German magazine reveals more information on elite NSA spy unit

NSA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
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. The same paper states that, between 2005 and 2006 alone, TAO experts managed to gain access to 258 targets in nearly 90 countries; it adds that, in 2010, the elite office “conducted 279 operations worldwide”. It appears clear that TAO has expanded since it is early days; it now maintains units in as far-flung places as San Antonio, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Wahiawa, Hawaii. Additionally, TAO technical experts maintain close operational contacts with the CIA and the FBI, whose operatives they sometimes employ “to attack isolated networks that aren’t connected to the Internet”. Even the world’s most modern spies appear to be reliant on “traditional spying methods” in the age of the Internet, notes Der Spiegel.

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