German magazine reveals more information on elite NSA spy unit

Last June, we reported on the existence of an elite cyberatack unit within the United States National Security Agency (NSA), which operates under the Agency’s Office of Tailored Access Operations. Veteran NSA watcher Matthew M. Aid, who made the initial revelation, said at the time that the Office, known at NSA simply as TAO, maintains a substantial “hacker army” that works in close cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Now German newsmagazine Der Spiegel says it viewed internal documents that confirm the existence of TAO as the NSA’s elite operational unit. The publication describes TAO as “something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked”. It adds that TAO operatives are routinely detailed to a host of American intelligence agencies to help conduct intelligence operations ranging from traditional espionage to counterterrorism and cyberwarfare. Furthermore, TAO’s personnel, which are allegedly far younger than the average NSA officer, are experts in exploiting the technical deficiencies of the information-technology industry. They have therefore been able to compromise communications hardware and software produced by some of the world’s biggest IT companies and service providers, including Huawei, Cisco and Microsoft. The Spiegel article claims that TAO was established in 1997, several years before the Internet became a prominent engine of economic and cultural activity around the world. Its personnel, which initially consisted of a few select technical experts, was housed at the NSA headquarters in Fort George Meade, Maryland, but “in a separate wing, set apart from the rest of the agency”. Notably, Der Spiegel cites a paper produced by a former TAO unit head, which states that the program has produced “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen” and urges for its continued growth. Read more of this post

Analysis: FBI monitors foreign diplomats far more than NSA

Over the past several months, the Edward Snowden affair has turned the typically reclusive National Security Agency into a news media sensation. The signals intelligence agency, which is tasked by the United States government with communications interception, is said to have spied on a host of foreign government officials and diplomats. But in an article published this week in Foreign Policy, the American military historian and author Matthew Aid reminds us that American intelligence operations against foreign diplomats do not usually involve the NSA. They are typically carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has been in the business of monitoring the activities of foreign diplomats on US soil long before the NSA even existed. The author of Intel Wars and The Secret Sentry states in his article that the FBI’s cryptologic operations targeting foreign envoys are today far more sensitive and the NSA’s. The vast majority of these operations take place on US soil. There are currently over 600 foreign embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions in the US, maintained by 176 countries. They include over 200 consulates located in cities ranging from Miami to Los Angeles and from San Francisco to Boston. New York alone hosts over 100 permanent diplomatic missions at the United Nations headquarters. Aid points out that “every one of these embassies and consulates is watched by the FBI’s legion of counterintelligence officers” in varying degrees. Additionally, the Bureau relies on the close cooperation of large American telecommunications providers in its effort to intercept the landline and cellular communications “of virtually every embassy and consulate in the United States”. FBI communications technicians also intercept the personal telephone calls and emails of foreign diplomats on a regular basis, adds Aid. Sometimes the Bureau employs specially trained teams of agents who physically break into embassies and consulates, in what is known in intelligence lingo as ‘black bag jobs’. Read more of this post

Secretive US cyber unit has been spying on China for 15 years

NSA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
A secretive cyberattack unit within the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has been engaged in protracted offensive cyberespionage operations against China for nearly 15 years. The revelation, made this week by veteran NSA watcher Matthew M. Aid, appears to confirm recent allegations made by Chinese government officials that Beijing’s secrets come under regular attack by US government-sponsored hackers. It also agrees with claims made by several intelligence observers, including this blog, that America’s cyber-security posture is not purely defensive. According to Aid’s article, published this past Monday in Foreign Policy, China’s allegations that it has been the target of sustained cyberespionage attacks by the US “are essentially correct”. Citing “a number of highly confidential sources”, Aid alleges that the NSA maintains a substantial “hacker army”. These ‘cyberwarriors’ allegedly operate under the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, known inside NSA simply as TAO. Its personnel is said to have successfully penetrated the Chinese government’s telecommunications networks and servers since the late 1990s, generating “some of the best and most reliable intelligence information” gained by Washington. It does so through computer network exploitation (CNE) techniques, such as surreptitious hacking, password exploitation, and even by compromising Chinese network security technicians. Aid alleges that TAO works closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), through a small “clandestine intelligence gathering unit”. The latter employs CIA and FBI operatives who perform what are known as “off-net operations”, a term that refers to physical break-ins of Chinese and other foreign diplomatic facilities, in order to compromise the security computer hardware. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #665

Matthew M. AidBy IAN ALLEN | |
►►Joseph Fitsanakis interviewed on ABC Radio National. IntelNews‘ own Dr Joseph Fitsanakis was interviewed on Friday by reporter Suzanne Hill, for ABC Radio National’s flagship evening news program ‘PM‘. In the interview, which was about the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, Fitsanakis points the finger at the Mossad, and explains why he doesn’t believe the United States had anything to do with the killing. You can listen to the interview here. The transcript is here.
►►India releases diplomat jailed for spying. Last April, Madhuri Gupta, second secretary at the Indian high commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, was arrested for working for Pakistan’s ISI spy agency. She apparently had a “relationship of personal affection” with an aide of her Pakistani handler. On Tuesday, she was granted bail by an Indian court, after 21 months in prison.
►►Matthew Aid interviewed about his new book. Matthew M. Aid, author of The Secret Sentry, has written a new book, Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror. You can listen to an extensive interview he gave on January 11 on NPR’s Fresh Air, in which Aid outlined his view that “overlapping jurisdictions, bureaucratic policies and a glut of data have crippled the intelligence community in its war against would-be terrorists”.
►►British spies to be cleared on torture allegations. The British government, including Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service, has just finished a four-year inquiry into the country’s security and intelligence services, sparked by allegations by terrorist suspects released from Guantanamo Bay, that they were severely tortured. The results have not yet been announced. But British media report that, according to information from trusted sources, the inquiry has concluded that (…drumroll…) there is no evidence that officers from either MI5 or MI6 were aware of the mistreatment of prisoners.

Analysis: NSA emerging as the world’s most powerful spy agency

James Bamford

James Bamford

Regular readers of this blog know that the US National Security Agency is in the process of renovating its soon-to-be-unveiled Texas Cryptology Center, a 470,000-square-foot facility that will cost “upwards of $130 million” and be used primarily to store intercepted communications data. They also know that the gigantic Agency, which is tasked with worldwide communications surveillance, as well as communications security, is also building a 1 million square foot data center at Utah’s Camp Williams. Finally, as we reported last August, the NSA is currently laying out a 20-year plan to construct 5.8 million square feet of new working and storage space on its Fort George G. Meade headquarters in Maryland, and staff it with 11,000 people. What does all this mean? Read more of this post

NSA looking to build 5.8 million square feet by 2029



The US National Security Agency filed a notice in last month’s Federal Register, laying out a 20-year plan to construct 5.8 million square feet of new working and storage space on its Fort George G. Meade headquarters, and staff it with 11,000 people. The Baltimore Business Journal and The Baltimore Sun, which first spotted the notice, said the NSA will not say how many of the 11,000 jobs will be new. The Sun asked the gigantic agency, which already employs over 25,000 people around Baltimore alone, for more details on its plans. But the NSA, which is tasked by the US government with worldwide communications surveillance as well as communications security, merely repeated the information contained in the Federal Register, saying it needs new buildings to “meet mission growth requirements” and to “consolidate” its output. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0033

Bookmark and Share


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,055 other followers