June 23, 2020

NSA documents and cover names from the book Dark Mirror

On May 20, yet another book about the Snowden-revelations was published: Dark Mirror, Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State. It's written by Barton Gellman, who was in direct contact with Snowden and reported on the NSA's spying activities for The Washington Post.

Here, you'll find the original documents from Dark Mirror, to complement the existing collections of Snowden documents, as well as a listing of all the NSA cover names, because most of them are not included in the index of the book. A review of Dark Mirror will follow in due course.

(Similarily, the NSA documents and codenames from Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide from 2014 can be found on the website IC Off The Record)


The book contains five (parts of) documents that haven't been published before, as well as six slides from NSA presentations which were released as part of earlier press reports. There are also three photos of Edward Snowden in Dark Mirror which are not reproduced here.

(Collections of all the documents from the Snowden revelations can be found at the website IC Off the Record and in the Snowden Surveillance Archive)

Presentation about the PRISM program:

Front slide of the NSA's PRISM presentation from April 2013.
Published earlier by The Washington Post on June 6, 2013.
(Dark Mirror, p. 109 - click to enlarge)

Part of slide 40 from the NSA's PRISM presentation from April 2013.
Published earlier by The Washington Post on June 29, 2013,
but without the two-row table with the Section 702 FAA certifications.
(Dark Mirror, p. 113 - click to enlarge)

> See for all the PRISM slides that have been released: What is known about NSA's PRISM program

Presentation from the Large Access Exploitation Group:

Detail from a slide from an NSA presentation titled "Is it the End of the
SIGINT World as We Have Come to Know It?" prepared by a member of
the Large-Access Exploitation Group and dated May 10, 2012.
(Dark Mirror, p. 169 - click to enlarge)

Detail from a slide from a briefing titled "Is it the End of the SIGINT
World as We Have Come to Know It?" prepared by a member of the
Large-Access Exploitation Group and dated May 10, 2012.
(Dark Mirror, p. 174 - click to enlarge)

Probably from the same presentation are two slides that were published by The Washington Post on December 4, 2013 and one partial slide published with Greenwald's book No Place to Hide in May 2014.

> More about the MAINWAY system: Section 215 bulk telephone records and the MAINWAY database

Presentations about SSO Collection Optimization:

Meme from the NSA presentation "SSO Collection Optimization"
from January 7, 2013, referring to collection systems that
scooped up more data than they could process
(Dark Mirror, p. 192 - click to enlarge)

Slide from the NSA presentation "SSO Collection Optimization" from 2013
about intercepting Google's cloud, better known as the MUSCULAR program.
Published earlier by The Washington Post on October 30, 2013.
(Dark Mirror, p. 284 - click to enlarge)

Also from presentations about SSO Collection Optimization are:
- seven slides published by The Washington Post on October 14, 2013,
- six slides published by The Washington Post on November 4, 2013.

Slides from other NSA presentations:

Detail from a slide from the NSA presentation from
"FAIRVIEW Data Flow Diagrams" from April 2012.
The full presentation was published by
The Intercept in November 2016.
(Dark Mirror, p. 171 - click to enlarge)

> More about the FAIRVIEW program: FAIRVIEW: Collecting foreign intelligence inside the US

Slide from the NSA presentation "NSA/CSS Mission: PROVIDE AND
Published earlier by The Washington Post on December 23, 2013.
(Dark Mirror, p. 184 - click to enlarge)

Explanation of "traffic shaping" to redirect a target's communications
traffic in such a way that it passes an NSA access point.
Published earlier by The Intercept.
(Dark Mirror, p. 201 - click to enlarge)

Miscellaneous documents:

Example of an e-mail exchange between senior White House, Justice
Department and DNI officials, released upon a FOIA request about
the FIRSTFRUITS media leaks program
(Dark Mirror, p. 226 - click to enlarge)

Confirmation of the flight reservations for Edward Snowden
and Sarah Harrison, June 24, 2013.
(Dark Mirror, p. 307 - click to enlarge)

Cover names

Dark Mirror contains 28 cover names that haven't been published before. However, not all of them are explained in the book, some are just mentioned to reflect the NSA's internal culture and the way these code names are composed.

There are also 63 cover names which were already known from press reports and/or documents from the Snowden trove. This means that for many of them there's additional information available - click the asterisk for sources.

(All these cover names are also included in the extensive listings of NSA Nicknames and Codewords and NSA's TAO Division Codewords on this weblog)

Newly revealed cover names:

BADASS - (unexplained compartment) (p. 206)
BADGIRL - ? (p. 204)
BATCAVE - Digital hideout for NSA hackers who emerge to steal another country's software code (p. 209)
BLACKAXE - Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI) compartment (p. 70)
BLADERUNNER - ? (p. 209)
CAPTAINCRUNCH - FBI owned and monitored network servers to attract foreign hackers (p. 86)
COOKIEDOUGH - ? (p. 210)
CROWNROYAL - ? (p. 209)
DEPUTYDAWG - ? (p. 209)
DEVILFISH - ECI compartment (p. 70)
DEVILHOUND - ? (p. 207)
EPICFAIL - ? (p. 207)
EXPLETIVEDELETED - Cover name for al-Qaeda's favorite encryption software (p. 212)
EXUBERANTCORPSE - Cover name for al-Qaeda's favorite encryption software (p. 212)
FLYLEAF - ECI compartment (p. 70)
Graph-in-Memory - Database holding maps of contacts in support of contact-chaining (p. 174, 177, 180)
HYSSOP - ECI compartment (p. 70)
KESSELRUN - ECI compartment (p. 70)
KOBAYASHIMARU - NSA contract with General Dynamics to help break into another country's surveillance equipment (p. 210)
LIGHTNINGTHIEF - ECI compartment (p. 70)
MISS MONEYPENNY - Support unit providing cover identities for undercover CNE operations abroad (p. 202)
PANT_SPARTY - Injection of an NSA software tool into a backdoor in the target's defenses (p. 204)
POISONIVY - Remote-access trojan used by Chinese government spies (p. 209)
QUIDDITCH - Exploit used by the Special Collection Service (SCS) (p. 209)
STRAWHORSE - Modification to Apple's software installer Xcode to insert a remote-controlled backdoor into each app it compiled (p. 188, 216-220)
VIXEN - ? (p. 204)
ZOMBIEARMY - ? (p. 207)

Cover names published earlier:

