Unit 8200 (Hebrew: יחידה 8200, Yehida Shmoneh-Matayim) is an Israeli Intelligence Corps unit responsible for collecting signal intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption. It also appears in military publications as the Central Collection Unit of the Intelligence Corps and is sometimes referred to as Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU).
Unit 8200 was established in 1952 using primitive surplus American military equipment. Originally, it was called the 2nd Intelligence Service Unit and then the 515th Intelligence Service Unit. In 1954, the unit moved from Jaffa to its current base at the Glilot junction.
Unit 8200 is the largest unit in the Israel Defense Forces, comprising several thousand soldiers. It is comparable in its function to the United States’ National Security Agency and is a Ministry of Defense body just as the NSA is part of the United States Department of Defense.
Subordinate to Unit 8200 is Unit Hatzav (Hebrew name for Drimia (Hebrew: יחידת חצב)), responsible for collecting OSINT intelligence. The unit monitors and collects military intelligence–related information from television, radio, newspapers, and the internet. The translation of various items accounts for part of what is termed “basic intelligence”, which is collected by the units. According to media reports, the unit provides over half of the overall intelligence information for the Israeli Intelligence Community.
The IDF’s most important signal intelligence–gathering installation is the Urim SIGINT Base, a part of Unit 8200. Urim is located in the Negev desert approximately 30 km from Beersheba.
In March 2004, the Commission to investigate the intelligence network following the War in Iraq recommended turning the unit into a civilian national SIGINT agency, as is in other Western countries, but this proposal was not implemented.
In 2010, the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatique wrote that Unit 8200 operates a massive spying network. At the center is a large SIGINT base in the Negev, one of the largest listening bases in the world, capable of monitoring phone calls, emails, and other communications, throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as tracking ships. Unit 8200 also reportedly maintains covert listening posts in Israeli embassies abroad, taps undersea cables, maintains covert listening units in the Palestinian territories, and has Gulfstream jets equipped with electronic surveillance equipment.
Ronen Bergman revealed in a 2009 book that a Hezbollah bomb, disguised as a cell phone, was picked up by agents, and taken for investigation to Unit 8200’s headquarters in February 1999. Inside the laboratory the cell phone exploded. Two officers were injured.
In 2010, the New York Times cited “a former member of the United States intelligence community” alleging that this unit used a secret kill switch to deactivate Syrian air defenses during Operation Orchard.
Many media reports alleged that Unit 8200 was responsible for the creation of the Stuxnet computer worm that in 2010 infected industrial computers, including Iranian nuclear facilities.
In 2014, 43 veterans of Unit 8200 signed a protest letter decrying what they called the electronic surveillance unit’s abusive gathering of Palestinians’ private information. According to the veterans, Unit 8200 would gather information on subjects’ sexual preferences or health problems so that it “might be used to extort people into becoming informants”.
In response, 200 other reservists signed a counter-protest letter expressing “shock, disgust and total renouncement by our fellow soldiers, who chose political refusal over our unit.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon criticized the first letter by saying “I know Unit 8200 from my time as head of Military Intelligence and know the massive extent which their efforts play in Israel’s security. The soldiers and officers there are doing God’s work, night and day. 8200 preserves Israel’s existence. The attempt to harm it and its work, through calls to refuse to report for duty, based on claims that are incongruent with the unit’s ways and the values of its soldiers, is a base and distasteful attempt to aid the hateful and dishonest anti-legitimization campaign being led around the world against Israel and the IDF.” Opposition leader and head of the Labor Party Isaac Herzog, who served as a major in the 8200 unit, also hailed its work and said he was opposed to, and repulsed by, so-called “conscientious objectors.” He said that “this unit and its activities are essential not just in time of war, but especially in times of peace,” adding that he believed the way in which the members went about voicing their objections was harmful and that Israeli citizens would ultimately pay the price. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said that the signatories had “done a great service to haters of Israel. This is a clear political statement against the IDF and published just as harsh criticisms with no basis or understanding of our situation are being thrown at us.” Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich called them “cowards.”
Several alumni of 8200 have gone on to found leading Israeli IT companies, among them Check Point, Imperva, Incapsula, Cybereason, ICQ, NSO Group, Palo Alto Networks, indeni, NICE, AudioCodes, Gilat, Leadspace, EZchip, Onavo, and CyberArk.