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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

Exclusive

Why Has the U.N. Given Assad a Free Pass on Mass Murder?

Humanitarian workers chronicle Syria's suffering -- but withhold key details on who is at fault.

During the past year, the United Nations' chief relief agency has routinely withheld from the public vital details of the Bashar al-Assad regime's systematic campaign to block humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians. This silence has infuriated human rights advocates, who believe that greater public exposure of Assad's actions would increase political pressure on the Syrian government to allow the international community to help hundreds of thousands of ordinary Syrians who are trapped in the line of fire.

Instead, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) -- which oversees international relief efforts in Syria -- has relied on low-key, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to quietly persuade the Syrian regime to open the aid floodgates. So far, critics say, the strategy has been ineffective. Worse, it provides a measure of political cover to the Assad regime as it carries out mass starvation and slaughter, these critics contend.

The U.N. "should be much more willing to point the finger at the Syrian government when they are responsible for vast blockages of aid. They haven't said enough about who is responsible for violations and the character of those violations," said Peggy Hicks, the head of advocacy for Human Rights Watch. "There is always a balancing act, but we have been concerned that the U.N. has been reluctant to recognize the limits of working behind the scenes."

In the latest effort to avoid a diplomatic confrontation, the agency's chief, Valerie Amos, privately urged U.N. Security Council members to hold off on plans to promote a resolution aimed at pressuring Syria to meet its humanitarian obligations. Instead, she has proposed establishing a high-level group -- including representatives of Australia, the United States, Iran, Luxembourg, Russia, and Saudi Arabia -- to quietly pressure Syria's combatants to "lift bureaucratic and other obstacles hindering humanitarian work," according to a confidential copy of the plan. Both Iran and the U.S. have tentatively agreed to participate, Foreign Policy reported on Friday.

During the past month, Amos has engaged in a rare bout of public scolding, criticizing the Syrian government's imposition of bureaucratic delays and its laying siege to civilian towns. While Hicks and other critics say they welcome the change, they say she has not gone far enough.

Amos defended her response, telling Foreign Policy in prepared remarks that her agency has been speaking out in private and public about Syrian government obstructions and that it "publishes regular bulletins on the humanitarian situation inside Syria including constraints on access." But she stated, "We are not just an advocacy organization."

"Our job requires an operational response on the ground, information management, sensitive negotiations and advocacy," said Amos, who on Nov. 13 toured the storm-ravaged town of Tacloban, Philippines, where she is overseeing the troubled humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan. "We have a responsibility to help those most in need. We have achieved that through a mix of public pressure and quiet diplomacy with the parties active in the conflict in Syria."

The distribution of humanitarian aid has emerged as a central front of the Syrian government's military campaign to starve out pockets of potential support for the armed resistance. By restricting deliveries to pro-government areas, the Syrian government has gained a political advantage by ensuring that food and assistance is channeled disproportionately to those who support it.

"Both sides want to be the food-giver, but Assad has made it very clear he's not going to let anybody else but him feed Syrians," said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma. Assad's hope: that "people will crawl back to him" for bread, salaries, and other subsidies. "And that's what's happening.

While the United States and European powers have publicly denounced the Syrian government's curtailing of assistance to opposition territory, one of their chief objectives in Syria -- saving lives and stopping the wholesale flight of refugees -- has perversely aligned with Assad's aims, according to Landis.

"If you want to stop refugee flow and cauterize Syria, which is [the West's] major objective, the way to do it is to pump more calories into Syria, and the best way to pump calories into Syria is to work through Assad," Landis said. "He owns the Syrians, and he will facilitate that food distribution if it relegitimizes him.

The United Nations estimates that more than 9.5 million Syrians are in need of assistance, including 2.5 million people residing in areas beyond the reach of international relief workers. Many have not received help for more than a year. "Syria has become the great tragedy of this century -- a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history," Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in September.

The Assad government and Syria's armed opposition -- a fractious coalition of fighters that has become increasingly dominated by extremist jihadists -- have both committed widespread abuses of civilians. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, for example, has warned that aid workers are at risk of kidnapping or death in Syria. The International Committee of the Red Cross claims that at least 22 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the conflict started.