ALTEREDCARBON - An IRATEMONK implant for Seagate drives * (p. 209)
AMBULANT (AMB) - ECI compartment related to the BULLRUN program (p. 70)
BLACKBELT - Access point under the FAIRVIEW program * (p. 207)
BLARNEY - Collection of foreign phone and internet communications within the US under FISA authority (since 1978) * (p. 199)
BLINDDATE - Searching for vulnerable machines on a local Wi-Fi network * * * (p. 203, 206)
BORGERKING - Something related to Linux exploits (p. 210)
BOUNDLESSINFORMANT - NSA's collection visualization tool based on internet and telephone metadata (p. 10, 206)
BYZANTINE HADES (BH) - Chinese computer network exploitation (CNE) against the US * probably renamed to the LEGION-series * (p. 68, 85, 206)
CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE - Software tool that listens in on conversation by switching on the microphone of a target's mobile handset (p. 208)
CO-TRAVELER - Set of tools for finding unknown associates of intelligence targets by tracking movements based upon cell phone locations * (p. 318)
CRUMPET - Covert network with printer, server and desktop nodes, or ECI compartment (p. 70)
EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE (EGGI) - TOR Browser Bundle (TBB) exploit (p. 80)
EPICSHELTER - Data backup system to recover information from particular NSA sites, designed by Edward Snowden * (p. 59-61, 63, 75)
ERRONEOUSINGENUITY (ERIN) - Tool for exploiting the TOR network (p. 207)
FAIRVIEW - Domestic cable tapping program in cooperation with AT&T (since 1985) * (p. 311)
FALLOUT - Internet metadata ingest processor/database (p. 169/image)
FASCIA - Telephony metadata ingest processor/database * (p. 169)
FASCIA II - Telephony metadata ingest processor and primary source of telephone metadata for target development. It formerly contained internet metadata which are now in MARINA.* (p. 172)
FELONYCROWBAR - System used to configure the UNITEDRAKE framework (p. 207)
FIRSTFRUITS - Counterintelligence database to track unauthorized disclosures to the press, set up in 2001 * * (p. 225, 271-274, 277)
GROK - Key logger that records every character a target types (p. 209)
HAPPYHOUR - Getting access to vulnerable machines on a local Wi-Fi network (p. 203)
Heartbeat - Apparently a data handler system, designed by Edward Snowden * and/or successor of EPICSHELTER, or an index of surveillance systems * (p. 36, 74-78)
IRONAVENGER - NSA hacking operation against an ally and an adversary (2010) * (p. 209)
KRISPYKREME - Implant module related to the UNITEDRAKE framework, as revealed by the Shadow Brokers * (p. 210)
LADYLOVE - The NSA satellite intercept station at Misawa in Japan (since 1982) (p. 204)
LIFESAVER - Technique which images the hard drive of computers * (p. 210)
MAILORDER - FTP-based file transport system used to move data between various collection, processing and selection management systems. Originally developed in 1990, ultimately to be replaced by JDTS * (p. 171)
MAINWAY (MW) - NSA's main contact chaining system for foreign and domestic telephone and internet metadata from multiple sources; performs data quality, preparation and sorting functions, summarizes contacts and stores the resulting one-hop contact chains * (p. 168-176, 178-180)
MAKERSMARK - Major cyber threat category countered by the TUTELAGE system * identified in 2007 * (p. 209)
MARINA - NSA database for internet metadata; maybe succeeded by CLOUDRUNNER in 2013 * (p. 169/image)
MJOLNIR - Tool to break the anonymity of the Tor network * (p. 209)
MUSCULAR - Joint NSA-GCHQ operation to tap the cables linking Google and Yahoo data clouds to the internet * (p. 299-300, 311, 315)
NIGHTSTAND - Delivering malware to a vulnerable machines on a local Wi-Fi network (p. 203, 206)
NIGHTTRAIN - Part of a program to spy on a close US ally during operations alongside the ally against a common foe * (p. 209)
OAKSTAR - Umbrella program for 9 accesses at 7 corporate partners (since 2004)* * (p. 311)
ODDJOB – HTTP command and control implant for installation on compromised Windows hosts, published by the Shadow Brokers (p. 201)
PINWALE - Primary storage, search, and retrieval system for SIGINT text intercepts. Target data is filtered through a Packet Raptor at the collection site and is subsequently processed by a WEALTHYCLUSTER 2, followed by an XKEYSCORE for selection at NSA headquarters.* (p. 176)
PITIEDFOOL - Suite of computer network attack (CNA) tools to attack the Windows operating system, overwrites data to the point it is irrecoverable (p. 206)
POLITERAIN - Offensive computer network attack (CNA) team from the Access Technologies & Operations (ATO) unit of the NSA's hacking division TAO * (p. 220)
PRISM - Collection of internet data from specific foreign targets at major US internet companies (since 2007) (p. 84, 99, 106-113, 117-121, 123-133, 137, 139-148, 226, 285, 300)
QUANTUM - Secret servers placed by NSA at key places on the internet backbone; part of the TURMOIL program * (p. 199)
RAGTIME (RGT) - ECI compartment for call and e-mail content collected under FISA authority * Encompasses both NSA and FBI FISA data since 2002 * (p. 122)
SCISSORS - Data scanning, formatting and distribution system * or processing system that slices up data for sorting (p. 206)
SECONDDATE - Exploitation of vulnerable machines on a local Wi-Fi network (p. 203)
SEEDSPHERE - Chinese "intrusion set" against US computer networks, identified in 2007 * (p. 68)
SORTINGHAT - RT10 application * or Traffic control system for information exchanged with GCHQ (p. 209)
STARBURST - Temporary cover term for what would become the STELLARWIND compartment (October 2001) (p. 70, 170)
STELLARWIND (STLW) - Cover term for the President's Surveillance Program (PSP), which encompassed bulk collection of domestic metadata and targeted interception at backbone facilities inside the US in order to track down foreign terrorists and their previously unknown conspirators (2001-2007) (p. 26, 70, 71, 169-170, 175)
TRANSGRESSION - TAO/CES unit providing cryptanalytic support for various missions * (p. 206)
TURMOIL (TML) - Passive SIGINT sensors: filtering and selection (at the packet level) of internet traffic on high-speed satellite, microwave and cable links, part of the TURBULENCE program * * * (p. 299)
TURTLEPOWER - System to process VoIP communications data * and/or automated decryption of enciphered data (p. 209)
UNPACMAN - Processing system on TAONet, part of DEEPFRIEDPIG * (p. 210)
Upstream - Targeted collection of telephone and internet communications of foreign targets at backbone cables and switches inside the US (p. 84)
VOYEUR - Compartment shared with GCHQ for spying on another country's spies as they spy on someone else (4th party collection) * (p. 206)
VULCANDEATHGRIP - Repository for data collected from vPCS shaping under the STEELFLAUTA program * or tool that seizes encryption keys during the handshake of two devices as they establish a secure link (p. 210)
WALKERBLACK - Related to the MAKERSMARK intrusion set * (p. 209)
WESTERNSTAR - Contact-chaining program * (p. 174/image)
WHARPDRIVE - Joint venture between the German BND and another country with access for NSA (2013)* * (p. 210)
WHIPGENIE (WPG) - ECI compartment for details about the STELLARWIND program * (p. 70, 122)
XKEYSCORE (XKS) - Computer system that combines high-speed filtering of data traffic from different sources with techniques for discovering targets who use the internet anonymously * (p. 86-87, 330-331)


Cover names from Edward Snowden's book Permanent Record:

EPICSHELTER - (p. 168-169, 189, 220)
FOXACID - (p. 168)
Heartbeat - (p. 221-222, 256-257)
OPTICNERVE - (p. 256)
PRISM - (p. 223-224, 291)
QUANTUM - (p. 225)
STELLARWIND - (p. 175, 177, 245, 250)
TRAILBLAZER - (p. 250-251)
TURBINE - (p. 225)
TURBULENCE - (p. 225)
TURMOIL - (p. 225)
Upstream - (p. 224)
XKEYSCORE - (p. 276-279, 281, 325)
ZBSMACKTALK/1 - (Fictitious CIA cryptonym) (p. 133-134)

June 5, 2020

Bulk interception by Germany's BND and what the Constitutional Court said about it

On May 19, the German Constitutional Court presented its decision in a case about the untargeted interception of foreign communications by the German foreign intelligence service BND.

Unlike suggestive headlines, the Court didn't forbid this kind of collection, but ruled that more specific safeguards and more thorough oversight are needed to make it compliant with the German constitution.

The Court's decision and some recent press reports also provide interesting details about how the BND is conducting its bulk collection of data from internet cables, especially at the German internet exchange DE-CIX.

Interior of the BND data center in Pullach, near Munich in Bavaria
(screenshot from ARD television - click to enlarge)

The BND's untargeted cable tapping

It's assumed that the BND's first experience with large-scale cable tapping started with operation Eikonal, under which the Germans cooperated with the NSA for access to some fiber-optic cables at a switching center of Deutsche Telekom in Frankfurt. Operation Eikonal was part of the NSA umbrella program RAMPART-A, which aimed at gathering intelligence about targets from Russia, the Middle East and North-Africa.

Operation Eikonal started in March 2004 with intercepting telephone and fax messages and shifted to e-mail and VoIP communications in 2006. However, this resulted in only a few hundred reports a year (each consisting of one intercepted e-mail, fax message or phone call). For the NSA this was a big disappointment and the BND realized that it was impossible to fully separate foreign and domestic communications. Therefore, the operation was terminated in June 2008.

Earlier blog postings about operation Eikonal:
- Unnoticed leak answers and raises questions about operation Eikonal
- New details about the joint NSA-BND operation Eikonal
- The German operation Eikonal as part of NSA's RAMPART-A program

Overview of the joint NSA-BND operation Eikonal (2004-2008)
(click to enlarge)

(Between 2004 and 2013, BND and NSA also cooperated in satellite interception at Bad Aibling Station. Years of neglicence over there resulted in what is known as the "Selector Affair")

Detailed insights into operation Eikonal emerged from the hearings of the German parliamentary investigation commission (#NSAUA) between March 2014 and February 2017. This inquiry was set up to investigate the NSA spying activities, but soon turned its focus on the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations of Germany's own foreign intelligence service.

Cable tapping at DE-CIX

While operation Eikonal itself wasn't very successful, it did provide the BND with the knowledge and the experience for conducting cable tapping on its own: in 2009 they started intercepting cables from 25 (out of over 300) internet service providers, this time at the DE-CIX internet exchange in Frankfurt am Main.

