The head of the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA), Admiral Michael Rogers, was secretly in Israel last week for a working visit that dealt with forging closer cooperation in the cyber field with the Israel Defense Forces’ Intelligence Corps Unit 8200, especially against attacks by Iran and Hezbollah, a senior Israeli official told Haaretz on Sunday.
The NSA is the largest agency of the American intelligence community and deals with signal intelligence through monitoring, interception and analysis of communications such as telephone conversations, emails, communications between computers and other sources. The NSA is also responsible for protecting the computer and communications networks of the U.S. government from cyberattacks by hostile forces. It also carries out its own cyberattacks on countries or individuals that are considered intelligence or operational targets.
A senior Israeli official told Haaretz that Rogers came to Israel as a guest of the commander of Unit 8200, but also met with senior officials from other Israeli intelligence agencies.
Rogers did not meet with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot or the director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi in the course of his visit.
Rogers is also head of the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command. One of the subjects that apparently came up in his discussions in Israel was the IDF cyber arm, the creation of which Eisenkot announced last June, and that will bring together all the various IDF cyber entities under its aegis.
The senior Israeli official noted that one of the subjects that Rogers discussed while in Israel was cooperation in the field of cyber defense, particularly in the face of attacks from Iran and Hezbollah.
A few days before Rogers’ arrival in Israel, noted Haaretz, the U.S. Justice Department filed indictments for the first time against a group of Iranian hackers on charges of carrying out cyberattacks on banks and essential infrastructure in the U.S. three years ago at the behest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Israel has also faced cyberattacks from Iran and Hezbollah, which according to senior IDF officers were prominent during the fighting with Hamas and its allies in Gaza in the summer of 2014, but have risen in intensity in recent months.
A senior IDF official said last month that cyberattacks against Israel - while still ongoing - were down overall in 2015 compared to previous years, though he added that there is still room for improvement in the IDF's ongoing battle against cyber warfare.
A book by New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger has claimed that the NSA and Unit 8200 cooperated on an offensive cyber operation against the Iranian nuclear program that was given the code name Olympic Games. As part of the operation, carried out between 2008 and 2011, the two agencies allegedly created the computer worm dubbed Stuxnet and planted it in the communications networks of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.
Following the Stuxnet virus, the Flame virus which was reportedly related to Stuxnet also surfaced in 2012 and disrupted computers in several Arab countries, including Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, and Sudan.
Iran also claimed later that Israel and Saudi Arabia had teamed up to launch another virus, similar to the Stuxnet virus, to disrupt its nuclear program.
Cooperation between the NSA and Unit 8200 is deep, intimate and has been ongoing for decades, noted Haaretz. NSA documents leaked by former agent Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of this cooperation. For example, a top-secret NSA memorandum from April 2013 that was published in August 2014 on The Intercept website said the NSA was maintaining far-reaching technical and research ties with Unit 8200 and was sharing information with it on access, interception, goals, language, analysis and reporting.