In 2006, as Israel and Hezbollah waged a brief but brutal war in south Lebanon, Israeli military officials used private channels to pressure their American counterparts in the National Security Agency for intelligence to help assassinate Hezbollah operatives, according to a pair of top-secret NSA documents, released this week by The Intercept.
The documents, part of the trove of records leaked by Edward Snowden, are a rare glimpse of how the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, the Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU), collaborate under the restrictions of U.S. law.
(Because of staff cutbacks The Intercept says it will no longer report on the Snowden documents regularly. This type of reporting, with unusual detail of the inner workings of the intelligence community, is at risk.)
An internal presentation documents the NSA-ISNU relationship about which little is known. Relations got difficult in 2006 when Israel tried and failed to destroy Hezbollah, giving rise to the feeling even in Israel, that Hezbollah had fought to a draw.
One NSA official in Tel Aviv recounted, “I had several late-night, sometimes tense, discussions with ISNU detailing NSA’s legal prohibition on providing information that could be used in targeted killings.”
Eventually, the Americans came up with a new “framework,” not described in the documents, that satisfied the Israelis, if not the law.
Murtaza Hussain notes the NSA-ISNU relationship is more relevant than ever as tensions in the Middle East mount with President Trump’s pressure campaign against Iran and Hezbollah.
There are ominous signs that Israel and Lebanon are nearing another confrontation, during which the ISNU may again lean on the NSA for support. Although Israeli intelligence-gathering capabilities are believed to have improved since the last war, Hezbollah has also reportedly acquired significant new arms and fortified areas under its control in southern Lebanon. The IDF recently carried out operations near the Lebanese border to uncover tunnels said to have been dug by Hezbollah, and the Israeli Air Force periodically strikes Hezbollah targets in neighboring Syria.
Will NSA and INSU collaborate in the event of another war? Probably.