As The Guardian has taken center stage in the Snowden drama, serving as the English-language conduit of choice for publishing classified information about the National Security Agency and its partners that was stolen by Edward Snowden, it’s taken heat from the British government about its possibly illegal activities.
As a dodge, Guardian editors have taken to throwing around the “no big deal” excuse because, they claim, 850,000 people in the US, UK, and partner governments had access to this stuff. It was simply Ed, one in an (almost) million, who did the dirty deed. For one of the many iterations of this nonsense see here.
Yet nonsense it is. It plays on the fact the US and Allied governments have given out a lot of high-level clearances in recent years. But it requires a bit of explanation to understand the details – and why The Guardian is lying.
Everybody at NSA – whether military, civilian, or contractor – holds an active TOP SECRET (TS) security clearance with Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) access. That’s what it takes to get in the door at NSA. This is granted after a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) including a “full scope” polygraph (i.e. you’re asked lifestyle as well as counterintelligence questions while you’re strapped to “the box”). To maintain TS/SCI access, you’re reinvestigated, including polygraph, every five years. A basic run-down of the DoD/IC security clearance system can be found here. If you want to know how the many and varied levels of classification are used in day to day DoD/IC work, this is numbingly detailed and best taken with a stiff drink.
But TS/SCI is just the basic level of clearance at NSA and its partner and Allied agencies. Above that there exist many kinds of caveats and special programs that go (or have gone) by weird names such as GAMMA, VRK (Very Restricted Knowledge), and ECI (Exceptionally Controlled Information). Across DoD they have similar SAPs (Special Access Programs). The bottom line is that nobody at NSA sees “everything.” The entire system is in fact designed to prevent any one person from seeing everything.
Called “need to know” – or more formally compartmentization – this means that every person only gets access to what s/he needs to be “read on” for to do the job at hand. Strange as it sounds outside cryptologic channels, it’s perfectly normal not to exactly know what the guy down the hall, or even sitting in the next cubicle over, does all day; you may not have a confirmed need to know, so you don’t. Even spouses and partners who both work at NSA are expected to maintain to “need to know” in their pillow talk.
To get access to really juicy SAPs you may need to undergo special investigation, including additional polygraphs, and in every case you sign paperwork that’s basically another non-disclosure agreement on top of all the ones you’ve already signed to be “in access” at NSA. Security is taken pretty seriously, particularly when very sensitive cryptologic programs are involved.
The bottom line is that The Guardian and its defenders are simply lying when they assert that 850,000 people saw the stuff that Ed stole. No, they didn’t. Not once, ever. Even as an NSA counterintelligence officer with ridiculously high level clearances and accesses to do my job, I never saw “everything” – because that’s literally impossible in the system. Every person’s access is specifically tailored to what he or she needs to know to do the job, and nothing more.
Which is why Ed had to hack NSA systems for months and years, including stealing the log-ins and passwords of others, who presumably had better accesses than a mere system administrator would, to get a look at the TS/SCI+ information he wanted to steal and expose to the world, while making off to Moscow as a finishing touch.
Whether The Guardian broke British law is a matter I will defer to legal experts, but on the matter of who had access to the stolen information they are publishing for the world to see, they are simply telling one lie after another. It should stop at once.
UPDATE: I’ve been attacked by anti-NSA activist Marcy Wheeler for allegedly not providing “evidence” that The Guardian actually said what … they said. The Guardian has cited the “850,000 had access to this stuff” lie in many forms since the summer; mere Googling will reveal many of them, here’s another current example if you like that sort of thing. Marcy is probably the most informed literature Ph.D. without any intelligence experience regarding SIGINT within at ten or twelve miles from wherever you’re sitting at this moment. This one’s for you, Marcy!
Over the last two years, as Syria’s civil war has metastasized into a multi-sided fratricidal nightmare, the role of foreign fighters has grown increasingly troubling. Throughout the history of what Westerners loosely term Al-Qa’ida, foreigners who “join the caravan” and seek war (and often martyrdom) in jihads far from their homes have formed a consistent theme, and selling point, among Salafi extremists. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, as in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s, and in every subsequent major jihad, foreigners have played a role more important than their mere numbers would suggest.