Among these 25 providers were foreign companies from Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, but also 6 German providers: 1&1, Freenet, Strato AG, QSC, Lambdanet and Plusserver, who almost exclusively handle domestic traffic.

It appears that this interception took place in cooperation with the DE-CIX Management and that the various providers themselves didn't knew that this was happening. A smart move, as this provides BND with just one single point-of-contact, while the individual providers could honestly deny that their cables were being intercepted.

Current practice

More information about the BND's current efforts to intercept data streams from internet exchanges like DE-CIX were provided recently by reports from the German magazine Der Spiegel en the Bavarian broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) in anticipation of the decision of the Constitutional Court. Additional details can be found in the full text of the Court's decision.

Both press reports were based on several internal documents from the German government and the BND, including its 72-page SIGINT Policy Manual (German: Dienstvorschrift Sigint), which provides detailed regulations for what's allowed and what's prohibited when conducting untargeted interception of communications between foreigners abroad (Ausland-Ausland Fernmeldeaufklärung).

(Intercepting one-end foreign communications is regulated by the G10 Law with the G10 Commission for approval and oversight. This commission is also responsible for interception by the domestic federal security service BfV)

Intelligence priorities

Like many other intelligence agencies, the BND is not only trying to prevent terrorism, but also provides the German government with information to support its foreign policy, as well as to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destructing and cyber attacks. The government arranges these goals in a document similar to the National Intelligence Priority Framework (NIPF) in the United States.

The German version of this Top Secret document is called Auftragsprofil der Bundesregierung (APB) and ranges from Priority 1 for topics that require a complete coverage (umfassender Informationsbedarf) to Priority 4 for issues with a low information need (niedriger Informationsbedarf).

According to these information needs, the BND considers whether it's necessary to intercept internet communications. In Germany, this can happen at 23 internet exchanges, with DE-CIX in Frankfurt as one of the biggest in the world, but the BND also has satellite intercept stations in Schöningen, Rheinhausen and Bad Aibling.

Access directives

Once the BND has determined where they need access, the federal chancellery (Bundeskanzleramt) issues a directive granting that access based upon the BND Law. Currently, there are 17 network access directives (Netzanordnungen): 3 of them for internet exchanges inside Germany, the other 14 mainly for satellite networks.* In practice, the BND copies about 10% of the capacity of a network that it's allowed to tap.*

Based upon these network access directives, the BND provides the network providers with an extraction directive (Ausleitungsanordnung), which usually identifies multiple networks of interest. The specific parts of these networks or transmission links which the BND is interested in are specified in separate tables (Statustabellen).*

Splitting off data streams at DE-CIX

In October 2019, DE-CIX provided the Constitutional Court with an assessment saying that it handled an average number of 47,5 trillion IP connections (IP-Verkehrsverbindungen) a day and that the BND would technically be able to copy 1,2 trillion of those IP-connections, which is 2,5% of the total traffic.

However, in the Court's decision it's said that the BND's technical installations at DE-CIX have the capacity of capturing and processing 5% of its data traffic.* The management of the exchange has no insight in how many data the BND actually extracts.

Usually traffic at internet exchanges is measured in bits per second: in October 2019, the average traffic at DE-CIX was 5 terabit per second (Tb/s). If the BND copies between 2,5 and 5% of that, that would make between 125 and 250 gigabits per second (Gb/s).

For comparison: from the Snowden revelations we know that in 2011, GCHQ had access to more than 200 communications channels ("bearers") of 10 Gb/s each - out of the around 1600 channels within all the commercial cables transiting the UK. However, GCHQ could process data from only 46 of them at a time (or 460 Gb/s).

The DAFIS filtering system

Once data streams of interest are copied, the BND leads them to a multi-stage filter system called DAFIS. First, different types of data are identified in order to discard irrelevant ones, like video streams.* The first stage of DAFIS then deletes all communications that involve German citizens or residents.

According to government documents, this filter has a 96% to 98% accuracy, but with over a trillion connections a day, that would still leave 2 to 4 billion connections with an incorrect attribution. Therefore, the BND implements additional algorithms to prevent the collection of German communications.

Second stage

The second stage of DAFIS uses selectors (Suchbegriffe) to filter both metadata (Verkehrsdaten) and content (Inhaltsdaten). According to BR and Der Spiegel, The BND uses more than 100.000 selectors, not only telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, but also the names of chemical components of weapons of mass destruction.

In the decision of the Constitutional Court it's said that between 50 and 60%(!) of these selectors are provided by foreign partner agencies, but the BND only uses them when their type and purpose can be verified.*

Before feeding these selectors into the filtering system, BND checks whether they comply with the law, which says that it is not allowed to intercept the communications of German citizens and residents. Telephone numbers are automatically excluded by filtering out the country code 0049 for example. Also, no selectors may be tasked to monitor children under 14, except when it's about child soldiers and suicide attackers.

In the government documents it's acknowledged that no filter system can provide 100% protection, like when a German citizen living or working in Syria makes a call from a syrian number. Only by listening in to such a conversation it can be determined that it's actually protected under the German constitution and has to be deleted (and the selector marked accordingly).

Third stage

During the parliamentary investigation, a third stage of the filter system was mentioned, which was aimed at protecting "German interests". During the hearings it became clear that it filters out German companies and foreign companies with German participation (like EADS and Eurocopter) as well as the names of German politicians, among others.

Like it was the case under operation Eikonal, the DAFIS filter system is probably located in a highly secured room at the internet exchange. That saves bandwidth as only the data that remain after the final stage of the filter have to be forwarded to the BND's Signals Intelligence Center (Zentrum Technische Aufklärung), which is still located at the old headquarters compound in Pullach, where a new data center was built in 2012:

Exterior of the BND data center in Pullach, near Munich in Bavaria
(screenshot from ARD television - click to enlarge)


After applying the selectors, the BND's untargeted collection results in some 270.000 pieces of communications content each day, like e-mails, phone calls and chat messages. Approximately 60% comes from collection inside Germany, 40% is collected abroad. A small percentage is received from foreign partner agencies.*

After manually sorting and analyzing these intercepts, analysts produce an average of 260 intelligence reports a day (out of a total of 720 reports from all sources).* But despite all the precautions, there are still about 30 incorrect intercepts a month, like an e-mail message or a telephone call in which a German citizen is involved.*

According to press reports, the BND's SIGINT Policy Manual says that analysts have to delete any intercepts which include sexual content or are about a romantic or sexual relationship, but when there's "sexual bragging" in a "lively public space" the analyst may continue to listen in. The same applies to cases when a target simply says things like "honey I love you".


The metadata that remain after the DAFIS filter are stored in full, so they can be combined ("enriched") with other data sets and analyzed by computers.* A meanwhile well-known method used for analyzing telephone metadata is contact-chaining. The BND Law says that metadata may be stored for up to 6 months and can also be shared with foreign partners in an automated way, even when they are not yet evaluated.

Operations room at the former BND headquarters in Pullach
(photo: Martin Schlüter - click to enlarge)

The judgement of the Constitutional Court

Already during the parliamentary investigation of the relationship between the NSA and the BND, the German government came up with a substantial amendment of the law that regulates its foreign intelligence service (BND-Gesetz). This came into effect on December 31, 2016, half a year before the end report of the investigation commission was published.

In January 2018, Reporters sans frontières and seven foreign journalists filed a constitutional complaint at the Federal Constitional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht). They argued that the law allows the BND to indiscriminately collect the communications of foreign journalists, which imposes a risk on their confidential sources, especially when those data are shared with intelligence or security services of countries where civil liberties and press freedom are at risk.

After oral hearings on January 14 and 15, the Constitutional Court presented its decision on May 19, 2020, with the judges seated at a proper distance of each other due to the threat of the corona virus:

The German Federal Constitutional Court presenting it's
decision on the BND's untargeted cable tapping
(screenshot from Phoenix television - click to enlarge)

The main point of the Court's decision is that the fundamental rights from the constitution also bind the German government when it's acting outside German borders.

The protection of specific rights domestically can be different from the protection offered abroad, but when it comes to untargeted interception, both the protection of the privacy of telecommunication (art. 10) and the protection of the freedom of the press (art. 5) also apply to foreigners in foreign countries.

