National Security

Spy Copters, Lasers, and Break-In Teams

How the FBI keeps watch on foreign diplomats.

Between 2006 and 2009, surveillance helicopters conducted daily flights over northwest Washington, D.C., taking high-resolution photographs of the new Chinese Embassy being constructed on Van Ness Street. The aircraft belonged to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which wanted to determine where the embassy's communications center was being located. But the Chinese construction crews hid their work on this part of the building by pulling tarpaulins over the site as it was being constructed.

The FBI also monitored the movements and activities of the Chinese construction workers building the embassy, who were staying at a Days Inn on Connecticut Avenue just north of the construction site, in the hopes of possibly recruiting one or two of them. According to one Chinese diplomat, his fellow officials detected individuals who they assumed to be FBI agents covertly monitoring the construction materials and equipment being used to build the embassy, which were stored on the University of the District of Columbia's soccer field across the street from where the Chinese Embassy currently stands. The diplomat added that Chinese security officials assumed that the FBI agents were trying to determine whether it was possible to plant eavesdropping devices inside the construction materials stored at the site.

In recent weeks, the U.S. National Security Agency's efforts to monitor foreign diplomats have become the stuff of worldwide headlines. But the FBI has been in the business of spying on diplomats and breaking their codes for far longer than the NSA has. The surveillance of the Chinese Embassy was just one piece of a far larger espionage operation. The FBI not only endeavors to steal or covertly compromise foreign government, military, and commercial computer, telecommunications, and encryption systems being used in the United States, but the FBI and NSA work closely to intercept the communications of all diplomatic missions and international organizations located on American soil. In some important respects, the FBI's cryptologic work is more secretive than that being performed by the NSA because of the immense diplomatic sensitivity of these operations if they were to ever be exposed publicly.

The Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor to today's FBI, has been monitoring diplomatic communications since at least 1910, when it periodically solved Mexican government and revolutionary group cable traffic coming in and out of the United States. And for over a century, the FBI and its predecessors have been aggressive practitioners of the age-old art of stealing codes and ciphers. In June 1916, Bureau of Investigations agents surreptitiously obtained a copy of the new Mexican consular code by picking the pockets of a Mexican diplomatic courier while he cavorted with "fast women" in one of the innumerable border fleshpots along the Rio Grande.

Little has changed in the intervening century. Despite the creation of the NSA in 1952 to centralize in one agency all U.S. government signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and processing work, the FBI, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has never ceased its own independent cryptologic efforts, especially when those efforts have been aim at diplomats on American soil.

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The number of foreign government targets that the FBI monitors inside the United States is huge and growing. State Department records show that 176 countries maintain embassies in Washington, not including Cuba and Iran, which the U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with but which maintain interest sections inside the Swiss and Pakistani embassies, respectively.

In addition, 115 of the 193 members of the United Nations maintain diplomatic missions of varying sizes in New York City. There are also 62 consulates in Los Angeles, 52 in Chicago, 42 in San Francisco, 38 in Houston, 35 in Miami, and 26 in Boston and Atlanta.

All told, there are almost 600 foreign government embassies, consulates, missions, or representative offices in the United States, all of which are watched to one degree or another by the counterintelligence officers of the FBI. Only eight countries do not maintain any diplomatic presence in the United States whatsoever, the most important of which is nuclear-armed North Korea.

Every one of these embassies and consulates is watched by the FBI's legion of counterintelligence officers to one degree or another. But some countries' receive the vast majority of the FBI's attention, such as Russia, China, Libya, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Venezuela. The Cuban and Iranian interests section in Washington -- and their missions to the United Nations in New York -- of course receive special attention as well.

Unsurprisingly, most of the FBI's surveillance is technical in nature. For example, with substantial technical assistance from the NSA and the "big three" American telecommunications companies (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint), the FBI taps the phones (including cell phones) of virtually every embassy and consulate in the United States. The FBI also intercepts the home phones and emails of many diplomats. The FBI's Washington and New York field offices have special wiretap centers that specialize in collecting all telephone, email, instant messaging, text messaging, and cellular telephone traffic coming in and out of all high-priority diplomatic targets in the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week. According to a former Justice Department source, over the past decade these extremely sensitive intercepts have identified a number of spies working for governments that were caught in the act of stealing U.S. government secrets, as well as a larger number of cases involving the theft of industrial secrets from American companies.

Since 1978, all electronic communications, both plaintext and encrypted, between these embassies and their home countries have been routinely intercepted by the NSA's BLARNEY fiber-optic-cable intercept program. The NSA provides copies of all these intercepts, including telephone calls and emails, to the FBI's secretive signals-intelligence unit, the Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Northern Virginia, and to the FBI's electronic-eavesdropping centers in Washington and New York.