Syria since 2011 has emerged as the greatest of all jihad contests for foreign fighters. Given its proximity to Europe, large numbers of Westerners have gone to fight in Syria, via Turkish “ratlines,” raising concerns among European security services about what these violent young men might do when they return home. Significant numbers of angry young mujahidin from Europe have joined the fight in Syria, on a scale never before seen in counterterrorism circles, leading to something approaching panic among Western intelligence agencies.
The Balkans have offered hundreds of volunteers for Syria, mainly from Bosnia and the Albanian lands. Recent reports have indicated that some 150 Albanians from Kosovo have gone to fight in Syria. This is particularly worrisome as, until recently, that overwhelmingly Muslim former Serbian province that was liberated by NATO in 1999 from Belgrade’s rule has been widely hailed as an oasis of moderation where extremism allegedly could find no purchase.
As ever, the truth is more complicated, and in recent years, as Kosovo has become mired in all-too-predictable crime, corruption, and poverty, Salafi preachers and rabble-rousers have done their usual work, and now Kosovo, too, has its share of fanatics bent on murder and mayhem. Many of them have decamped for Syria, and some are now returning home to bring the jihad to Europe.
This became clear last week when Kosovo authorities arrested six men on terrorism charges. Four of the six men were picked up by undercover police in the capital, Prishtina, when they sought to purchase illegal weapons, and two of them are veterans of the Syrian jihad. A seventh man remains on the loose, pursued by police. The seven men, identified as Genc Selimi, Nuredin Sylejmani, Valon Shala, Adrian Mehmeti, Musli Hyseni, Bekim Mulalli, and Fidan Demolli, are suspected by prosecutors of “preparing a terrorist act against the safety and constitutional order” in Kosovo.
According to Kosovo media, Genc Selimi, known in extremist circles as Abu Hafs al-Albani, is the ringleader and a veteran of the Syrian war, who had been monitored by Kosovo security officials since his recent return from the jihad against the Assad regime. The police were watching Selimi and his conspirators develop their terrorist plans in a secret operation the authorities termed HURRICANE. As the police reported after Selimi’s arrest, ”The operation was conducted through the implementation of covert investigative measures and resulted in the arrest of six suspects,” two from Prishtina and four from the nearby town of Gjilan.
The amount of weaponry and gear brought in by Operation HURRICANE was impressive, including a sniper rifle, one carbine, one semi-automatic rifle, two handguns, a modified handgun, some 1,200 AK-47 rounds, 1,900 Euros, three cars (two BMWs and a Mercedes), plus C4 explosives. How the suspects paid for this equipment is not yet clear, though Kosovo authorities have explained some of them were affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and were plotting terrorism in Kosovo on someone’s dime. Two of the men are also wanted in connection with the recent beating of two U.S. citizens in Prishtina, both female Mormon (LDS) missionaries, on 3 November; it seems that the assault on the American women partly triggered the wider police action against the jihadist network.
This is hardly Kosovo’s first involvement with jihadist terrorism that has effected the United States. Four of the six terrorists behind the 2007 Fort Dix plot were Albanians from Kosovo or neighboring Macedonia, while the Kosovar Albanian Sami Osmakac was arrested in early 2012 for plotting bombings in the Tampa area, and Arid Uka, the murderer of two U.S. Air Force personnel at Frankfurt airport in 2011, hailed from Kosovo too.
On the positive side, it should be noted that Kosovo’s police and security forces seem to have done a commendable job of keeping would-be jihadists under surveillance and arresting them before anything truly awful happened. Additionally, Islamic authorities in Kosovo have responded to the arrests by condemning terrorism and urging local young men now fighting in Syria to come home at once and abandon extremism.
Although Kosovo authorities have been forced to acknowledge that extremism and terrorism are problems in the country, following years of low-balling and simply denying the problem, it seems that Prishtina’s official line that “Extremist groups in Kosovo do not act in such an organized way and, as such, they pose a low risk of terrorist attacks,” may be unduly optimistic in light of last week’s arrests.
Of the some 150 young men from Kosovo who are reported to have joined the Syrian jihad, to date only three have been identified as killed in action, which means that large numbers will be returning home before long to continue their jihad in Europe. Once that happens, the terrorism threat in Southeastern Europe will not remain low for long.
In all the discussion in recent months about Edward Snowden, intelligence, and NSA – blog posts, op-eds, media spots galore – it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that I’m actually a historian. I’ve talked abut Eddie so much that I’ve needed to periodically remind myself about the history thing.