This doesn't mean that bulk collection of communications is unconstitutional in itself. It may be used as an exceptional method by a government agency that has no operative powers and when it's justified by a specific mission.* Untargeted interception may not be conducted domestically.*


To be in accordance with the constitution, the Court says that for this kind of collection there have to be at least the following restrictions:*
- Separation of the communications of German citizens and residents by all means available, any remaining German communications have to be deleted upon recognition;
- Limitation of the (amount of) data that can be collected;
- Collection goals have to be specified;
- Collection efforts must be in accordance with procedures;
- Additional requirements for interception of personal data;
- Limitations for storing metadata;
- Framework for data processing and analysis;
- Safeguards to protect privileged communications of lawyers and journalists;
- Protection of an inner core of private life;
- Mandatory and accountable data deletion.

The Court also decided that Germans have to be protected when they are communicating as a representative of a foreign company or organization. Previously, the BND argued that German citizens could be legally monitored when in such a position, which was known as the Funktionsträgertheorie.

International cooperation

Sharing data related to individual people is generally allowed when the foreign partner will handle them according to human rights and principles of data protection. Data may not be shared when it can be expected that they will be used for human rights violations. This requires the BND to examine the foreign legal and human rights situation. When this isn't convincing at a general level, guarantees in a specific case may also be sufficient. All this has to be documented and accountable.*

When foreign partner agencies provide selectors to be used in BND collection systems, there has to be a careful examination not only of these selectors, but also their hits. This practice also requires that the goals of the foreign partner are in accordance with those of the BND and with the rule of law. Therefore, it's not allowed to let a foreign partner collect what is prohibted domestically ("Ringtausch").*

When data are shared in an automated way without prior evaluation, the foreign partner has to provide meaningful assurances that it will delete data related to German citizens and residents, its handling of privileged communications and other boundaries imposed by the BND. Given the inherent risks, this kind of sharing is only allowed in cases of specific and concrete threats and metadata related to Germans should be filtered out.*


Untargeted interception and sharing its results with foreign partners can only be proportionate when there's independent and comprehensive legal oversight. This has to be in the form of a body similar to the judiciary which has to investigate the subsequent stages of the interception process, including taking random samples at its own initiative. This in order to allow a judgment on the lawfulness of the entire collection method.*

For this, the oversight body has to have its own budget, its own personnel and the right to set it own procedures. It has to be provided with everything that is necessary to conduct meaningful and effective oversight. This may also not be hindered by the so-called "Third Party Rule", which means that a secret service treats the oversight body as a third party that is not allowed access to documents or data from foreign partners agencies.

The Constitutional Court gave the German government until December 31, 2021 to change the BND Law in such a way that it will be compliant with the constitution.

Links & sources
- About:intel: Try harder, Bundestag! Germany has to rewrite its foreign intelligence reform (May 22, 2020)
- Der Spiegel: Sieg für Edward Snowden (May 19, 2020)
- Golem.de: Internetüberwachung des BND ist verfassungswidrig (May 19, 2020)
- Der Spiegel: So überwacht der BND das Internet (May 19, 2020)
- Bayerischer Rundfunk: So späht der Bundesnachrichtendienst das Internet aus (May 15, 2020)

May 18, 2020

Maximator and other European SIGINT alliances

(Updated: May 27, 2020)

One of the topics covered by this weblog is international cooperation among signals intelligence agencies. The Snowden-revelations already provided many details about the various multilateral groups formed by the NSA's partners, like the SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR or 14-Eyes) and the Afghanistan SIGINT Coalition (AFSC or 9-Eyes).

None of the NSA documents gave a hint that a few European countries also have their own secret alliance for cooperation in the fields of signals intelligence and crypto analysis. This alliance, which already exists since 1976, is codenamed Maximator and was unexpectedly revealed on April 7 in an academic article.

(This overview isn't meant to be complete, other multilateral cooperations between European agencies may exist or have existed)

The countries participating in the Maximator alliance
(click to enlarge)

The Maximator alliance

An interesting aspect to start with is that the existence of the Maximator alliance was revealed in an article by prof. dr. Bart Jacobs in Intelligence and National Security, which is an academic journal about intelligence and national security. Usually, this kind of revelations are published by major newspapers, but they didn't even pick up this story. So far only a Dutch investigative radio program, a Dutch regional newspaper and a German tech website have reported about Maximator.
Update: Meanwhile, The Register and The Economist have also reported about Maximator.
Professor Bart Jacobs is one of the leading Dutch experts on computer security and teaches at Radboud University in Nijmegen. He is also a member of the knowledge network (Dutch: kenniskring) of the CTIVD, the oversight committee for the Dutch secret services, and a member of the independent commission that is currently conducting an evaluation of the new Dutch intelligence law. Both assignments require a security clearance, which makes this revelation even more remarkable.

The secret purchase of Crypto AG

The revelation of Maximator came forth from another big scoop: the fact that in 1970, the CIA and the German foreign intelligence service BND had secretly purchased the Swiss manufacturer of encryption equipment Crypto AG, which was codenamed operation RUBICON. This was revealed on February 11, 2020, as a result of a cooperation between The Washington Post, the German broadcaster ZDF, the Swiss broadcaster SRF and the Dutch radio program Argos.

The CIA and the BND didn't install rude "backdoors" in the Crypto AG equipment, but only manipulated the cryptographic algorithms which "streamlined the code-breaking process, at times reducing to seconds a task that might otherwise have taken months." This made it very difficult to detect the manipulation. In this way, Crypto AG produced secure encryption devices that would be sold to a select number of friendly governments, and weakened systems for the rest of the world (including some European countries like Spain, Italy and Greece):

The countries that bought and used manipulated Crypto AG devices
(graphic: The Washington Post - click to enlarge)

It appeared that not only American and German intelligence benefited from the manipulated crypto devices: a few other countries (France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Israel among others) were also informed about the weaknesses. An internal BND report from November 2012 titled "Einführung: Die Operation THESAURUS/RUBICON" calls them the cognoscenti, the ones with inside knowledge.

One of the experts consulted for the reporting about Crypto AG was Bart Jacobs, who in February of this year studied the CIA and BND documents about operation RUBICON. After reading the references to the involvement of the Netherlands he started to investigate more closely. Jacobs asked people from the intelligence community who then told him about the Maximator alliance and even provided him with some documents.

The "cognoscenti" mentioned in a BND report as shown
on Dutch television on February 13, 2020
(click to enlarge)

Start and growth of the Maximator alliance

The Maximator alliance was established in 1976 at the initiative of Denmark and at that time included only Sweden and Germany. The Netherlands was invited to join in 1977 and did so in 1978. Between these four countries there were already various bilateral cooperations and they also benefited from information about the manipulated Crypto AG algorithms.

According to Jacobs, the idea behind the alliance was to combine forces and divide tasks in order to reduce costs, especially those of the investments required by the upcoming satellite interception. Exchanging methods and jointly working on technical challenges would also make the partners more effective.

The former Dutch satellite intercept station at Zoutkamp, operational since 1983.
In 2008 it was closed after a new facility had been built in nearby Burum.
(screenshot from regional television - click for the video)

The idea to cooperate might have came up from lower level SIGINT employees with close personal ties and a shared high level of technical and cryptanalytical skills. It's not known whether or since when the responsible ministers knew about the alliance; Jacobs estimates that in total only up to 100 people may have known about it.

In 1983, France requested to join the alliance, which was supported especially by Germany and as a result France was invited in 1984 and joined in 1985. Other countries, like Norway, Spain and Italy, also asked to join, but this was rejected. One of the main reasons was that "within the Maximator alliance they were considered as lacking relevant expertise and/or experience."

Belgium was not invited to join Maximator for the same reason, but this country was also not fully trusted when it came to discipline in communications security: at least once it compromised its own communications via a basic mistake in key management.

Codenames within the Maximator alliance

Initially, the alliance between the first three members, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, was codenamed Ostsee (German for Baltic See), which in 1977 was changed to Alpenjäger (Alpine hunter). In 1979 the group got its final designation: Maximator.

This name was derived from the Bavarian beer brand Maximator. Representatives of the alliance members were drinking this beer when they met in 1979 at the former BND headquarters in Pullach near the Bavarian capital Munich.

