were working toward encrypting all feeds by 2014. It is not clear if that has occurred.