I’m not just a historian but a military historian by education and inclination, which is a really passé thing to be, generally speaking. Among scholars, that is. Among the public, military history is a huge seller. We’ve got documentaries galore (before the History Channel was taken over by alien shows and junkyard merchants, it was jokingly called the Hitler Channel with good reason) and just walk into any chain bookstore while you still can and check out the size of the military history section; it’s usually as big as all other history topics combined.
But the sad reality is that military history has been in terminal decline in the academy my entire life. Few top universities still teach it, much less produce doctorates in it. Despite – or perhaps due to - the fact that it’s a big draw among students, most history departments, which are deeply involved with post-modernism, demur from the topic altogether. And when military history is covered in universities it’s generally with an eye to social trends more than strategy and tactics: more Rosie the Riveter than Marshal Zhukov.
I’ve got sympathy for what was termed the “new” military history about the time I was born, since those who study war ought to include key aspects of politics, economics, and sociology in their work, lest they reduce war to just battles – which it certainly is not. I’ve used a lot of ethnic studies in my military history, since you can’t write meaningfully about the Habsburg military without a deep understanding of ethnic, religious, and cultural matters.
In response to the “new” military history, the hardcore element of the brass buttons brigade has retreated to focus on smaller matters of little interest to any but hobbyists. (Let me state that I have more than a little sympathy for the BBB, since my first history job was at a military museum, and I’m skeptical of any military historian who doesn’t know a bit about uniforms, guns, and kit.) This resulted in the recent smackdown at a Civil War history conference in St. Louis over what exactly is the place of military history in the study of the U.S. Civil War.
It seems to me we’re pretty far gone if historians actually question the role of military history in serious analysis of the Civil War. That said, it would help matters if military historians started to branch out and speak to more than their core audience. We know the public likes military history, so give it to them, and eventually some of the academy will pick up. Of course, given that the humanities are going the way of the dodo in American universities anyway, the neglect of military history in post-secondary education may matter little in the long run.
Military historians need to get back to basics and focus on war without forgetting that it never happens in a vacuum. We must understand battles but much more than that. This is especially important as we rapidly approach the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, the great seminal catastrophe of the modern age, as an eminent scholar and writer once put it. The half-decade ahead offers historians a superb opportunity to reassess what happened during that most significant of wars, and why.
As a historian of the First World War, I deeply hope that scholars can get the public to look beyond the cliches of oversensitive war poets and get past the Western Front to see that terrible conflict in its true fullness. For that, we need innovative military history.
I’m fortunate enough to teach a course on the Great War at the Naval War College, which gives students a new perspective on that struggle that is broad, global, and interdisciplinary. I’ll be sharing some of that with you, dear readers, here and in forthcoming books I’m working on. By late 2018, as we reach the hundredth anniversary of the guns falling silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I hope the Great War will have been fundamentally reassessed by scholars and the public at large. I’ll be doing my part.
A few years ago I exhorted my fellow historians “to dispense with shopworn stereotypes and head for the sound of the guns, archives and memoirs in hand.” I see some signs of progress that are encouraging. I’ll be walking point if you care to follow me back to the battlefields of 1914-1918 …
We’ve been following the burgeoning bribery-meet-sex-meets-espionage scandal surrounding the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which has already brought down two commanders and a senior agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). The shocking scandal has it all – two rising officers (both visible minorities and diversity stars of the sort beloved by the image-conscious Navy), an NCIS agent who previously was that service’s Agent of the Year, plus a shady Malaysian businessman nicknamed “Fat Leonard.” Not to mention debauchery and corruption on a truly grand scale. Plus Lady Gaga. Since the charges include selling classified information to foreigners, the national security implications are serious.
And they got a whole lot more serious today, when the U.S. Navy’s intelligence leadership – two top admirals – were placed under suspicion of involvement in the case and had their security clearances suspended. The Washington Post has the rest …
Two U.S. admirals — including the director of naval intelligence — are under investigation as part of a major bribery scandal involving a foreign defense contractor, Navy officials announced Friday night.
Vice Adm. Ted Branch, the service’s top intelligence officer, and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, the Navy’s director of intelligence operations, were placed on leave Friday and their access to classified material was suspended, the Navy said in a statement.
