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How surprising are revelations of US, UK spying on Israel?

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Dusan Vranic/AP/File

(Read caption) An Israeli drone circles over Gaza City, Aug. 3, 2014. US and British intelligence cracked the codes of Israeli drones operating in the Middle East and monitored their surveillance feeds for almost 20 years, according to documents leaked by an American whistleblower and published in international media on Friday.

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The United States and the United Kingdom hacked into feeds from Israeli drones and fighter jets for almost two decades, according to leaks attributed to former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The reports, released in international media Friday, detail an intelligence operation codenamed “Anarchist,” based near the highest point of Cyprus, which focused efforts on Israel but also targeted systems in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

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This is the latest in a series of revelations disclosing the spying of allies on one another, and as such the Israeli reaction has so far been muted.

We are not surprised,” said Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz, once minister of intelligence affairs. “We know that the Americans spy on every country in the world and on us as well, on their friends.”

Yet this comes at a time of strained relations between the Obama administration and Israel’s Netanyahu government.

They have long disagreed over the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and there have been a number of recent media exposés alleging mutual spying between the two allies.

In fact, there appeared to be “an extensive tableau of Israeli intelligence gathering on the nuclear deal with Iran,” as The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

Israel, however, insists that its spying operations against the US ceased after the capture of US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who provided classified information to Israel, in the 1980s.

“It is disappointing,” continued Mr. Steinitz, “inter alia because, going back decades already, we have not spied nor collected intelligence nor hacked encryptions in the United States."

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The Anarchist operation itself was based out of a Royal Air Force installation in the Troodos Mountains, near Mount Olympus, Cyprus’s highest peak.

The Intercept report, one of three outlets that first carried this story, quoted an internal source at the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency as saying the site “has long been regarded as a ‘Jewel in the Crown’ by NSA as it offers unique access to the Levant, North Africa, and Turkey.” 

Further, according to a 2008 GCHQ report: “This access is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region.

“In times of crisis this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up to the minute information and support to US and Allied operations in the area.”

The latest release of documents relating to the Anarchist program highlight the troubled relationship between the US and Israel, underscoring US concerns about Israel’s potential for destabilizing the region.

Indeed, Michael Hayden, who led the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency during the George W. Bush administration, said of the intelligence relationship between the two countries that it was “the most combustible mixture of intimacy and caution that we have,” according to a Wall Street Journal story last month. 

One particularly interesting aspect of the most recent trove of information lies in some of the published photographs, which appear to show missiles on the drones themselves.

The fact that Israel flies attack drones is something of an “open secret,” unacknowledged by the Israeli government.

“There’s a good chance that we are looking at the first images of an armed Israeli drone in the public domain,” said Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, a history of drone warfare. “They’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress information on weaponized drones.”