During the Cold War, the KGB was very adept at identifying undercover CIA officers in foreign countries through what was basically big data analysis. (Yes, this is a needlessly dense and very hard-to-read article. I think it’s worth slogging through, though.)
Entries Tagged "undercover"
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This is a creepy story. The FBI wanted access to a hotel guest’s room without a warrant. So agents broke his Internet connection, and then posed as Internet technicians to gain access to his hotel room without a warrant.
From the motion to suppress:
The next time you call for assistance because the internet service in your home is not working, the “technician” who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and — when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician — let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside. He will have no reason to suspect you have broken the law, much less probable cause to obtain a search warrant. But that makes no difference, because by letting him in, you will have “consented” to an intrusive search of your home.
Basically, the agents snooped around the hotel room, and gathered evidence that they submitted to a magistrate to get a warrant. Of course, they never told the judge that they had engineered the whole outage and planted the fake technicians.
More coverage of the case here.
This feels like an important case to me. We constantly allow repair technicians into our homes to fix this or that technological thingy. If we can’t be sure they are not government agents in disguise, then we’ve lost quite a lot of our freedom and liberty.
The latest Intercept article on the Snowden documents talks about the NSA’s undercover operatives working in foreign companies. There are no specifics, although the countries China, Germany, and South Korea are mentioned. It’s also hard to tell if the NSA has undercover operatives working in companies in those countries, or has undercover contractors visiting those companies. The document is dated 2004, although there’s no reason to believe that the NSA has changed its behavior since then.
The most controversial revelation in Sentry Eagle might be a fleeting reference to the NSA infiltrating clandestine agents into “commercial entities.” The briefing document states that among Sentry Eagle’s most closely guarded components are “facts related to NSA personnel (under cover), operational meetings, specific operations, specific technology, specific locations and covert communications related to SIGINT enabling with specific commercial entities (A/B/C)””
It is not clear whether these “commercial entities” are American or foreign or both. Generally the placeholder “(A/B/C)” is used in the briefing document to refer to American companies, though on one occasion it refers to both American and foreign companies. Foreign companies are referred to with the placeholder “(M/N/O).” The NSA refused to provide any clarification to The Intercept.
That program is SENTRY OSPREY, which is a program under SENTRY EAGLE.
The document makes no other reference to NSA agents working under cover. It is not clear whether they might be working as full-time employees at the “commercial entities,” or whether they are visiting commercial facilities under false pretenses.
Least fun job right now: being the NSA person who fielded the telephone call from the Intercept to clarify that (A/B/C)/(M/N/O) thing. “Hi. We’re going public with SENTRY EAGLE next week. There’s one thing in the document we don’t understand, and we wonder if you could help us….” Actually, that’s wrong. The person who fielded the phone call had no idea what SENTRY EAGLE was. The least fun job belongs to the person up the command chain who did.
I’ve long advocated investigation, intelligence, and emergency response as the places where we can most usefully spend our counterterrorism dollars. Here’s an example where that didn’t work:
Starting in April 1991, three FBI agents posed as members of an invented racist militia group called the Veterans Aryan Movement. According to their cover story, VAM members robbed armored cars, using the proceeds to buy weapons and support racist extremism. The lead agent was a Vietnam veteran with a background in narcotics, using the alias Dave Rossi.
Code-named PATCON, for “Patriot-conspiracy,” the investigation would last more than two years, crossing state and organizational lines in search of intelligence on the so-called Patriot movement, the label applied to a wildly diverse collection of racist, ultra-libertarian, right-wing and/or pro-gun activists and extremists who, over the years, have found common cause in their suspicion and fear of the federal government.
The undercover agents met some of the most infamous names in the movement, but their work never led to a single arrest. When McVeigh walked through the middle of the investigation in 1993, he went unnoticed.
The whole article is worth reading.
Last year, I wrote about how social media sites are making it harder than ever for undercover police officers. This story talks about how biometric passports are making it harder than ever for undercover CIA agents.
Busy spy crossroads such as Dubai, Jordan, India and many E.U. points of entry are employing iris scanners to link eyeballs irrevocably to a particular name. Likewise, the increasing use of biometric passports, which are embedded with microchips containing a person’s face, sex, fingerprints, date and place of birth, and other personal data, are increasingly replacing the old paper ones. For a clandestine field operative, flying under a false name could be a one-way ticket to a headquarters desk, since they’re irrevocably chained to whatever name and passport they used.
“If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can’t go again under another name,” explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. “So it’s a one-time thing — one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time. You can’t show up again under a different name with the same data.”
Social networking sites make it very difficult, if not impossible, to have undercover police officers:
“The results found that 90 per cent of female officers were using social media compared with 81 per cent of males.”
The most popular site was Facebook, followed by Twitter. Forty seven per cent of those surveyed used social networking sites daily while another 24 per cent used them weekly. All respondents aged 26 years or younger had uploaded photos of themselves onto the internet.