Both admirals are being investigated for their ties to a Singapore-based defense contractor, Glenn Marine Defense Asia, whose chief executive was arrested in September on charges that he bribed other Navy officers into giving him classified information in exchange for prostitutes and cash.
Two Navy commanders and a senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent have already been arrested in the case, and a captain was relieved of his ship’s command last month after officials said he was under investigation as well.
But the announcement that two admirals in charge of protecting the Navy’s secrets have been swept up in the investigation makes the case the worst to tar the Navy since the 1991 Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal, which resulted in the demotions, firings or early retirements of more than a dozen admirals.
The Navy did not disclose why Loveless and Branch had drawn the scrutiny of investigators, but said “there is no indication, nor do the allegations suggest, that in either case there was any breach of classified information.” Neither admiral has been charged with a crime or violation and both men retain their rank while the investigation proceeds, the Navy said.
The suspension of two senior intelligence officials, however, raises serious questions about the degree to which national security may have been compromised because of improper contact between Navy officers and Glenn Defense Marine Asia.
Federal prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego have charged the two Navy commanders with passing classified information about ship and submarine movements to Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian national and the chief executive of Glenn Defense Marine.
Navy contracting officials raised suspicions about Francis — who is known as “Fat Leonard” in Navy circles because of his imposing girth — as far back as 2005. But prosecutors allege he was able to dodge scrutiny by bribing Navy officers and the NCIS agent for inside information about law-enforcement probes and contract reviews.
To recruit the moles, Francis plied the officers with female escorts, cash, paid travel and other perks, including tickets to a Lady Gaga concert in Thailand and the Lion King musical in Japan, according to court records.
Glenn Defense Marine has serviced and supplied Navy ships and submarines at ports around the Pacific for a quarter-century. Prosecutors, however, allege that the firm routinely overbilled for everything from tugboats to fuel to sewage disposal, defrauding the Navy of more than $10 million.
Got that? The Navy’s two top intelligence admirals are under suspicion – of what, exactly, isn’t quite clear yet. No doubt it will be cleared up in time. Given the Chinese angle hanging over this shocking case, be prepared for surprises …
As I’ve noted at length already, the drama surrounding the continuing leaks of classified information from the U.S. National Security Agency, care of the defector Edward Snowden, has now taken center stage in Germany. Which is not altogether surprising because Germany is such a close partner with the United States in security and other matters, and also because a significant component of the Wikileaks apparat lives in Berlin.
To anyone versed in counterintelligence, specifically the modus operandi of Russian security services, the Snowden Operation* is a classic case of Active Measures, in other words a secret propaganda job. That its ultimate objective is fracturing the Western security and intelligence alliance is made increasing clear in the tone of the reporting coming from the Operation, especially its German mouthpiece, the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. Relying on fronts, cut-outs, “independent” journalists, plus platoons of what Lenin memorably termed Useful Idiots, is just what the Kremlin’s intelligence services do when they want to engage in Active Measures. We’ve been down this road before – in many ways what’s going on now is merely a replay of the operational game from the 1970s based on the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), but with broadband access – yet the Snowden Operation is unusually successful and brazen, even by Moscow’s high standards in this regard.
This is also the conclusion of the German security services, based on a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. The recent Moscow visit of the leftist Green Party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele with Snowden caused a global sensation. It was also transparently the work of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Noting the stage-managed aspect of the photo op, ”There is no doubt that this was a room that was prepared by the intelligence service,” concluded a German senior intelligence official, adding that this was ”a typical FSB room ” – meaning fully wired. To expand on Die Welt‘s reportage:
The three-hour conversation had been recorded in this room with microphones and video cameras. After analyzing the course of the visit, German security experts came to the conclusion that the FSB completely organized and monitored Ströbele’s visit to Moscow, and effectively used it for its purposes. The goal of the visit had been to rekindle the debate about the NSA spying affair, thus burdening relations between Germany and the United States even more. “This is playing into the hands of Russia,” said the intelligence official, criticizing Ströbele’s action. That the Green Party official allowed himself to be used by Russia for that country’s interests was to be regarded as “borderline,” he explained.
The Snowden Operation is far from over, and more German-related Active Measures are to be expected. That said, it’s somewhat reassuring that, no matter what politicians may say, German intelligence is at least aware of the real game that’s afoot here.
*Until some future Vasili Mitrokhin tells us what Edward Snowden’s actual FSB covername is, I’ll be terming what’s going on the Snowden Operation (Операция Сноудена).
