Who is Publishing NSA and CIA Secrets, and Why?
There’s something going on inside the intelligence communities in at least two countries, and we have no idea what it is.
Consider these three data points. One: someone, probably a country’s intelligence organization, is dumping massive amounts of cyberattack tools belonging to the NSA onto the Internet. Two: someone else, or maybe the same someone, is doing the same thing to the CIA.
Three: in March, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described how the NSA penetrated the computer networks of a Russian intelligence agency and was able to monitor them as they attacked the US State Department in 2014. Even more explicitly, a US ally—my guess is the UK—was not only hacking the Russian intelligence agency’s computers, but also the surveillance cameras inside their building. “They [the US ally] monitored the [Russian] hackers as they maneuvered inside the U.S. systems and as they walked in and out of the workspace, and were able to see faces, the officials said.”
Countries don’t often reveal intelligence capabilities: “sources and methods.” Because it gives their adversaries important information about what to fix, it’s a deliberate decision done with good reason. And it’s not just the target country who learns from a reveal. When the US announces that it can see through the cameras inside the buildings of Russia’s cyber warriors, other countries immediately check the security of their own cameras.
With all this in mind, let’s talk about the recent leaks at NSA and the CIA.
Last year, a previously unknown group called the Shadow Brokers started releasing NSA hacking tools and documents from about three years ago. They continued to do so this year—five sets of files in all—and have implied that more classified documents are to come. We don’t know how they got the files. When the Shadow Brokers first emerged, the general consensus was that someone had found and hacked an external NSA staging server. These are third-party computers that the NSA’s TAO hackers use to launch attacks from. Those servers are necessarily stocked with TAO attack tools. This matched the leaks, which included a “script” directory and working attack notes. We’re not sure if someone inside the NSA made a mistake that left these files exposed, or if the hackers that found the cache got lucky.
That explanation stopped making sense after the latest Shadow Brokers release, which included attack tools against Windows, PowerPoint presentations, and operational notes—documents that are definitely not going to be on an external NSA staging server. A credible theory, which I first heard from Nicholas Weaver, is that the Shadow Brokers are publishing NSA data from multiple sources. The first leaks were from an external staging server, but the more recent leaks are from inside the NSA itself.
So what happened? Did someone inside the NSA accidentally mount the wrong server on some external network? That’s possible, but seems very unlikely. Did someone hack the NSA itself? Could there be a mole inside the NSA, as Kevin Poulsen speculated?
If it is a mole, my guess is that he’s already been arrested. There are enough individualities in the files to pinpoint exactly where and when they came from. Surely the NSA knows who could have taken the files. No country would burn a mole working for it by publishing what he delivered. Intelligence agencies know that if they betray a source this severely, they’ll never get another one.
That points to two options. The first is that the files came from Hal Martin. He’s the NSA contractor who was arrested in August for hoarding agency secrets in his house for two years. He can’t be the publisher, because the Shadow Brokers are in business even though he is in prison. But maybe the leaker got the documents from his stash: either because Martin gave the documents to them or because he himself was hacked. The dates line up, so it’s theoretically possible, but the contents of the documents speak to someone with a different sort of access. There’s also nothing in the public indictment against Martin that speaks to his selling secrets to a foreign power, and I think it’s exactly the sort of thing that the NSA would leak. But maybe I’m wrong about all of this; Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s him.
The other option is a mysterious second NSA leak of cyberattack tools. The only thing I have ever heard about this is from a Washington Post story about Martin: “But there was a second, previously undisclosed breach of cybertools, discovered in the summer of 2015, which was also carried out by a TAO employee, one official said. That individual also has been arrested, but his case has not been made public. The individual is not thought to have shared the material with another country, the official said.” But “not thought to have” is not the same as not having done so.
On the other hand, it’s possible that someone penetrated the internal NSA network. We’ve already seen NSA tools that can do that kind of thing to other networks. That would be huge, and explain why there were calls to fire NSA Director Mike Rogers last year.
The CIA leak is both similar and different. It consists of a series of attack tools from about a year ago. The most educated guess amongst people who know stuff is that the data is from an almost-certainly air-gapped internal development wikia Confluence server—and either someone on the inside was somehow coerced into giving up a copy of it, or someone on the outside hacked into the CIA and got themselves a copy. They turned the documents over to WikiLeaks, which continues to publish it.
This is also a really big deal, and hugely damaging for the CIA. Those tools were new, and they’re impressive. I have been told that the CIA is desperately trying to hire coders to replace what was lost.
For both of these leaks, one big question is attribution: who did this? A whistleblower wouldn’t sit on attack tools for years before publishing. A whistleblower would act more like Snowden or Manning, publishing immediately—and publishing documents that discuss what the US is doing to whom, not simply a bunch of attack tools. It just doesn’t make sense. Neither does random hackers. Or cybercriminals. I think it’s being done by a country or countries.
My guess was, and is still, Russia in both cases. Here’s my reasoning. Whoever got this information years before and is leaking it now has to 1) be capable of hacking the NSA and/or the CIA, and 2) willing to publish it all. Countries like Israel and France are certainly capable, but wouldn’t ever publish. Countries like North Korea or Iran probably aren’t capable. The list of countries who fit both criteria is small: Russia, China, and…and…and I’m out of ideas. And China is currently trying to make nice with the US.
Last August, Edward Snowden guessed Russia, too.
So Russia—or someone else—steals these secrets, and presumably uses them to both defend its own networks and hack other countries while deflecting blame for a couple of years. For it to publish now means that the intelligence value of the information is now lower than the embarrassment value to the NSA and CIA. This could be because the US figured out that its tools were hacked, and maybe even by whom; which would make the tools less valuable against US government targets, although still valuable against third parties.
The message that comes with publishing seems clear to me: “We are so deep into your business that we don’t care if we burn these few-years-old capabilities, as well as the fact that we have them. There’s just nothing you can do about it.” It’s bragging.
Which is exactly the same thing Ledgett is doing to the Russians. Maybe the capabilities he talked about are long gone, so there’s nothing lost in exposing sources and methods. Or maybe he too is bragging: saying to the Russians that he doesn’t care if they know. He’s certainly bragging to every other country that is paying attention to his remarks. (He may be bluffing, of course, hoping to convince others that the US has intelligence capabilities it doesn’t.)
What happens when intelligence agencies go to war with each other and don’t tell the rest of us? I think there’s something going on between the US and Russia that the public is just seeing pieces of. We have no idea why, or where it will go next, and can only speculate.
This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.