The Maximator beer from the Augustiner brewery in Munich
(click to enlarge)

Each of the participants in the Maximator alliance also had a codename, which seem to be chosen randomly:

Member since 1976
Codename: Concilium
Participating organization: Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE)

Member since 1976
Codename: Thymian
Participating organization: Försvarets radioanstalt (FRA)

Member since 1976
Codename: Novalis
Participating organizations:
- for signals interception: Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND)
- for cryptanalysis (until 1991): Zentralstelle für das Chiffrierwesen (ZfCh)

Member since 1978
Codename: Edison
Participating organizations: Wiskundig Centrum (WKC), since 1982: Technisch InformatieVerwerkingsCentrum (TIVC), since 1996: Strategisch Verbindingsinlichtingen Centrum (SVIC), since 2014: Joint Sigint Cyber Unit (JSCU)

Member since 1985
Codename: Marathon
Participating organization: Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE)

The two components of the alliance

According to the article by professor Jacobs, the Maximator alliance was about cooperation in both signals analysis and crypto analysis:

- Signals analysis:

This was about coordinating interception mechanisms and efforts, as well as exchanging intercepted, but still encrypted messages. The focus was on intercepting and decrypting diplomatic communications, either from HF radio transmissions or SHF satellite links. These signals interception issues were discussed in multilateral meetings attended by representatives of all five Maximator members. Jacobs' article includes the covers of some of the booklets of these meetings:

Booklets from the meetings of the Maximator alliance
(source: Bart Jacobs, Maximator - click to enlarge)

- Cryptanalysis:

This involved the exchange of algorithms used in various (deliberately weakened) encryption devices used by target countries. However, it was left up to each of the individual participants to find out how to exploit the weaknesses in these algorithms and subsequently decrypt the messages. According to Jacobs, this is common practice in the intelligence community in order to prevent being fed cooked-up information. Succesful exploitations, also called "solutions", were not exchanged.

In the first few decades of the Maximator alliance, these cryptanalysis issues were discussed only bilaterally, but later on this allso happened multilaterally. For this purpose, there were bilateral communication links between the Maximator partners which were secured by dedicated crypto systems as shown in this diagram from 1990 (a direct connection between the Netherlands (E) and France (M) was established later):

Sketch of the communication lines between the Maximator partners in 1990
(flags added for clarity). The triangles seem to indicate how information
(especially intercepts) can flow from one party to another.
(source: Bart Jacobs, Maximator - click to enlarge)

A parallel alliance: the Ring of Five

While the Maximator alliance was focused on diplomatic communications, there "seems to be (or, has been) a parallel alliance for intercepting (metadata of) military communications" according to Jacobs.

It's possible that this other alliance still exists, because in a report from May 2016, the Dutch oversight committee CTIVD says that the military intelligence service MIVD participates in five alliances in which unevaluated (meta)data are exchanged. Three of these alliances also include the civilian intelligence and security service AIVD.

Jacobs suggests that the parallel alliance may be identical with a group that was created in the early 1980s and was described in 2010 by Richard Aldrich as a "mini-UKUSA-alliance called "The Ring of Five", consisting of the sigint agencies of Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Denmark - although this did not prevent them from intercepting and reading each other's communications traffic".*

These groups are not identical but are easily confused because the military alliance partly used the communications network of the Maximator group (shown in the diagram from 1990). The latter includes Sweden but not Belgium, while the Ring of Five includes Belgium but not Sweden:

Other alliances: NSA's European partners

Not mentioned in professor Jacobs' piece are some similar groups of European countries under guidance of the NSA. One of them was already mentioned in the contribution of Dutch intelligence historian Cees Wiebes to the book Secrets of Signals Intelligence during the Cold War and Beyond from 2001. Many new details emerged from the Snowden documents published from 2013 to 2019.

Since the 1950s, the members of both the Maximator alliance and the Ring of Five are so-called third party partners of the NSA, which means there's a formal bilateral relationship based upon a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Although this can lead to very close cooperation, it does not prevent spying on each other.

SIGINT Seniors Europe

The first multilateral group of European third party partners is that of the SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR), which was founded in 1982 for sharing information on the Soviet Union's military. This group started with nine members and after 2001 grew to 14 nations, hence it is also known as the 14-Eyes. Besides the Five Eyes, the SSEUR now includes the (signals) intelligence agencies of nine European countries (see the map below).

The SSEUR is chaired by the director of the NSA and there's an SSEUR Executive Board (SSEB) that governs the day-to-day operations and oversees various subordinate groups. There's also an annual SSEUR Principals Conference in which the heads of the 14 agencies come together to discuss issues of common concern.

In 2013, GCHQ was encouraged to host a permanent joint SSEUR collaboration center where analysts from partner nations could be co-located (similar to the collaboration center of the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) which is hosted by the Dutch AIVD).

SSEUR Counter Terrorism coalition

In December 2001, a subordinate group of the SSEUR was created called the SIGINT Seniors Europe Counter Terrorism coalition (SISECT), in which the domestic security services from the SSEUR member countries partcipate, except for those from Australia and New Zealand. This counter-terrorism group consists of many subgroups focusing on specific terrorist groups or technologies used by terrorists. SISECT also organizes a semi-annual conference and its communications facilities seem to be hosted by Norway.

Afghanistan SIGINT Coalition

In 2009, the Five Eyes plus Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway established the Afghanistan SIGINT Coalition (AFSC), which was initially known as the 9-Eyes. In 2010, this group was joined by Sweden and Germany and later on, Belgium, Italy and Spain also joined, after which it had the same 14 members as the SSEUR. Their military SIGINT units in Afghanistan collected GSM metadata which were fed into the NSA's Real Time Regional Gateway (RT-RG) data analysis platform. The AFSC seems to have been dissolved by the end of 2014.

SIGINT Support to Cyber Defense

The latest initiative involving the NSA's European third party partners is probably a working group of the SSEUR aimed at using signal intelligence as an early-warning against cyber attacks, a method known as SIGINT Support to Cyber Defense (SSCD). Except for Germany it's not known which the participating countries are. The earliest reference to this SSCD group is from July 2013 in a German document published by Wikileaks.

The SIGDASYS system

The SSEUR maintain a database and communications system called SIGDASYS (for Signals Intelligence Data System). It was proposed by the BND to push SIGINT to front-line NATO commanders and became operational in 1986.*

The system also acted as a back-up in case one of the countries lost its own SIGINT capacity. Later it was used for exchanging military SIGINT and other information on a quid pro quo basis. SIGDASYS helped to decrease the enormous overlap in targeting and played an important role during the 1990-1991 Gulf War (there was a seperate framework for the exchange of acoustic signals).*

Since 9/11, the system is also used for the exchange of data for SISECT's counter-terrorism mission, including call chaining diagrams, voice clips and textual materials for translation. In 2013, the NSA proposed to replace the "dated and functionally limited (but sovereign) SIGDASYS infrastructure" by an SSEUR Community of Interest (CoI) within the more advanced Global Collaboration Environment (GCE) hosted by the US.

In 2005, the SSEUR set up a dedicated tactical communications platform codenamed CENTER ICE to support the military operations of its members in Afghanistan.

Slide from an NSA presentation about the Afghanistan SIGINT Coalition (June 2009)
Published by The Intercept in May 2019
(click to enlarge)

Some final thoughts

One final question is about why the existence of the Maximator alliance has been leaked. Already the fact that apparently people from inside the Dutch intelligence community were willing to talk is highly surprising, because signal intelligence and crypto analysis are seen as the most secret parts of this business, with international cooperation on these topics being even more sensitive.

Jacobs assumes that his sources may have talked about the alliance because it all happened long ago - in the United States there's automatic declassification, which means documents from the intelligence agencies have to be declassified after 25 years, unless a specific exemption applies. In the Netherlands there's no such rule, so classified information only becomes public through a specific request for information (which is rarely very successful) or by leaking.

The claim that it's long ago could be valid when the Maximator alliance was something from the past and had been dissolved without implications for current operations and relations (it's not done to unilaterally disclose things about international cooperations), but even then (former) intelligence employees would be very reluctant to provide information. And in this case Jacobs clearly says that the alliance is still functional today.

Another option is that over the years the purpose and/or the activities of the Maximator group have changed, similar to how the SIGINT Seniors Europe moved their focus from the Soviet Union to counter-terrorism. An indication could be that in 1993, Germany retreated from its involvement in Crypto AG because spying on its European partners didn't fell comfortable anymore. After this, the BND lost its ability to exploit the Crypto AG algorithms, but Sweden apparently not.

It's not clear whether the other Maximator members continued to benefit from the weaknesses in Crypto AG's hardware encryption devices, but if so, this knowledge became largely obsolete after the year 2000, when more and more target countries shifted to software-based encryption based on public standards. Crypto AG wasn't very useful anymore and so the CIA eventually sold the company in 2018.