The latest revelations from Snowden’s stolen documents, as conveyed by journalists not familiar with SIGINT, have it that NSA is doing nefarious things with Google databases. I was on CNBC today and I expressed my skepticism about both the story and about Google’s faux indignation:
Over the last week the German hysteria over allegations regarding the U.S. National Security Agency has reached genuine fever pitch. While the tabloid press rallies against the “NSA Monster,” even respectable outlets have joined the campaign, which leaves average Germans with the wholly false impression that NSA cares one whit about them. Although the German intelligence services know the real story is quite different, as I’ve previously reported, the public debate in Germany has taken on a life of its own, one which has little to do with the real world of intelligence.
It’s different in France, where allegations of NSA espionage also have been a media fixture. Like Berlin, Paris has a decades-old relationship with American intelligence that includes much exchange of information and best practices, though not quite at the “Five Eyes” level that exists among the Anglosphere. Recent days have seen several important revelations in the French media about the complexities of the actual relationship between close allies and intelligence partners.
In an interview with the Parisian daily Le Monde, Phillippe Hayez, a former assistant director of DGSE, France’s foreign intelligence agency (equivalent to NSA and CIA combined), explained just how unshocking these vaunted revelations are to anyone who knows how espionage actually works. Allowing that the present public uproar represents “more like climate change than a mere passing cloud,” Hayez added that, diplomatically speaking, this is but “a mere episode in the cascade of ‘revelations’ about intelligence unleashed by Edward Snowden.”
Hayez similarly expressed concern that the international media campaign against NSA was fundamentally distorting the necessary public debate about intelligence, which “must not lead anyone to conclude that the primary purpose of [intelligence] services in a democracy is targeting your allies. The primary target is the enemies of democracy.”
Considerable more detail was added in a report in the Parisian daily L’Opinion, which was based on interviews with numerous French officials. Here the complexities of the relationship, in which DGSE collaborates daily with American partners yet spies on them, and is spied on by them in return, are elaborated, while being met with an impressive Gallic shrug.
One former DGSE officer boasted that, while his service was not quite as capable as NSA, technically speaking, it is still one of the five best SIGINT agencies in the world, adding that it listens in on many world leaders: “I had telephone tap transcripts in my hands of President George W. Bush that we carried out,” he admitted. Is the current public fuss caused by Snowden’s relevations “populism or crass ignorance?” he wondered, “because we obviously send our reports to [our] political authorities.”
The report adds that during the recent French campaign in Mali, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister, used “[SIGINT reports from] NSA which were passed on to the French, which made it possible to locate and then destroy the armed jihadist groups. And no one in the armed forces or the intelligence services wants this flow of information to stop; much to the contrary.”
While France, like Germany, is not part of the Five Eyes SIGINT alliance, it shares a great deal of information with NSA regularly and in 2010, according to the report, Paris came close to joining the alliance but the Obama White House scuttled the deal in the end. There is also a tight intelligence sharing relationship between DGSE and the BND, its German equivalent, and it’s evident that French spies are more than a tad displeased with all the public fuss in Germany about matters that are best left out of the public’s eye, in France’s view. That Chancellor Merkel is exploiting the Snowden crisis to get her country fully into the Five Eyes system is the common perception among French officials.
Furthermore, while French diplomats believe that the NSA scandal has complicated relationships, this, too, shall pass and there will be no fundamental changes to intelligence partnerships except on a bilateral basis, i.e. between Washington, DC, and Paris. The notion of a European Union united front against NSA is dismissed out of hand by French diplomats as a pipe dream. Furthermore, it is significant that, even while expressing his displeasure about the NSA allegations, President Hollande never alleged “violations of sovereignty,” unlike some leaders. France is eager to get past this crisis.
Moreover, French diplomats seem dismissive of German complaints. As one top diplomat stated, ”You cannot say just anything on just any network!” For this reason the Foreign Ministry has nearly 200 encrypted cell phones. Paris has invested heavily in secure telephone and computer communications for its ministries in recent years, and French intelligence believes that France’s sensitive diplomatic communications remain safe from foreign decryption or intrusion.
In all, this is exactly the mature, nuanced view of intelligence that one would expect from France, a country with excellent espionage services that form a key part of the Western intelligence alliance against common enemies and threats. I wish America had more such friends.