Investigation

The CIA's New Black Bag Is Digital

When the NSA can't break into your computer, these guys break into your house.

During a coffee break at an intelligence conference held in The Netherlands a few years back, a senior Scandinavian counterterrorism official regaled me with a story. One of his service's surveillance teams was conducting routine monitoring of a senior militant leader when they suddenly noticed through their high-powered surveillance cameras two men breaking into the militant's apartment. The target was at Friday evening prayers at the local mosque. But rather than ransack the apartment and steal the computer equipment and other valuables while he was away -- as any right-minded burglar would normally have done -- one of the men pulled out a disk and loaded some programs onto the resident's laptop computer while the other man kept watch at the window. The whole operation took less than two minutes, then the two trespassers fled the way they came, leaving no trace that they had ever been there.

It did not take long for the official to determine that the two men were, in fact, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives conducting what is known in the U.S. intelligence community as either a "black bag job" or a "surreptitious entry" operation. Back in the Cold War, such a mission might have involved cracking safes, stealing code books, or photographing the settings on cipher machines. Today, this kind of break-in is known inside the CIA and National Security Agency as an "off-net operation," a clandestine human intelligence mission whose specific purpose is to surreptitiously gain access to the computer systems and email accounts of targets of high interest to America's spies. As we've learned in recent weeks, the National Security Agency's ability to electronically eavesdrop from afar is massive. But it is not infinite. There are times when the agency cannot gain access to the computers or gadgets they'd like to listen in on. And so they call in the CIA's black bag crew for help.

The CIA's clandestine service is now conducting these sorts of black bag operations on behalf of the NSA, but at a tempo not seen since the height of the Cold War. Moreover, these missions, as well as a series of parallel signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection operations conducted by the CIA's Office of Technical Collection, have proven to be instrumental in facilitating and improving the NSA's SIGINT collection efforts in the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Over the past decade specially-trained CIA clandestine operators have mounted over one hundred extremely sensitive black bag jobs designed to penetrate foreign government and military communications and computer systems, as well as the computer systems of some of the world's largest foreign multinational corporations. Spyware software has been secretly planted in computer servers; secure telephone lines have been bugged; fiber optic cables, data switching centers and telephone exchanges have been tapped; and computer backup tapes and disks have been stolen or surreptitiously copied in these operations.

In other words, the CIA has become instrumental in setting up the shadowy surveillance dragnet that has now been thrown into public view. Sources within the U.S. intelligence community confirm that since 9/11, CIA clandestine operations have given the NSA access to a number of new and critically important targets around the world, especially in China and elsewhere in East Asia, as well as the Middle East, the Near East, and South Asia. (I'm not aware of any such operations here on U.S. soil.) In one particularly significant operation conducted a few years back in a strife-ridden South Asian nation, a team of CIA technical operations officers installed a sophisticated tap on a switching center servicing several fiber-optic cable trunk lines, which has allowed NSA to intercept in real time some of the most sensitive internal communications traffic by that country's general staff and top military commanders for the past several years. In another more recent case, CIA case officers broke into a home in Western Europe and surreptitiously loaded Agency-developed spyware into the personal computer of a man suspected of being a major recruiter for individuals wishing to fight with the militant group al-Nusra Front in Syria, allowing CIA operatives to read all of his email traffic and monitor his Skype calls on his computer.

The fact that the NSA and CIA now work so closely together is fascinating on a number of levels. But it's particularly remarkable accomplishment, given the fact that the two agencies until fairly recently hated each others' guts.

Ingenues and TBARs

As detailed in my history of the NSA, The Secret Sentry, the CIA and NSA had what could best be described as a contentious relationship during the Cold War era. Some NSA veterans still refer to their colleagues at the CIA as 'TBARs,' which stands for 'Those Bastards Across the River,' with the river in question being the Potomac. Perhaps reflecting their higher level of educational accomplishment, CIA officers have an even more lurid series of monikers for their NSA colleagues at Fort Meade, most of which cannot be repeated in polite company because of recurring references to fecal matter. One retired CIA official described his NSA counterparts as "a bunch of damn ingenues." Another CIA veteran perhaps put it best when he described the Cold War relationship amongst and between his agency and the NSA as "the best of enemies."

