NSA’s Mideast spying ‘intense’ amid regional upheaval, say experts

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Leaked documents disclosed earlier this week revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted 125 billion phone calls and SMS messages in January 2013, many of them originating in the Middle East.

The NSA’s attention on the Middle East and the surrounding region is far more “intense than anything comparable in Europe,” according to Matthew Aid, a Washington, DC-based intelligence historian and expert.

Strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia over resolving the Syrian conflict could be a possible reason for the NSA’s particularly large targeting of Saudi Arabia - over 7.8 billion times in one month – said Aid.

Saudi-U.S. tension may have also resulted in Obama’s administration being “quite curious” over the kingdom’s thoughts on Syria, as the countries have consistently disagreed on the issue.

Aid, who in 2009 published a history on the NSA entitled “The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency,” said that most of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks have not focused on the agency’s surveillance in the Middle East.

“We’re waiting for that shoe to drop, but it hasn’t,” Aid told Al Arabiya News, stating that leaks by Snowden’s associates have been largely focused “on those countries which will generate immediate reaction in the press and from the governments in question.”

Saudi Arabia and Iraq witnessed 7.8 billion wiretapping incidents from the NSA each, while Egypt and Jordan saw 1.8 billion and 1.6 billion respectively, according to Cryptome, a digital library that publishes leaked documents.

Additionally, over 1.7 billion wiretapping incidents were recorded in Iran.

Commenting on the leaked data, Wesley Wark, a Canada-based global intelligence expert and professor at the University of Ottawa, said that a great majority of the NSA’s vast collection of intercepted data in the region would go unheard.

“It’s probably the case that only a very tiny fragment of all of this material that’s actually collected is every really inspected for intelligence value, and only a tiny portion of the tiny portion may have any real intelligence value itself,” Wark told Al Arabiya News.

The NSA will collect the data in order to “park” in an intelligence framework before sorting through it for any valuable data, the expert said.

“It’s been expressed in the form of this slightly crazy metaphor which is that to find a needle in a haystack, you first have to build the haystack,” he said.

However, the likelihood of the NSA continuing to covertly mine such vast amounts of a possibly valueless data is low, according to Wark.

He suspects that the NSA is beginning to confront a “moment of change,” due to internal political pressure in the United States, international outrage, and a possible conclusion drawn from all this that “building haystacks is not the way to find needles.”

With many of the U.S. government’s allies, such as France and Germany, being so openly upset by the extent of NSA wiretapping, why has no Middle Eastern country made any public response on news of the intelligence leaks?

Wark believes that most of these Middle Eastern states mentioned in the report were already well aware that they were targets of extensive U.S. surveillance.

“It may be that most of these Middle East states were already well aware that in theory, if not in practice, that they were being targeted by American intelligence, and have been for years and years,” he said.

Aid notes that leaks published on Cryptome do not contain any information on many countries in the Arab region, including Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

“We’re missing some important parts of the puzzle,” he said.

According to Aid, Snowden’s leaks show to a fuller extent the level of U.S. spying in the region.

“There’s a lot more to be said [concerning the NSA’s clandestine operations in the Middle East] contained in the Snowden papers, it just hasn’t come out,” he said.

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