Links & sources
- Crypto Museum: MAXIMATOR - European signals intelligence alliance
- Frankfurter Rundschau: Exklusiv-Recherche: BND spionierte jahrzehntelang am Parlament vorbei (July 2020)
- De Gelderlander: Het geheime afluistergenootschap van Maximator bleef vijftig jaar onder de radar (April 2020)
- Heise.de: Geheimdienst-Kooperation "Maximator": Die Five Eyes Europas? (April 2020)
- Argos: De afluistervrienden van Nederland (April 2020)
- Bart Jacobs: Maximator: European signals intelligence cooperation, from a Dutch perspective (April 2020)
- The Washington Post: ‘The intelligence coup of the century’ (February 2020)
- The Intercept: The powerful global spy alliance you never knew existed (March 2018)
- Cees Wiebes, "Dutch Sigint during the Cold War, 1945-94", in: Matthew M. Aid & Cees Wiebes, "Secrets of Signals Intelligence during the Cold War and Beyond", London, 2001, p. 276-277.

March 26, 2020

Edward Snowden and the STELLARWIND report

(Updated: June 10, 2020)

Last September, Edward Snowden published his memoir titled Permanent Record (see Part I and Part II of my extensive review). According to this book, he had one of his "atomic moments" when he read a highly classified report about the controversial NSA program codenamed STELLARWIND, somewhere in 2009 or 2010.

But one month after the book release, during a podcast interview in October 2019, Snowden said that he found that particular report only somewhere in 2012. This discrepancy makes it worth to take a close look at the STELLARWIND program: what it was about, how it was revealed, which conspiracy theories it evoked and how it's misrepresented in Snowden's book.

- Introduction
- The first revelations about STELLARWIND
- The Inspectors General report
- Searching for the classified Stellarwind report
- Bill Binney and the Utah Data Center
- Democracy Now! and a Surveillance Teach-In
- The classified STELLARWIND report
- Snowden's revelations
- Conclusion


STELLARWIND is the cover name and the classification compartment for what was officially called the President's Surveillance Program (PSP), which was authorized by president George W. Bush on October 4, 2001 as a response to the 9/11 Attacks.

The NSA had noticed that al-Qaeda terrorists used American networks and providers for their e-mail communications, but because this was cable-bound, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) from 1978 required a warrant from the FISA Court to intercept them. Had these communications been wireless, like previously over a satellite link, the NSA would not have been required to get a warrant.

Requesting a FISA warrant took four to six weeks, so terrorists could have changed their phone numbers and e-mail addresses well before the NSA received court approval.* To "fix" this, Bush unilaterally allowed the NSA to also track down the cable-bound communications of foreign terrorists without having to obtain a warrant. Therefore, this became also known as the Warrantless Wiretapping.

In a very controversial legal opinion by Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, the PSP was justified by the president's wartime powers according to Article Two of the US Constitution.* In practice, the program encompassed four components for collecting the following types of data ("internet" actually means e-mail communications):

- Telephony content
- Internet content
- Telephony metadata
- Internet metadata

It should be noted that although these data were intercepted at internet backbone cables and switching facilities inside the United States, the targets were some clearly defined groups of foreign enemies: Al-Qaeda terrorists and other targets related to Afghanistan as well as the Iraqi Intelligence services.

Overview of the President's Surveillance Program a.k.a. STELLARWIND
(click to enlarge)

The first revelations about STELLARWIND

Parts of the President's Surveillance Program were first revealed by The New York Times on December 16, 2005, saying that the NSA "has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda."

In a radio address the next day, president Bush admitted that the NSA was intercepting one-end foreign telephone and internet communications of people related to al-Qaeda. He called this publicly acknowledged part of STELLARWIND the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), but stayed silent about the other components of the PSP, which involved the bulk collection of domestic metadata.

One of the sources for The New York Times story was former NSA employee Russell Tice, who had his security clearance revoked in May 2005 based on what the NSA called psychological concerns. In January 2006, Tice claimed that "the number of Americans subject to eavesdropping by the NSA could be in the millions if the full range of secret NSA programs is used."

Three years later, in December 2008, Newsweek revealed that Thomas Tamm, a former lawyer at the Justice Department, had also been one of the sources for The New York Times. Because Tamm wasn't "read into" the PSP he wasn't able to explain its full scope and the exact details. It seems that Newsweek was also the first to disclose the code name of this program: "Stellar Wind".

Two less-known revelations

On May 10, 2006, USA Today revealed that the NSA "has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth", which the NSA used "to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity". This was one of the STELLARWIND components that president Bush had kept secret, so a big scoop, which nonetheless got very little public attention.*

Also largely unnoticed was the surprisingly frank interview that Director of National Intelligence John McConnell gave to the El Paso Times in August 2007. He provided numbers about the targeted content collection under the PSP: "On the U.S. persons side it's 100 or less. And then the foreign side, it's in the thousands. Now there's a sense that we're doing massive data mining. In fact, what we're doing is surgical."

Snowden's narrative

In his book Permanent Record, Snowden writes about the initial revelation by The New York Times, which angered him because the paper delayed it more than a year because of pressure from the White House. (p. 245)

Snowden's book doesn't mention the USA Today article, nor the McConnell interview, probably because they didn't fit his narrative: USA Today had revealed the bulk collection of domestic phone records seven years before The Guardian did based upon Snowden's documents, while McConnell made it clear that the PSP was limited and targeted instead of the alleged domestic mass surveillance.

New legal authorities

In the beginning of 2004, two newly appointed officials at the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith and James Comey, had become worried that the bulk collection of internet metadata might be illegal. This led to a dramatic fight with the White House, after which the various components of STELLARWIND were transferred from the president's authority to that of the FISA Court (FISC). The final presidential authorization expired on February 1, 2007.

The first transfer was of the bulk collection of internet metadata, which was henceforth based on Section 402 FISA (the Pen Register/Trap & Trace (PR/TT) provision) and first authorized as such by the FISC on July 14, 2004.

The new legal basis for the bulk collection of domestic telephone records was found in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was approved by the FISC on May 24, 2006. Because these two components of the STELLARWIND program were not publicly acknowledged, this happened in secret.

The parts of the program that had already been disclosed by the press and admitted by president Bush, the targeted collection of content, got a temporary authorization under FISC orders as of January 2007 and were then legalized by the Protect America Act (PAA) from August 2007, which was replaced by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) in July 2008.

The Inspectors General report

The FAA required the inspectors general (IG) of all five agencies that participated in the President's Surveillance Program (NSA, CIA, Defense Department, Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) to conduct a comprehensive review of the program.

The original and highly classified joint report of these five inspectors general is almost 750 pages long and was finished on July 10, 2009. It was eventually declassified (but with significant sections redacted) in September 2015.

A short, unclassified version of this report had already been published in July 2009:

Front page of the unclassified report about the PSP
(click for the full report)

At that time, Edward Snowden worked as a systems administrator at the NSA's Pacific Technical Center (PTC) in Japan and in Permanent Record he says that he read the unclassified report about the President's Surveillance Program in the Summer of 2009, so shortly after it came out. (p. 173)

He concluded that the new FAA extended the NSA's powers: "In addition to collecting inbound communications coming from foreign countries, the NSA now also had policy approval for the warrantless collection of outbound telephone and internet communications originating within American borders." (p. 173)

It seems that Snowden, at least at the time, didn't really understand this subject, because the expansion provided by the FAA wasn't from inbound to outbound communications, but from a few specific foreign enemies (like al-Qaeda) to a wider variety of foreign intelligence targets. As such, Section 702 FAA became the legal basis for Upstream collection and the PRISM program.


Searching for the classified Stellarwind report

Snowden read the unclassified PSP report very closely because he noticed that the program also encompassed "Other Intelligence Activities" that remained classified. This gave him the impression that graver things had been going on than just targeted interception and so he went searching for the original, classified version of the report. To his surprise he couldn't find it and so after a while he dropped the issue. (p. 174)

In Permanent Record, Snowden says that "It was only later, long after I'd forgotten about the missing IG report, that the classified version came skimming across my desktop". He doesn't share how much later, but apparently it was before he left Japan in September 2010: "After reading this classified report, I spent the next weeks, even months, in a daze. [...] that's what was going on in my head, toward the end of my stint in Japan." (p. 175 & 180)

An unexpected discrepancy

But on October 23, 2019, one month after Permanent Record was published, Snowden was interviewed in the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. There, he revealed that he found the classified report only somewhere in 2012. It turned up when he ran some "dirty word searches" to help out the Windows network systems administration team that sat next to him when he was the sole employee of the Office of Information Sharing at NSA Hawaii.