The historical antagonism between the two agencies started at the top. Allen W. Dulles, who was the director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961, disliked NSA director General Ralph Canine so intensely that he deliberately kept the NSA in the dark about a number of the agency's high-profile SIGINT projects, like the celebrated Berlin Tunnel cable tapping operation in the mid-1950s. The late Richard M. Helms, who was director of the CIA from 1966 to 1973, told me over drinks at the Army-Navy Club in downtown Washington, D.C. only half jokingly that during his thirty-plus years in the U.S. intelligence community, his relations with the KGB were, in his words, "warmer and more collegial" than with the NSA. William E. Colby, who served as Director of Central Intelligence from 1973-1976, had the same problem. Colby was so frustrated by his inability to assert any degree of control over the NSA that he told a congressional committee that "I think it is clear I do not have command authority over the [NSA]." And the animus between CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner (CIA director from 1977-1981) and his counterpart at the NSA, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, was so intense that they could only communicate through intermediaries.

But the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed the operational dynamic between these two agencies, perhaps forever. In the thirteen years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NSA and CIA have largely, but not completely, moved past the Cold War animus. In addition, both agencies have become increasingly dependent on one another for the success of their respective intelligence operations, leading to what can best be described as an increasingly close symbiotic relationship between these two titans of the U.S. intelligence community.

While the increasingly intimate relationship between the NSA and CIA is not a secret, the specific nature and extent of the work that each agency does for the other is deemed to be extremely sensitive, especially since many of these operations are directed against friends and allies of the United States. For example, the Special Collection Service (SCS), the secretive joint CIA-NSA clandestine SIGINT organization based in Beltsville, Maryland, now operates more than 65 listening posts inside U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. While recent media reports have focused on the presence of SCS listening posts in certain Latin America capitals, intelligence sources confirm that most of the organization's resources have been focused over the past decade on the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. For example, virtually every U.S. embassy in the Middle East now hosts a SCS SIGINT station that monitors, twenty-four hours a day, the complete spectrum of electronic communications traffic within a one hundred mile radius of the embassy site. The biggest problem that the SCS currently faces is that it has no presence in some of the U.S. intelligence community's top targets, such as Iran and North Korea, because the U.S. government has no diplomatic relations with these countries.

At the same time, SIGINT coming from the NSA has become a crucial means whereby the CIA can not only validate the intelligence it gets from its oftentimes unreliable agents, but SIGINT has been, and remains the lynchpin underlying the success over the past nine years of the CIA's secret unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere around the world.

But the biggest changes have occurred in the CIA's human intelligence (HUMINT) collection efforts on behalf of NSA. Over the past decade, foreign government telecommunications and computer systems have become one of the most important targeting priorities of the CIA's National Clandestine Service (NCS), which since the spring of this year has been headed by one of the agency's veteran Africa and Middle East hands. The previous director, Michael J. Sulick, is widely credited with making HUMINT collection against foreign computer and telecommunications systems one of the service's top priority targets after he rose to the top of the NCS in September 2007.

Today, a cadre of several hundred CIA NCS case officers, known as Technical Operations Officers, have been recruited and trained to work exclusively on penetrating foreign communications and computer systems targets so that NSA can gain access to the information stored on or transmitted by these systems. Several dozen of these officers now work fulltime in several offices at NSA headquarters at Fort George G. Meade, something which would have been inconceivable prior to 9/11.

CIA operatives have also intensified their efforts to recruit IT specialists and computer systems operators employed by foreign government ministries, major military command headquarters staffs, big foreign multinational corporations, and important international non-governmental organizations.

Since 9/11, the NCS has also developed a variety of so-called "black boxes" which can quickly crack computer passwords, bypass commercially-available computer security software systems, and clone cellular telephones -- all without leaving a trace. To use one rudimentary example, computer users oftentimes forget to erase default accounts and passwords when installing a system, or incorrectly set protections on computer network servers or e-mail accounts. This is a vulnerability which operatives now routinely exploit.

For many countries in the world, especially in the developing world, CIA operatives can now relatively easily obtain telephone metadata records, such as details of all long distance or international telephone calls, through secret liaison arrangements with local security services and police agencies.

America's European allies are a different story. While the connections between the NSA and, for example, the British signals intelligence service GCHQ are well-documented, the CIA has a harder time obtaining personal information of British citizens. The same is true in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, which have also been most reluctant to share this sort of data with the CIA. But the French intelligence and security services have continued to share this sort of data with the CIA, particularly in counterterrorism operations.

U.S. intelligence officials are generally comfortable with the new collaboration. Those I have spoken to over the past three weeks have only one major concern. The fear is that details of these operations, including the identities of the targets covered by these operations, currently reside in the four laptops reportedly held by Edward Snowden, who has spent the past three weeks in the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow waiting for his fate to be decided. Officials at both the CIA and NSA know that the public disclosure of these operations would cause incalculable damage to U.S. intelligence operations abroad as well as massive embarrassment to the U.S. government. If anyone wonders why the U.S. government wants to get its hands on Edward Snowden and his computers so badly, this is an important reason why.

David Burnett/Newsmakers

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