On May 28, American prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed to Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper that he would soon release a fresh batch of NSA documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden on espionage in the Middle East.
He informed Al-Akhbar – a paper that supports the Iranian-Hizballah case in the Middle East – that the new revelations would focus on two topics: Israel and the Gulf rulers.
Greenwald won his Pulitzer Prize after breaking the story of broad NSA surveillance programs in 2013 with the help of former staffer Edward Snowden. He is also one of the select few in possession of the documents leaked by the whistleblower. They continue to work closely together to expose the breadth and depth of spying conducted by NSA and its partners across the globe.
In relation to Israel, Greenwald told Al Akhbar that he is homing in on secret agreements between the NSA and Israeli espionage agencies, which are supported by generous funding for Israeli assistance.
Despite this collaboration, the leaked documents, he says, expose aggressive Israeli eavesdropping on US official and non-official communications in an effort to gain an edge in the partnership.
America’s “five eyes” gather intelligence all the time, everywhere
With regard to the Gulf, the journalist said the documents for publication “detail NSA cooperation with some of the worst tyrants in the Gulf region, both to augment their own domestic surveillance capabilities and also for the NSA to share with those regimes information they get about those countries.”
There is much to come from this “big story,” Snowden’s partner says, adding: “All I can say is that there is a lot more reporting to do on that region of the world.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the picture Greenwald paints in Al-Akhbar is a familiar one to many of those who deal with Israel or global intelligence – that American spy agencies are gathering as much information as possible, everywhere and all the time. America’s “five eyes,” the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand are portrayed as continuously and indiscriminately collecting raw data from every available source.
Their geographical spread provides the US with widely-spaced listening stations that intercept the flow of data from satellites, physical and wireless communications infrastructure, and closed and encoded networks, whether military, civilian, business or financial.
They also comb through open sources (OSINT) such as social media and news reports.
Most physical surveillance equipment is made in America
The US also has listening and interception posts in the Mid East and the Persian Gulf, both key locales for American interests, say our sources. Some of these posts are in plain sight on the roofs of embassies and consulates; others are clandestine and operate out of properties owned under cover by the US or one of the other “five eyes.”
The NSA carries out these operations in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and out of US and foreign military bases in the region.
Because much of the physical surveillance equipment is made in America – such as routers, switches, load balancers, operations systems, MS Office programs, search engines and social networks – US intelligence agencies are able to keep their hands invisibly on all these components and actively assist in the interception of relevant data, and its transfer in processed or raw form to destination, namely NSA headquarters.
One of the NSA procedures which most infuriated Snowden and decided him to steal data and blow the whistle was the transfer of raw intelligence to friendly countries like Israel, before it was “cleaned” of information about private US citizens.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s cyber experts point out that the environment in which signal intelligence (SIGINT) agencies operate is different from – and a lot more technologically complex – than the way it is presented by Snowden.
Finding a needle in a haystack of data
The various spy agencies have to contend with a number of stiff challenges:
1. The limitless quantity of information to be processed:
Hundreds of gigantic listening stations operating globally on land and sea, in the airwaves and outer space, collect a hitherto unheard-of mass of data which is processed by NSA’s systems. It is intercepted and before being segmented, is relayed as raw data to NSA headquarters for the agency to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.
2. Diversity of content and source:
The data collected by intelligence agencies doesn’t just supply routine military and security needs; it harvests an infinite variety of information on the principle that you can never tell what will be required or when for a future operation. It also covers a wide variety of financial movements (bank transactions); scientific correspondence, articles and basic data (from research institutes and universities); analyses of social, political, religious and other trends; communications from international cellular phone companies (length of calls and locations of callers); and information on the Internet or in private encoded networks.
3. Language and culture gaps:
America’s four leading intelligence partners are English-speaking countries with related cultures. Staff at the core of US intelligence are carefully vetted citizens, among whom it can’t be easy to find personnel with high security clearance, who are familiar, for example, with a certain dialect of Yemeni Arabic, or knowledgeable about the esoteric culture, religion or geography of a given subject.
The interfacing of the various technologies for gathering data and offloading it into NSA databases is no light matter to get right – whether for formal, lawful communications among governmental systems or for covert interception.
After the next sensations, the whistleblower approaches his swan song
The NSA works in the shadows – hence the high importance of protecting the identity of its sources, and leaving no fingerprints on its interceptions. Snowden and Greenwald, in contrast, seek bright spotlights for their disclosures.
On Wednesday, Snowden told NBC that he had spied for the CIA as well as the NSA and sounded insulted by being labeled a “29-year old hacker” by US intelligence agencies. But spy or computer geek, Snowden may not remain in the news for long – he is nearing the end of his leaks, and says that the list of Americans on whom the NSA is eavesdropping will be his swan song.