BY NICKY HAGER
published in Le Monde diplomatique, September 2010
DESERT BASE LISTENS TO THE WORLD TALKING
Israel’s Urim base in the Negev desert is among the most important and powerful intelligence gathering sites in the world. Yet, until now, its eavesdropping has gone entirely unmentioned. Israel’s most important intelligence-gathering installation is only a 30km drive into the Negev desert from Beersheba prison – where those taking part in the Gaza aid ﬂotilla were brieﬂy detained this June. The base, hidden until now, has rows of satellite dishes that covertly intercept phone calls, emails and other communications from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Its antennas monitor shipping and would have spied on the aid ships in the days before they were seized. Israel’s powerful position in the Middle East is often associated with its armed forces, nuclear weapons arsenal or covert (Mossad) operatives.
But just as important is its intelligence gathering – monitoring governments, international organisations, foreign companies, political organisations and individuals. Most of this happens at the installation in the Negev a couple of kilometres to the north of the kibbutz of Urim. Our sources, close to Israeli intelligence, know the base ﬁrst-hand. They describe lines of satellite dishes of different sizes, and barracks and operations buildings on both sides of the road (the 2333) that leads to the base. High security gates, fences and dogs protect the facility. As you can see on the internet, the satellite images of the base are quite clear. A practised eye easily discerns the signs of an electronic surveillance base. A large circle in the farmland shows the site of a direction-ﬁnding antenna (HF/DF) for monitoring shipping. The Urim base was established decades ago to monitor Intelsat satellites that relay phone calls between countries. It expanded to cover maritime communications (Inmarsat), then rapidly targeted ever more numerous regional satellites.
As such, says intelligence specialist Duncan Campbell, it is “akin to the UK-USA pact’s Echelon satellite interception ground stations”. The Echelon system is a network of interception stations around the world, set up in 1996 by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Satellite phones used by the Gaza-bound aid ships were easy targets for this hi-tech equipment. Our Israeli sources described how the computers are “programmed to detect words and phone numbers of interest” from intercepted phone calls, emails etc, then transferred to Unit 8200 – the headquarters of Israeli signals intelligence – in the city of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. There they are translated and passed on to other agencies, including the army and Mossad. Unit 8200 and its counterparts – the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the American National Security Agency (NSA) – are less famous than their foreign intelligence and special operations agencies (MI6, the CIA and Mossad). Yet the signals agencies are far bigger.
The Urim base targets many nations, friend and foe. A former analyst at Unit 8200, a military service conscript, said she worked full time translating intercepted calls and emails from English and French into Hebrew. It was “interesting” work, studying routine communications to ﬁnd the nuggets. Her section listened mostly to “diplomatic trafﬁc and other off-shore [international] signals”. They also searched public internet sites. The Urim base, said our sources, is the centre of a spying network that taps undersea cables (notably Mediterranean cables linking Israel to Europe via Sicily) and has covert listening posts in Israeli embassy buildings abroad. Unit 8200, which is ofﬁcially part of the Israeli army, also has secret monitoring units within the Palestinian territories and uses Gulfstream jets ﬁtted out as signals intelligence aircraft. Excluding television satellites, most satellites, in an arc stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, are probable targets: European, Arab, Russian and Asian, as well as the Intelsat and Inmarsat satellites.
Images of the base show 30 listening antennas, making Urim one of the largest signals intelligence bases in the world. The only comparable-sized station is a US facility at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, UK. Other stations have been known about since the 1980s. There is a large NSA base near the German city of Bad Aibling, and another US base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, just northwest of an airbase with a runway full of B-52 bombers. The main UK base, at Morwenstow, Cornwall, can be spotted through its 20 listening antennas above the cliffs. France has its own network, known as Frenchelon, under the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), which includes several bases in France and its overseas territories. But unlike these, Israel’s spy facility at Urim remained invisible for decades.