Friday, January 17, 2014

A Spy's Take on Spying

As many of you know, I was an Arabic Linguist in the Navy.   I served between 1970 and 1974 on active duty, and then from 1976 until 1981 drilling with the Naval Reserve.  My rate was “Communications Technician – Interpretive Branch” and I rose to 2nd Class Petty Officer prior to my discharge from active duty, and later was promoted to 1st Class Petty Officer in the Reserves.  The rate I held had its name changed to “Cryptologic Technician” in the 80’s but is still designated with “CT”, then the branch letter, so I was a “CTI2” and then a “CTI1” in the reserves.  Throughout it all, with all other CTs, I reported up through the United States Naval Security Group (NavSecGru) and held a Top Secret – Special Access Clearance.  NavSecGru along with the Army Security Agency (ASA) and the Air Force Security Service (AFSS), report to the National Security Acency (NSA) and on a dotted line to the Chief of Naval Operations.  NavSecGru’s mission is to provide intelligence support to US Navy Operations and to assist in NSA’s global intelligence gathering operations.

Give my exposure and experiences, I have a perspective on NSA and the recent turmoil around intelligence activities that resulted from the unauthorized (and illegal) disclosures by Mr. Manning and Mr. Snowden, that comes from a base of understanding that most people do not have.  I want to share some thoughts at rationale that I hope will help you sort through a very complex set of issues that have arisen.

The first area I want to touch on relates to security clearances.  You need to have a fairly squeaky clean paper trail behind you to obtain a clearance.  They sent people to talk to my neighbors, friends and references, they researched my parents financial and medical histories as well as mine and did the obvious criminal background checks.  I served before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at a time when being homosexual would have immediately disqualified you for a clearance.  Right or wrong, the theory was that indebtedness, infidelity, gambling, drugs or alcohol addiction or homosexuality (and so on) would make you a target for blackmail, therefor making you more likely to divulge our nation’s secrets.  They showed us films, subjected us to numerous classes and lectures and displayed posters throughout my military career to keep reminding us of the potential consequences of letting slip even a tiny bit of information about what we did.  They made it abundantly clear that even one little slip could lead to major damage to the USA (when taken together with other minor slips).  They used a puzzle analogy over and over to drive this home, and we had to sign acknowledging that we agreed and understood.  I can guarantee that Manning and Snowden agreed and understood.

Now on to the intelligence gathering process.  While I acknowledge that my duties as a CT were performed in a time before personal computers and cell phones, I know that the process hasn’t changed, just the technology has.  NSA looks for the same things, just with bigger computers looking at more forms of communication.  PCs brought the internet and its comms first, then came cell phones and non-landline calls.  Then came texting and social media, messages embedded in photographs and many other attempts to hide information from prying eyes and ears.  Throughout all of it, I’m sure NSA was never more than one technology behind, and even then it was never for very long.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing they can’t intercept, and likely very little that they don’t.

Like the puzzle analogy NSA and SecGru used to illustrate the impact of security lapses, so goes OUR intelligence gathering.  By cleverly piecing together small bits of intercept from a variety of sources, a bigger picture of threats to our security can be formed.  As you can probably imagine, this isn’t very easy to do.  If your goal is catch fish, cast a large net.  Then you throw back anything in that net that isn’t of value.  If you need to catch as many fish as is possible, cast the biggest net you can – that’s eacctly what they do.  Today’s news reveals a story from the Guardian of London that claims NSA captures 200 million text messages a day.  What they don’t mention is that there aren’t even 20,000 people to read them.  A computer does it, no doubt.  So this massive machine screens for keywords and cross references the sources against lists of cell phone numbers of interest that were put together by casting a different net.  These computers then likely assign a value to each message based on keyword values and stores the messages with values above some threshold for further review.  In some cases, once that further review occurs, there forms a basis to go back and review lower-scoring messages from that same number for additional intel.  So it goes with radio comms and any other form of message caught in one of the nets.  Also, active listening takes place on foreign military comms as well as paramilitary comms such as air traffic control locations.

When I was in the Mediterranean, we monitored various Palestinian radical groups’ radio communications (it was the 70’s and the PLO, Al Fatah and the PFLP were active).  Many were in code since anybody with a radio can pick up these broadcasts and the information is not for general consumption.  The theory is that codes are hard to break, but the truth is they aren’t.  We would hear a station state that he had enemy planes above his position and could usually figure out where he was broadcasting from by matching up another intercept of air traffic radar reporting – like a puzzle.  Only by collecting it all could you hope to have the desired effect.  Understand that over 99% of what we captured was of no value and quickly dismissed.  Some of it was forwarded to NSA, where they had capacity to cross-reference it with data from other sources.  We helped stop attempted bombings in New York City from our station in Nicosia, Cyprus.

To summarize, I think it safe to assume that just about all of your phone usage and your internet usage is subject to NSA review.  But nobody’s listening.  If you don’t use enough keywords, they trash your personal, private stuff.  So why don’t I really understand all of the privacy fears?  Its because nobody cares if you’re not a threat to national security.  Nobody cares if you steal at work, cheat on your spouse, buy weed for the weekend or get a deal on some hot merchandise – most of which is illegal anyway.  So if you’re not breaking any laws, what privacy is compromised.  Do you really think they care if you cheat on your taxes, buy videos or make contributions to candidates?  No they don’t, but H&R Block, Amazon and the DNCC care, and they collect and keep way more personal info than NSA does.  But we apparently can accept that.  So it must be crime no matter how petty, that makes us so paranoid about privacy – think about that.

Lastly a few words on whistleblowing.  Apparently a very large segment of our population things that whistleblowing is protected speech, when that is not at all true with respect to the military and government operations.  National secrets are not fodder for whistleblowing, and the lectures, films and signed consent of servicemen and contractors are non-ambiguous.  Divulging classified information, regardless of motive, is a crime up to and including treason.  Manning got off lightly, and if Snowden is ever tried, I don’t think he will see the light of day again.  Those that grant hero status to these two must deal with the hypocrisy of advocating the giving away of the nations biggest secrets in order to protect their own little secrets.

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