Federal Agencies: National Security Agency Snowden II?

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Uh-oh! Here we are again. Looks like we are going to have a Snowden II at the National Security Agency (NSA) (Bamford). On Monday, August 22, 2016, Reuters, a well respected international news agency, reported that actual hacking tools, presumably absconded from the National Security Agency, are on the virtual market auction block, and the pirates are, as yet, unidentified. The likely candidate is an NSA insider. Of course this possibility begs the question, is an agency in the business of gathering covert intelligence, that cannot protect itself from being hacked from within, competent (Bamford)? But, perhaps there is more to the story.

What is the NSA?

The NSA is the nations’ cryptology specialists, which studies and deciphers codes ("Commentary: Evidence”). The agency writes codes and solves codes, including Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA) work and service offerings. The agency gives life to Computer Network Operations (CNO) which creates an advantage for the country and its allies. The NSA states that its core values are honesty, respect for the law, integrity and transparency, yet it seems there might be a little too much transparency, and their integrity core value is coming under question ("Commentary: Evidence”).

The NSA is headed by Michael Rogers, Admiral U.S. Navy, Commander, U.S. Cyber Command and Director of the NSA; Richard Ledgett, Jr., Deputy Director, NSA; and Mark Westergren, Major General, U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief, Central Security Service (“Leadership”). The NSA is agency to the Central Security Service (CSS), which supports the military in its cryptologic needs ("Central Security Service (CSS)"). There are five Service Cryptologic Components which include, the US Coast Guard Deputy Assistant Commandant for Intelligence, the United States Fleet Cyber Command, the United States Army's Intelligence and Security Command, the United States Marine Corps Director of Intelligence and the 25th Air Force ("Central Security Service (CSS)").

What Does the NSA Do?

The United States faces incredible national security challenges compared to years ago ("What We Do"). As a result, the NSA is perfectly situated to engage in the intelligence missions required by U.S. political leaders, legislators, military agents, law enforcement and the intelligence community. The NSA is the global leader in creating codes and breaking codes. The actions of the NSA and the CSS together, help to save people’s lives, advance the country’s goals, strengthen U.S. alliances, defends our information networks, and protect the privacy rights of citizens. The NSA is a member of the Defense Department and is also a member of the U.S. Intelligence Community ("What We Do"). The NSA solves threats to the national security. As such, the United States needs a resource that is able to decipher what our adversaries are doing and planning so that we, as a country can plan our next steps, develop policy and operate efficiently. In addition, the country needs to be able to give and receive information in a secure environment which prevents the undermining of our programs. Further, we must be in a position to outmaneuver our cyberspace competitors with negative intent. The NSA uses its personnel to provide the expertise and technology needed by the nation to continue to be a world force.

The Threat Faced by the United States

The United States is in the midst of a confluence of grave national security threats ("Understanding the Threat"). Often at the epicenter of the threats are domestic and international terrorism and extremism, posing peril to our military, our citizens, our allies, and to our homeland itself. Conflicts in other parts of the world can have major impact on United States’ interests. Governments with hostile intent and terrorist try to root out weapons of mass destruction or the components needed to create them. Also, drugs are smuggled into the country illegally every day. Cyberspace with all of its benefits for good, unfortunately comes with perils that can have catastrophic effect on the country’s economy and national security. Every year, the capabilities of bad players increase exponentially ("Understanding the Threat"). Use of the Internet, for heinous purposes, is employed by foreign foes, agile hackers, and cyber criminals with ever increasing levels of sophistication. The Internet has evolved to become part and parcel of our economic strength. We use the Internet everyday in every way conceivable. But the incredible opportunities and advancements the Internet provides, also creates a haven for those trying to create the next best crime. Those trying to identify the vulnerabilities that comprehensive use of the Internet creates, spend their days and nights trying to come up with creative ways to destroy the benefits it provides. The nefarious techniques include the production and use of malware, ransomware, denial of service attacks, and engaging in remote hacking and spearfishing, to name a few. Some evil doers simply try to recruit lonely lost souls to do their atrocious bidding. Some criminals seek financial gain, but other adversaries seek to topple the United States for non-financial reasons, like pure hatred or ideological conflict. The complexity of networks and the global reach of cyberspace give bad actors safe places to hide their actions and themselves. The NSA serves to provide the nation with access to the information needed to protect the national security ("Understanding the Threat").