Another new detail that Snowden provided during the podcast interview is that the draft report was from someone from the office of the NSA's Inspector General who had come to Hawaii. This person then left the document on a lower-security system where its classification marking STLW popped up during the dirty word search as something that shouldn't be there.

A decisive moment?

The moment when Snowden found the classified Stellarwind report is of some importance because it could have incited him to download and eventually leak the NSA files to the press. On October 18, 2013, The New York Times wrote:
"Mr. Snowden said he finally decided to act when he discovered a copy of a classified 2009 inspector general's report on the N.S.A.'s warrantless wiretapping program during the Bush administration."

Many people, however, will remember another moment that Snowden claimed as a "breaking point", namely when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was forced to lie during a Senate committee hearing on March 12, 2013, which Snowden recalled in an interview from January 23, 2014 with the German broadcaster ARD:
"I would say sort of the breaking point was seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie on oath to Congress. There’s no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions.

Seeing that really meant for me that there was no going back. Beyond that, it was the creeping realisation that noone else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programmes."

Clappers testimony is also described in Snowden's book Permanent Record, but only as an example of how the legislative branch of government fails to exercise effective oversight of the Intelligence Community. It says nothing about whether the hearing had any special impact on himself. (p. 231)

All this seems contradictory, but the memoir suggests there actually was no single decisive moment: "The most important decisions in life are never made that way [at an instant]. They're made subconsciously and only express themselves consciously once fully formed". (p. 214)

So, if discovering the STELLARWIND report, nor Clapper's testimony were the single decisive moments and it apparently was a more gradual process, then there may have been other moments or events that influenced Snowden - like the following ones:

Bill Binney and the Utah Data Center

On March 15, 2012, Wired published a piece about the Utah Data Center (UDC), written by James Bamford, a well-known author of three books about the NSA. This article includes a number of speculations and accusations which are almost identical to those expressed later on by Snowden, who presents this data center as the "corpus delicti" for his claim that the NSA wants to store all our data forever. (p. 246-247)

Bamford's article says that "the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens" and now wants to "collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas" - hence the need for the huge new data center near Bluffdale, Utah.

The 1.5 million square feet Utah Data Center near Bluffdale, Utah in June 2013
(photo: AP/Rick Bowmer - click to enlarge)

The Wired article was also the first time that Bill Binney spoke out publicly. Binney worked at the NSA for almost four decades, first as a crypto-mathematician and later as the technical director of the NSA's World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group (also known as M Group). He was also the founder and co-director of the agency's Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (SARC).

Binney left the NSA late 2001, disillusioned by the fact that the agency chose the TRAILBLAZER collection and analysis system instead of the more efficient and cheaper THINTHREAD, which he had helped designing. Binney critized the NSA's operations after 9/11 as unconstitutional, claiming that we are close to a "turnkey totalitarian state" - which Snowden shortened to "turnkey tyranny".

In Wired, Binney claimed that STELLARWIND was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls, but also the inspection of domestic e-mails. Binney suspected that STELLARWIND was now simply collecting everything, including financial records. Just like Snowden, Binney saw only one method to prevent this: strong encryption.

On April 3, 2012, James Bamford came with a follow-up about the "Shady Companies With Ties to Israel Wiretap the U.S. for the NSA". He quotes former NSA employee J. Kirk Wiebe who noticed "piles of new Dell 1750 servers" being delivered for the STELLARWIND program. Bill Binney added that this was organized by Ben Gunn, a Scotsman and naturalized US citizen who had formerly worked for GCHQ and later became a senior analyst at the NSA.

According to Bamford, "the racks of Dell servers were moved to a room down the hall, behind a door with a red seal indicating only those specially cleared for the highly compartmented project could enter." But rather than by NSA employees, the equipment was put together by a half-dozen employees of a tiny, and troubled, company called Technology Development Corporation (TDC), owned by the brothers Randall and Paul Jacobson from Clarkesville, Maryland. After the set-up was finished, intelligence contractor SAIC was hired to run the operation.

Democracy Now! and a Surveillance Teach-In

One month later, on April 20, 2012, Bill Binney appeared for the first time on American national television. Together with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum he was interviewed in Amy Goodman's news program Democracy Now! (a full transcript can be found here).

Binney again claimed that after 9/11 "all the wraps came off for NSA, and they decided to eliminate the protections on U.S. citizens and collect on domestically". He saw this as a direct violation of the constitution and various other laws and decided he could not stay at NSA anymore.

Appelbaum repeated what he said at the HOPE conference in 2010: "I feel that people like Bill need to come forward to talk about what the U.S. government is doing, so that we can make informed choices as a democracy" - which is exactly what Snowden would do: leaking documents because "the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong."

Binney also said that a secret interpretation of Section 215 gave the government a "license to take all the commercially held data about us" and "having that knowledge then allows them the ability to concoct all kinds of charges, if they want to target you" - an allegation that comes back almost literally in Snowden's memoir. (p. 178)

A Surveillance Teach-In

Right after the Democracy Now! interview, Binney, Poitras and Appelbaum went to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where Poitras organized a Surveillance Teach-In, an event to present an "artistic and practical commentary on living in the contemporary Panopticon":

During the Teach-In, Bill Binney and Jacob Appelbaum discussed government surveillance and came up with claims like "each and everyone of us is targeted by the NSA". Appelbaum also presented a list with eight specific addresses of "possible domestic interception points" which he had received from an anonymous source.
(In June 2018, The Intercept identified eight locations in the United States where there's cable interception equipment for the NSA's FAIRVIEW program. Six of these locations appeared to be identical with those on Appelbaum's list. However, these facilities are not for spying on Americans, but for collecting communications of legitimate foreign targets)

Appelbaum then called upon anyone to infiltrate AT&T to find out whether these locations are really NSA listening posts: "taking direct, non-violent action is not a violation of the constitution". This, he said, was also important for privacy and civil liberties organizations: because of a lack of hard evidence and concrete harm it was almost impossible for them to fight NSA surveillance in court.

The actual incentive?

It's not clear whether there was a livestream of this meeting, so we don't know whether or when Snowden, who was in Hawaii at that time, was able to see it (the official video was put online on September 11, 2012). The Democracy Now! interviews must certainly have attracted his attention, while the Wired article about the Utah Data Center is explicitly mentioned in Permanent Record. (p. 246)

These three events took place just around the time that Snowden started his new job at the NSA in Hawaii by the end of March 2012. Therefore, it may have actually been those statements by Binney, Bamford and Appelbaum, rather than the classified STELLARWIND report that confirmed Snowden's vague suspicions of domestic mass surveillance.

And with his all-prevailing curiosity, their claims must have been an incentive to search for the evidence for those allegations. Providing that to the press would enable the public to "understand what’s actually happening in their names" and give civil liberties organizations standing in court: ACLU attorney Ben Wizner said that in his first conversation with Snowden, one of his first questions was "Do you have standing now?"

The classified STELLARWIND report

According to the podcast interview, it was at some moment during his job in Hawaii that Snowden found the highly classified draft report about the STELLARWIND program. It's not known whether this was before or after he started downloading NSA files, but given what has been discussed above, the report seems not that important anymore as starting point for that effort. The question is rather why it didn't stop him.

The first page of the highly classified STELLARWIND report
(click for the full report)

Snowden likely read this classified report as close as the unclassified version back in 2009. Doing so, the first thing he must have noticed is that the STELLARWIND program was not meant for monitoring innocent Americans. The report clearly says that it was used to track down specific groups of foreigners:
- Members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates (since October 2001)
- Targets related to Afghanistan (until January 2002)
- The Iraqi Intelligence Service (from March 2003 to March 2004)

The classified report also specifies the approximate number of selectors that had been used for targeted collection of content between October 2001 and January 2007:
- Foreign telephone numbers: 15,646
- Domestic telephone numbers: 2,612
- Foreign e-mail addresses: 19,000
- Domestic e-mail addresses: 406

Because targets located in the US (not necessarily US citizens) were extremely sensitive, each of their selectors had to be approved by the chief of the Counterterrorism product line, to ensure strict compliance with the presidential authorization.
According to the final joint Inspectors General report, the NSA IG inspected a sample of the domestic selectors in 2006 and found that 95% of them were linked to al-Qaeda or international terrorist threats inside the US. Almost all the "tippers" that the NSA sent to the FBI contained domestic selectors (phone numbers, but also some content).