"The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transportation by all parties to the conflict remains a daily reality," according to a confidential paper produced by OCHA. "Kidnappings and abductions of humanitarian workers are growing, as is hijacking and seizure of trucks."

But the government's use of aid blockades has been far more sweeping, according to experts on the region. "Both sides are employing siege tactics that seek to gain a military advantage by denying supplies to the civilian population," said Noah Bonsey, the Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. "But it is a much more of systematic policy on the regime side," one aimed at starving out populations in hard-to-reach rebel strongholds. That includes Ghouta, where the government used chemical weapons in August to try to dislodge the resistance.

For much of the past year, OCHA has studiously avoided opportunities to cast direct blame on the Syrian government for paralyzing the U.N. relief effort in rebel-controlled territory. Instead, the organization preferred to nudge Assad behind the scenes in the hope of widening access for relief workers. Until recently, a typical public statement will raise concern about the brutality of life for civilians under siege but will not identify who is responsible for imposing it. Many basic facts -- for instance, the existence of a Syrian government policy of denying medical syringes into opposition areas -- have been limited to distribution to the Security Council and have been marked strictly confidential.

A review of confidential internal documents provides a far clearer picture of Syrian obstructionism. For instance, one document contained a list of eight villages and neighborhoods in Damascus and Homs that had come under siege by Syrian security forces -- including Moadamiyeh, where thousands of Syrian residents were forced to eat leaves in order to fend off starvation. For anyone paying close attention to Syria's civil war, the government's siege of Syrian villages was hardly a secret.

Syria has failed to act on U.N. requests to establish humanitarian aid offices in numerous cities, including Aleppo, Daraa, and Quamishli. That has complicated U.N. efforts to deliver assistance in the country, according to another internal document OCHA presented to the Security Council this month.

Syria routinely delays the issuance of visas, and when it does grant them, it will not allow relief workers into the country, according to one of the documents. Procedures for delivering aid, as well as importing communications equipment, are particularly cumbersome. For instance, U.N. relief workers must submit a travel request to the Foreign Ministry 72 hours in advance of sending a convoy into the field. Approval must be granted by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the Syrian Arab Red Cross, and the Ministry of Social Affairs. In the case of medicine deliveries, the U.N. must also obtain a clearance letter from the Ministry of Health.

The Assad government has long prohibited the United Nations from delivering aid across Syria's borders with countries viewed as sympathetic to the armed opposition, including Turkey and Jordan. Instead, aid is shipped through Damascus and often blocked from crossing conflict lines. "Restrictions imposed by Syrian authorities on delivery of medical supplies over past six months include: medical supplies which could be used for surgical interventions (e.g. scissors, infusions, anaesthesia) not allowed into opposition-controlled areas," according to a confidential document provided by Amos's office to the Security Council this month. (The document, however, did note that some medical supplies were delivered to Idlib and the town of Termallah in Homs between August and October).

The United States and its Western allies have denounced Syrian obstructions and have accused the Syian government of stepping up efforts to starve out civilians in towns suspected of sympathizing with the opposition. "The regime has shown that it can facilitate access to chemical weapons inspectors when it wishes, and it could do so for humanitarian relief if it showed a shred of humanity and wished to do so," British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently told British Parliament.

But in the face of such behavior, the U.N. has tread carefully and generally from behind closed doors. This month -- according to confidential documents shared with the U.N. Security Council -- Amos's office backtracked on a plan to set specific timelines for reopening shuttered hospitals and schools in conflict zones. Even a U.N. proposal to deliver polio vaccines to 700,000 Syrian children by January was dropped before it was officially presented to the Security Council on Nov. 4.

In recent weeks, and in the face of intense pressure from human rights groups and aid agencies, the U.N.'s humanitarian agency has stepped up its public complaints about the Assad regime's hostility to relief workers.

"Lack of access is the biggest problem we face in Syria. Both the Government and the opposition are blocking aid deliveries, as I have pointed out in public and in private fora," Amos told Foreign Policy in her statement. "We face serious bureaucratic constraints in getting permission from the Government for convoys and obtaining visas, setting up humanitarian hubs and getting essential equipment through customs. Opposition groups have blocked our convoys and refused to allow us passage through checkpoints."

But she added: "[W]e do not release detailed operational information publicly for reasons including the security of our staff and those in partner organizations, and the integrity of our negotiations."