“The thinking we had with this result means that the 16-year-olds of today who might become officers in the future have already been exposed.
“It’s too late [for them to take it down] because once it’s uploaded, it’s there forever.”
There’s another side to this issue as well. Social networking sites can help undercover officers with their backstory, by building a fictional history. Some of this might require help from the company that owns the social networking site, but that seems like a reasonable request by the police.
I am in the middle of reading Diego Gambetta’s book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. He talks about the lengthy vetting process organized crime uses to vet new members — often relying on people who knew the person since birth, or people who served time with him in jail — to protect against police informants. I agree that social networking sites can make undercover work even harder, but it’s gotten pretty hard even without that.
An undercover TSA agent successfully bribed JetBlue ticket agent to check a suitcase under a random passenger’s name and put it on an airplane.
As with a lot of these tests, I’m not that worried because it’s not a reliable enough tactic to build a plot around. But untrustworthy airline personnel — or easily bribeable airline personal — could be used in a smarter and less risky plot.
Back in 2007, I wrote an essay, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” where I said:
The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.
Over on Salon, Stephan Salisbury has an essay on FBI entrapment and domestic terrorism plots. It’s well worth reading.
How to spot a CIA officer, at least in the mid-1970s.
The reason the CIA office was located in the embassy — as it is in most of the other countries in the world — is that by presidential order the State Department is responsible for hiding and housing the CIA. Like the intelligence services of most other countries, the CIA has been unwilling to set up foreign offices under its own name. So American embassies — and, less frequently. military bases — provide the needed cover. State confers respectability on the Agency’s operatives, dressing them up with the same titles and calling cards that give legitimate diplomats entree into foreign government circles. Protected by diplomatic immunity, the operatives recruit local officials as CIA agents to supply secret intelligence and, especially in the Third World, to help in the Agency’s manipulation of a country’s internal affairs.
This, from a former CIA chief of station:
The point is that in this day and time, with ubiquitous surveillance cameras, the ability to comprehensively analyse patterns of cell phone and credit card use, computerised records of travel documents which can be shared in the blink of an eye, the growing use of biometrics and machine-readable passports, and the ability of governments to share vast amounts of travel and security-related information almost instantaneously, it is virtually impossible for clandestine operatives not to leave behind a vast electronic trail which, if and when there is reason to examine it in detail, will amount to a huge body of evidence.
A not-terribly flattering article about Mossad:
It would be surprising if a key part of this extraordinary story did not turn out to be the role played by Palestinians. It is still Mossad practice to recruit double agents, just as it was with the PLO back in the 1970s. News of the arrest in Damascus of another senior Hamas operative though denied by Mash’al seems to point in this direction. Two other Palestinians extradited from Jordan to Dubai are members of the Hamas armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam brigades, suggesting treachery may indeed have been involved. Previous assassinations have involved a Palestinian agent identifying the target.
There’s no proof, of course, that Mossad was behind this operation. But the author is certainly right that the Palestinians believe that Mossad was behind it.
The Cold Spy lists what he sees as the mistakes made:
1. Using passport names of real people not connected with the operation.
2. Airport arrival without disguises in play thus showing your real faces.
3. Not anticipating the wide use of surveillance cameras in Dubai.
4. Checking into several hotels prior to checking in at the target hotel thus bringing suspicion on your entire operation.
5. Checking into the same hotel that the last person on the team checked into in order to change disguises.
6. Not anticipating the reaction that the local police had upon discovery of the crime, and their subsequent use of surveillance cameras in showing your entire operation to the world in order to send you a message that such actions or activities will not be tolerated on their soil.
7. Not anticipating the use of surveillance camera footage being posted on YouTube, thus showing everything about your operation right down to your faces and use of disguises to the masses around the world.
8. Using 11 people for a job that one person could have done without all the negative attention to the operation. For example, it could have been as simple as a robbery on the street with a subsequent shooting to cover it all up for what it really was.
9. Using too much sophistication in the operation showing it to be a high level intelligence/hit operation, as opposed to a simple matter using one person to carry out the assignment who was either used as a cutout or an expendable person which was then eliminated after the job was completed, thus covering all your tracks without one shred of evidence leading back to the original order for the hit.
10. Arriving too close to the date or time of the hit. Had the team arrived a few weeks earlier they could have established a presence in the city thus seeing all the problems associated with carrying out said assignment thus calling it off or having a counter plan whereby something else could have been tried elsewhere or in another country.
11. And to take everything to 11 points, not even noticing (which many on your team did in fact notice) all the surveillance you were under, and not calling the entire thing off because of it, and because you failed to see all of your mistakes made so far and then not calling it off because of them.
I disagree with a bunch of those.
EDITED TO ADD (4/13): The Cold Spy responds in comments. Actually, there’s lots of interesting discussion in the comments.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.