The FBI also uses a wide range of vehicles and airborne surveillance assets to monitor the movements and activities of foreign diplomats and intelligence operatives in Washington and New York. Some of the vans, aircraft, and helicopters used by the FBI for this purpose are equipped with equipment capable of intercepting cell-phone calls and other electronic forms of communication. And when that doesn't work, the FBI calls in the burglars.

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Another important part of the FBI's surveillance effort is dedicated to trying to surreptitiously get inside these diplomatic establishments on behalf of the NSA, which increasingly depends on the FBI to penetrate the computer and telecommunications networks used by these embassies and compromise their information security systems.

The FBI perfected this clandestine technique, known as the Surreptitious Entry Program operation, during Cold War intelligence-gathering operations directed at the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. These missions remain highly classified because of the diplomatic sensitivity surrounding breaking into the embassies of friends and enemies alike. In one instance during the 1960s, FBI agents reportedly drove a garbage truck into the central courtyard of the Czech Embassy in the middle of the night and spirited away one of the embassy's cipher machines for study by the NSA's code breakers.

The FBI is still conducting these highly sensitive operations. Specially trained teams of FBI agents are still periodically breaking into foreign embassies and consulates in the United States, primarily in New York and Washington. In New York, a special team of FBI burglars is based in a converted warehouse in Long Island City in Queens, according to a former FBI employee who worked there. The nondescript facility is large enough that the FBI can build mock-ups of the exteriors and interiors of embassies being targeted for break-ins. The FBI has a similar facility in Northern Virginia, where full-size mock-ups of embassies in Washington are constructed to train FBI teams prior to conducting black-bag jobs of the facilities.

To facilitate these operations, the FBI has a huge library of architectural drawings, floor plans, building permits, and any other documents that it can lay its hands on concerning the layouts of every embassy and consulate in the United States. Many of these documents were obtained in close conjunction with the diplomatic security staff of the State Department and the uniformed branch of the Secret Service, which is responsible for providing security for foreign diplomatic establishments in the United States. The FBI also interviews the repair and maintenance personnel who service the leased computers and telecommunications equipment used by a host of embassies and other diplomatic establishments in Washington and New York.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the tempo of FBI clandestine operations designed to steal, compromise, or influence foreign computer, telecommunications, or encryption systems has increased by several orders of magnitude. According to a former Justice Department official, over the past decade clandestine human-intelligence operations run by the FBI's Washington and New York field offices have been enormously successful in compromising a wide range of computer systems and encryption technology used by foreign governments and corporate entities. In a number of important cases, these FBI operations have allowed the NSA's code-breakers to penetrate foreign encryption systems that had defied the ability of the code-breakers to solve through conventional cryptanalytic means. For example, the FBI was able to give the NSA the daily changes in cipher keys for an encryption system used by a country in the developing world. In another case, the FBI was able to covertly insert spyware into the operating system of a computer being used by a foreign mission in New York, allowing the NSA to read the plaintext versions of cables before they were encrypted.

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But by far the most productive and sensitive intelligence source about what is going on inside embassies and consulates in the United States is a joint FBI-NSA electronic-eavesdropping program known as Close Access SIGINT. It enables the FBI and NSA to listen to what is transpiring inside these buildings by using a wide range of covert technical sensors that are monitored in real time from covert listening posts located in close proximity to the targets.

Some of these operations involve spyware software that has been covertly planted inside the computer systems of embassies and consulates, which allows the NSA's computer-hacking organization, the Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), to read in real time everything that is being stored on individual computers or on the computer network itself. Some of these implants are designed and operated by TAO. Others are designed by the FBI's SIGINT unit, the DITU. Some sensors periodically copy the contents of computer hard drives; another sensor takes screen shots of documents being processed or reviewed on compromised computer systems. The FBI is also using sophisticated laser and acoustic systems to image and record the sounds of what is being typed on computers, according to a source with access to the trove of documents leaked to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

To pick up the signals from these clandestine sensors, the FBI uses front companies to lease office space within line of sight of nearly 50 embassies and consulates in Washington and New York. In other instances, the FBI and NSA have installed disguised receivers on building rooftops near these embassies to pick up the data signals from clandestine sensors implanted inside these embassies and consulates. Some of these disguised receivers can clearly be seen on the rooftop of a building located within line of sight of the Chinese, Israeli, and Pakistani embassies on Van Ness Street in northwest Washington. It's a neighborhood that's awfully familiar to the FBI and its eavesdroppers.

MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images

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