The U.N.'s caution reflects a long-standing dilemma for U.N. humanitarian relief workers: Is it better to use the bully pulpit to increase pressure on a government to treat its people humanely, or is it better to nudge the government quietly behind the scenes?

For decades, U.N. relief workers have preferred to keep their concerns off the headlines and reveal little about the perpetrators of violence against civilians, thereby preserving their role as neutral healers and helpers.

But a spate of internal reviews of U.N. responses to mass killings from Bosnia to Rwanda and Sri Lanka have challenged that view, arguing that the U.N. cannot remain impartial and silent in the face of massive abuses against civilians.

Last year, Charles Petrie -- a retired U.N. official who served in trouble spots from Rwanda to Myanmar -- conducted a major internal review of the U.N.'s response during the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war, when more than 70,000 civilians were killed, mostly by government shelling. The review faulted the U.N. for failing to confront the government more directly.

"There was a continued reluctance [by the U.N.] to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist," he wrote. While top U.N. officials frequently decried the death of thousands of civilians "the U.N. greatly weakened the impact of its statements by not identifying the government as the perpetrator of individual attacks associated with these casualties."

But others say it is not so simple. It's true that the U.N. "has a tendency to err on the side of quiet diplomacy longer than they should," said Steven Ratner, a professor of international law at the University of Michigan Law School, who oversaw a second review of the mass killing of civilians in Sri Lanka. "But I think it would be too simplistic to say there is always one right way of handling a situation like Syria. In some situations, quiet diplomacy works; and in others condemnation works; and in others maybe a combination of both" will work.

Security Council diplomats say that Amos, a British national who was put forward for the U.N.'s top humanitarian job by her government, is concerned that the pursuit of a more confrontational approach toward Syria will backfire. She worries that it will feed a perception in Damascus that the U.N. aid effort is linked to the Western powers' attempts to bring about the fall of the regime. She has tried to encourage the combatants' allies -- including Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to use their influence on the fighters to permit the delivery of relief. "The U.N. doesn't want to be perceived as being politicized," said one Security Council diplomat. The U.N. relief agency, the diplomat said, is concerned that it could be accused of "playing politics with the West."

A second Security Council diplomat defended Amos's handling of the response, saying that has been necessary to proceed discretely in order to avoid antagonizing Russia, Syria's closest ally on the council, or provoking Syria to impose even tighter restriction. Taking an even-handed approach to the crisis has served to induce Russia to accept Security Council pressure on the parties. "She has been outspoken," the diplomat said. They say she has quietly worked behind the scenes to persuade Syria's allies, Russia and Iran, help the U.N. gain access.

"I would think the criticism against OCHA seems unfair; OCHA has been trying to draw attention to these problems and trying to say there is clearly problems in access due to bureaucratic hurdles, which points to the government," said another Council diplomat. "OCHA has responsibility to balance between public awareness and trying to gain concrete steps on the ground, which can sometimes be more efficient not to make too much noise."

The U.N. Security Council has long been paralyzed by a big power standoff, with Russia and China on one side, the United States and its European and Arab allies on the other. But on Oct. 2, the U.N. Security Council finally adopted its first formal statement calling on Syria and the armed opposition to permit unfettered access to relief workers. Human rights and relief organizations said the U.N. has been slow to pressure the government to meet the council's demands. The U.N. only presented the council with a plan of action on Monday, a month after the council issued its plea for access.

Human Rights Watch's Hicks welcomed the U.N. relief coordinators' increasing willingness to speak out in recent weeks, but says the United Nations has too often withheld precise details about who is responsible for blocking assistance to needy civilians. For instance, Hicks noted, Amos has said it was a "scandal" the U.N. can't reach 330,000 people in besieged areas. But she didn't note that the vast majority -- some 280,000 -- are being held captive, part of a systematic campaign to cut off civilians. "The lesson of Sri Lanka shows that when access to people in need is completely blocked and stymied, as has been the case in Syria, the U.N. needs to speak out loudly in a very forceful way in support of all those in need of assistance."

PRST Monitoring Framework - FINAL 4 November 2013 - Copy(3) by Noah Shachtman

Key Targets for ImplementationDraft1 by Noah Shachtman

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images