The draft report says that the bulk collection of telephone records was also strictly limited to "perform call chaining and network reconstruction between known al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliate telephone numbers and previously unknown telephone numbers with which they had been in contact."
The final joint Inspectors General report says that in 2006, as result of the contact chaining, one of every four million metadata records were seen by analysts, who determined that it was not analytically useful to chain more than two hops from a target, even though that wasn't prohibited by the presidential authorization.

Althogether, the classified review of the STELLARWIND program shows that the NSA did filter telephone and internet backbone cables inside the US and collected a huge amount of domestic metadata, but did not use this for monitoring millions of American citizens, as many critics had assumed.*

Snowden's problems with the program

After reading the report, Snowden could have concluded that his fears about domestic mass surveillance turned out to be unfounded. But on the contrary, he hid the exculpatory evidence by leaving all the aforementioned details out of his book and even said that what he found in the report was "so deeply criminal that no government would ever allow it to be released unredacted". (p. 176)

Permanent Record says that Snowden found two things in the report which he considered evidence of illegal domestic surveillance. The first thing is that the President's Surveillance Program marked a transition "from targeted collection of communications to "bulk collection", which is the agency's euphemism for mass surveillance". (p. 176)

But that's not what happened. The NSA has always conducted bulk collection for contact chaining, although traditionally that involved foreign military communications. The real shift in 2001 was not from targeted to bulk collection, but from collection abroad to collection inside the United States - but still against foreign targets.

Section from the full report of the 5 Inspectors General about STELLARWIND
(July 10, 2009, pdf-page 30, declassified in September 2015)

A redefinition of collection?

An issue that upset Snowden even more was an alleged "redefinition" that allowed the NSA to "collect whatever communications records it wanted to, without having to get a warrant, because it could only be said to have acquired or obtained them, in the legal sense, if and when the agency "searched for and retrieved" them from its database." (p. 177-178)

But while Snowden claims that the Bush administration used this redefinition in 2004 to legitimize STELLARWIND's collection of "communications" ex post facto, the report itself says that the aforementioned theory was used as a justification only for the bulk collection of internet metadata and only until March 2004.

A few months later the collection of internet metadata was brought under FISA Court authority and based upon Section 402 FISA (PR/TT). Nothing supports the idea that this definition was used as a trick to turn the NSA into "an eternal law-enforcement agency" able "to retain as much data as it could for as long as it could - for perpetuity" as Snowden wildly speculates. (p. 178)

The NSA's original privacy rules, the 1980 US Signals Intelligence Directive 18, defined "collection" as the "intentional tasking and/or selection" of specific communications, but as Timothy Edgar noted in his book Beyond Snowden: "Even if data are not "collected" under the agency's internal definition, that does not mean the agency may violate federal laws or the Constitution." The redefinition theory is already found in a piece by James Bamford from March 21, 2012.

Unprotected phone records

For the bulk collection of telephone metadata the legal situation was different, but this is also misrepresented in Snowden's book. To justify this collection, the NSA didn't need a sneaky definition, because in 1979 the Supreme Court had ruled that telephone records provided to a telecom provider are not protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. The FISA Court also applied this to metadata collected in bulk.*

In his memoir, however, Snowden made it seem like it was the NSA's own interpretation that the Fourth Amendment didn't apply to telephone metadata,* but in the Joe Rogan podcast he explained it correct, saying that "the scandal isn't how they're breaking the law, the scandal is that they don't have to break the law" - basically admitting that the NSA's bulk collection of phone records wasn't illegal.

Section from the classified STELLARWIND report, page 16

The STELLARWIND report didn't confront Snowden with something clear and outright illegal (despite saying so in Permanent Record), but with legal interpretations he didn't agree with and which he thought the public should know about. Anyone may disagree with certain policies and legal interpretations, but that's not something covered by whistleblower protection laws.

Snowden's revelations

Even though the STELLARWIND report didn't show significant abuses, one can argue that leaking it to the press was in the public interest because it revealed the true scope of the NSA's most controversial program. But wasn't that enough? Why did Snowden continued downloading classified files? What could they reveal more than one of the NSA's most sensitive and highly classified documents?

His memoir says: "It wouldn't be enough, after all, to merely reveal a particular abuse or set of abuses, which the agency could stop (or pretend to stop) while preserving the rest of the shadowy apparatus intact. Instead, I was resolved to bring to light a single, all-encompassing fact: that my government had developed and deployed a global system of mass surveillance without the knowledge or consent of its citizenry". (p. 239)

Publication of the Verizon order

Snowden's continued scraping of NSA networks actually paid off: eventually he not only found the PRISM presentation, but also the Verizon order from April 25, 2013. This appeared to be an even better catch than the STELLARWIND report, not only because it was about the current situation, but maybe also because it contained less "inconvenient" facts.

The first page of the Verizon order from April 25, 2013
(click for the full document)

And indeed, the very first story of the Snowden-leaks was not about STELLARWIND, but about the Verizon order. It was published by The Guardian on June 5, 2013 and revealed the Section 215 program, which this time generated a lot more attention than when USA Today first wrote about this program back in 2006.

Section 215 became the most controversial part of the Snowden revelations and was therefore replaced in 2015 by the USA FREEDOM Act, under which the NSA cannot collect domestic metadata in bulk anymore, but has to request these from the telecommunication providers based upon a warrant from the FISA Court.

Publication of the STELLARWIND report

Some three weeks later, on June 27, 2013, The Guardian published the STELLARWIND report. The accompanying article, however, was only about the NSA's collection of domestic internet metadata, probably because this was the only part of the President's Surveillance Program that hadn't been reported on before.

The Guardian said nothing about how the report debunked the fears for massive domestic surveillance, but focused on the fact that bulk collection of internet metadata had continued under Obama and eventually had been ended in 2011.

The Guardian's report about the STELLARWIND program, June 27, 2013

Along with the STELLARWIND report, The Guardian published a 2007 memorandum from the Justice Department, which revealed that American's metadata (both telephone and internet) may still be subject of database queries when these metadata have already been collected (through collection systems abroad for example). This is based upon the rather controversial theory that because such metadata have already been lawfully collected, there's no actual interception and therefore no breach of applicable laws.


Ever since the NSA illegally assisted the FBI in monitoring subversive Americans and civil liberties organizations in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been people who assumed or were convinced that CIA and NSA continued to spy on American citizens, despite the strict separation between foreign intelligence and domestic surveillance imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) from 1978.

The idea of CIA and NSA as all powerful enemies of the people became a conspiracy theory which Hollywood gratefully made use of. It got a new impulse in 2006, when Russell Tice claimed that the NSA could be eavesdropping on millions of Americans and Mark Klein revealed that there was interception equipment inside the AT&T switching facility in San Francisco.

Six years later, James Bamford presented the Utah Data Center as "fresh evidence" that the NSA was now spying inside the United States while Bill Binney turned the STELLARWIND program into something like the sum of all fears by suggesting that it collected almost everything. Jacob Appelbaum urged insiders to leak classified information about these programs to the public.

And that became the mission of NSA contractor Edward Snowden: providing the press with as much information about the NSA's collection efforts as possible so the general public could decide whether it was right or wrong - an unprecedented action that could only be justified when (afterwards) these files would reveal clear evidence of illegal activities and massive abuses.

Therefore Snowden seems to have had no choice but to continue and uphold the narrative of people like Tice, Binney and Bamford, which is that the NSA was unconstitutionally monitoring millions of Americans. However, one of his luckiest finds, the highly classified STELLARWIND report, actually debunks that story, which explains why its content is misrepresented in Permanent Record.

Links & sources

- Emptywheel: Stellar Wind IG Report, Working Thread (2015)
- Ars Technica: What the Ashcroft “Hospital Showdown” on NSA spying was all about (2013)
- The Guardian: NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama (2013)
- The Washington Post: U.S. surveillance architecture includes collection of revealing Internet, phone metadata (2013)
- Wired: The NSA Is Building the Country's Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say) (2012)
- NSA: STELLARWIND Classification Guide (2009)
- The NSA's STELLARWIND Classification Guide (2009)
- USA Today: NSA has massive database of American's phone calls (2006)
- The New York Times: Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts (2005)