Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The squarest spies on earth

Anyone who's tried to write about NSA knows that the hard part is not finding out the agency's scandals, failures, and problems: it's finding out the successes and accomplishments.

NSA still labors under the quaint idea that no one will suspect their communications are being intercepted as long as NSA refuses to discuss anything about the process, or even the results, of its activities. I've argued for years that in this day and age NSA would have nothing to lose and much to gain from greater openness, at the very least when it comes to historical material about the contributions of SIGINT to military operations and diplomacy in the post-World War II era. In my forthcoming book Code Warriors — which chronicles codebreaking in the Cold War period — I was able to mine a variety of declassified materials, directly and indirectly, to piece together the story but it was never a straightforward process. NSA continues to be its own worst enemy, refusing to declassify even 70 year old material about its breaking of archaically obsolete Soviet code machines, for example.

I've thus been reading through with much interest the latest collection of leaked NSA documents courtesy of Edward Snowden, posted yesterday on The Intercept. This is the first installment of a large collection of in-house NSA electronic newsletters dating from 2003 and later, called SIDtoday (SID standing for the Signals Intelligence Directorate).

What's most interesting are the regular herograms to the workforce mentioning NSA accomplishments, particularly during the war in Iraq. They notably included the use of real-time intercepts to support special forces operations such as the one on June 17, 2003, that captured the notorious Saddam-regime official Mahmud al-Tikriti.

This is exactly the sort of information the American public never sees, and which would offer perhaps a slightly more balanced view of NSA's purpose, abilities, and value.

It's also clear from many of the newsletter items that the longstanding bureaucratic turf wars between the military services and intel agencies, and NSA's long history of red-tape ossification which dominated the story of the Cold War, have largely given way to streamlined procedures and effective technologies that have finally begun to make things work they way they should, when it comes to  getting SIGINT into the hands of the people who need it.

There are many references to National Intelligence Support Teams, which are now routinely embedded in supported forces in the field, and which can directly receive SIGINT from Ft. Meade and help interpret it on the spot for commanders. During the capture of al-Tikriti, NSA linguists were able to provide near-real time "speaker identity information" from intercepted communications, and its "Geospatial Exploitation Office" had deployed web-based servers that allowed NSA's "customers" in the field to access mapping and location data on targeted users of "Personal Communications Systems" as they were being tracked.

A far cry from the dysfunctions, dropped balls, interservice rivalries, and overloaded communications of the Cold War era.

But the newsletters also show some things will never change in NSA's culture. The most banal and innocuous statements in the newsletters are routinely classified Secret or even Top Secret, especially those that even hint that NSA is doing anything well or right.

And one can only marvel at the middle-American insularity of these squarest spies on earth, in the numerous little naive travelogues recounting the wonders encountered by deployed NSAers at foreign postings: ramen shops in Japan, fish and chips in England, rhine wine in Germany, and even the fun recreational opportunities at Guantanamo Bay (where NSA's "Liaison Officers" were supporting prisoner interrogations): "Outside work, fun awaits and opportunities abound. Water sports are outstanding. . . . they've recently added sailboat rentals, too. Surround all this water fun with a Tiki Bar and a Jerk House as well as the Bayview Restaurant. Relaxing is easy."