Is There a Potential New Breach at the NSA?

Snowden I. Edward Snowden was a NSA whistleblower (Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras). He worked through Booz Allen Hamilton, as a contractor for the NSA. The access that he was able to obtain through the Booz Allen contract gave him far more inroads that he had previously. He now had access to specifics on computers globally that the NSA hacked into. Snowden had become part of an elite group of employees who had access to classified information. He not only had access to information, he could access it as if he was a ghost. No one could tell that he was there – no evidence was left behind. Once he gathered the information that he wanted to disclose to the world, he contacted three journalists. On June 5, 2013, Snowden was able to divulge an incredible amount of classified information and exposed that the NSA, as an agency, had been surreptitiously gathering American’s telephone records. He disclosed that the NSA gained access to social media servers, like those of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, using a surveillance system called Prism that monitors communications. Snowden immediately became a fugitive from justice and has been stuck in Russian limbo ever since. The U.S. Department of Justice lodged charges of two counts of theft of government property and violation of the Espionage Act of 1917 against Snowden on June 21, 2013 (Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras). 

Snowden II? The NSA may have a new problem. Although it is not exactly the same as what Edward Snowden did, the fact that new information has been exposed from within, shows that there may be another mole within the NSA and the agency may still have some major vulnerabilities ("Hints suggest an insider”). The Shadow Brokers, likely named to play off their goal to remain shadowy crew, leaked a hacking tool. Unfortunately for the NSA, the tool belonged to their Tailored Access Operations team, or TAO. Those in the know suggest that the culprit is an inside source. The tool finds vulnerabilities in network platforms. James Bamford, a reporter from Reuters suggests that insiders say the tool did not come from Snowden, but may have come from another leaker who had given information to Jacob Appelbaum at Wikileaks (""Commentary: Evidence ”). Information about the tools are consistent with an NSA cyberespionage training manual from the Snowden leaks, as provided by The Intercept ("Hints suggest an insider”). In addition, a few of the hacker tools a similar to the contents of an NSA wishbook, referred to as the TAO’s ANT catalog. Der Spiegel and Appelbaum published the document in late 2013. Snowden weighed in on Twitter, saying that the date stamp for the Shadow Brokers’ files, were identified as June 2013. Snowden suggesting, that this proved that his leaking efforts ended NSA hacking, at that time. For which Snowden, in his tongue-in-cheek way, said, “You're welcome, @NSAGov" ("Hints suggest an insider”). Probably not a good idea to be snarky when you desperately want a presidential pardon so that you can come back home – but then again, Snowden is not necessarily known best for his use of good judgment (Greenwood; Watkins). Further analysis suggests that the Shadow Brokers is likely one lone insider ("Hints suggest an insider”). Professor of computer science, Shlomo Engelson, from the Illinois Institute of Chicago, and head scientist from Taia Global, a specialist in text attribution and analysis, has reviewed the Shadow Brokers text. He believes that the language used announcing the stolen code was originated by a U.S. native speaker, who made use of broken English and odd grammatical errors, as part of his ruse. Also, Motherboard referenced the conclusions of a former NSA employee, that the Shadow Brokers was actually a lone insider, reasoning that the file naming conventions used, along with scripts, implied that the information was obtained from an internal NSA system, not exposed to external networks. The Motherboard source disclosed, "my colleagues and I are fairly certain that this was no hack, or group for that matter...This ‘Shadow Brokers’ character is one guy, an insider employee” ("Hints suggest an insider”).

Snowden Seeking Pardon – Seriously?

Edward Snowden’s defense attorney, in conjunction with a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, is working on trying to obtain a presidential pardon from Obama, or a plea bargain with the Department of Justice, for Snowden’s violations of the Espionage Act and theft of government property (Chan). Snowden suggests that the governments reaction has “an element of absurdity to it” (Chan), because he claims, the government is more incensed by what he did than they are bothered by the level of harm he inflicted. Others might suggest that the true absurdity is in Snowden’s attempt to get a pardon from a president he hated with intense disdain and outspoken frequency (Cunningham), and even others feel that he made his Russian bed, so now he should lay in it ("Lawrence Wilkerson”).

