The latest crumb of information to emerge from the Snowden files is a claim that the NSA shares shares raw intelligence data with Israel, including data gathered from US citizens. Use of the data is governed only by a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with no real legal force.
Cynics will not be surprised. Within the US, other agencies including the DEA, Homeland Security, and the Secret Service have also been given access to data collected by the NSA. The official line is that such sharing is limited and subject to strict controls. Reading between the lines, it sounds as if the NSA’s own innate secretiveness may play a bigger role in limiting the unchecked flow of information out of Fort Meade than any official safeguards against misuse.
Once the first steps have been taken to allow a government agency to look where it couldn’t before, any new powers available will quickly be expanded beyond their intended use. In New York, police were given the power to search the bags of anyone entering the subway system as an anti-terrorist measure. The program was not particularly useful for its ostensible goal: a would-be bomber who spotted police at one subway entrance could usually find another station with no checkpoint only a little distance away, or might choose to set off his bomb on a bus or in a department store. It’s doubtful that the program made New Yorkers any safer. However, in the event that a bag search disclosed something else — drugs or weapons, for example — the NYPD was authorized to make an arrest. An ineffective measure against ‘terrorism’ offered the police the opportunity to go fishing for evidence of other crimes.
Similarly, it took less than two years for the anti-terrorist PATRIOT Act to be turned to other purposes, including the investigation of a Las Vegas strip-club owner suspected of bribery. By 2007, a government audit had determined that the FBI was guilty of ‘serious misuse’ of some of the powers given to it by the Act, violations not merely of the spirit but of the actual letter of the law.
So it’s no surprise to learn that all the new powers that the NSA has quietly awarded itself are already being used in ways that go far beyond the agency’s official remit, and that information gathered is being shared, often without restriction, with those that the NSA sees as its natural ‘partners’, including foreign powers. To date, only Israel has been named as a recipient of raw intelligence. You don’t need to be a cynic, merely a realist, to think that it’s probably not the only one, and that raw or processed intelligence derived from the NSA’s broad surveillance of Americans will be or has already been shared with other foreign states, including some that we would consider despotic.
The NSA, of course, isn’t telling, and unless another Snowden comes forward, we’re unlikely ever to hear about it.