Snowden was on his way to Latin America, when the U. S. revoked his passport, forcing him to remain in Russia ("Edward Snowden”). The Russian government, in a move not well received by the United States, gave Snowden temporary asylum. His initial asylum having expired, Russia has extended his temporary permission to stay in the country for another three years. Though, in a rather bold decision, Snowden has decided to criticize his hosts. He has expressed his disagreement with Russian policy on Internet suppression of freedom and their failure to consider the rights of homosexuals. His topics and views are good ones in this regard, but when you are begging for a place to stay, criticizing one of the few countries that is supporting you, is not the most intelligent choice. Well, actually, why would we expect anything different from Snowden?

Works Cited

"Central Security Service (CSS)." U.S. National Security Agency. n. d. Web. 23 August 2016. <https://www.nsa.gov/about/central-security-service/>.

Chan, Melissa. "Edward Snowden Is Hoping for a Pardon From President Obama." Time.com. Time, Inc. 27 June  2016. Web. 24 August 2016. <http://time.com/4383464/edward-snowden-pardon-obama/>.

"Commentary: Evidence points to another Snowden at the NSA." Reuters. Thomson Reuters. 22 August 2016. Web. 23 August 2016. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-intelligence-nsa-commentary-idUSKCN10X01P>.

Cunningham, Pat. "Meet Edward Snowden — gun nut, Obama hater, foe of Social Security, fan of government spying." rrstar. Gatehouse Media, Inc. 8 July 2013. Web. 23 August 2016. <http://blogs.e-rockford.com/applesauce/2013/07/08/meet-edward-snowden-gun-nut-obama-hater-foe-of-social-security-fan-of-government-spying/#axzz4IGuXnL00>.

"Edward Snowden: Russia was last resort for me." Russia Beyond the Headlines. Rossiyskaya Gazeta.  8 September 2015. Web. 23 August 2016. <http://rbth.com/society/2015/09/08/edward_snowden_russia_was_last_resort_for_me_49061.html>.

Greenwald,  Glenn, MacAskill, Ewen and Poitras, Laura. "Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 11 June 2013. Web. 23 August 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance>.

Greenwood, Glen. "The “Snowden is Ready to Come Home!” Story: a Case Study in Typical Media Deceit." The Intercept. 4 March 2015. Web. 23 August 2016. <https://theintercept.com/2015/03/04/snowden-wants-come-home-stories-case-study-media-deceit/>.

"Hints suggest an insider helped the NSA “Equation Group” hacking tools leak." ARS Technica. Condé Nast. 22 August 2016. Web. 23 August 2016. <http://arstechnica.com/security/2016/08/hints-suggest-an-insider-helped-the-nsa-equation-group-hacking-tools-leak/>.

"Lawrence Wilkerson, Former Chief Of Staff To Colin Powell: ‘Edward Snowden Has Done A Service’." The Intellectualist. 28 March 2016. Web. 23 August 2016. <http://theintellectualist.co/lawrence-wilkerson-former-chief-of-staff-to-colin-powell-edward-snowden-has-done-a-service/>.

"Leadership." U.S. National Security Agency. n. d. Web. 23 August 2016. <https://www.nsa.gov/about/leadership/>.

"Mission & Strategy." U.S. National Security Agency. n. d. Web. 23 August 2016. <https://www.nsa.gov/about/mission-strategy/>.

"Understanding the Threat." U.S. National Security Agency. n. d. Web. 23 August 2016. < https://www.nsa.gov/what-we-do/understanding-the-threat>.

Watkins, Ali. "White House: 'Pardon Edward Snowden? LOL'." Huffington Post. TheHuffintonPost.com Inc. 28 July 2015. Web. 23 August 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/white-house-pardon-edward-snowden_us_55b790e3e4b0074ba5a61dac>.

"What We Do." U.S. National Security Agency. n. d. Web. 23 August 2016. <https://www.nsa.gov/what-we-do/>.