Inside the Ring: NSA contractor threat

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander this week revealed new details about the electronic spying agency’s use of private contractors like renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Gen. Alexander, in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Tuesday that NSA has about 1,000 computer systems administrators at its worldwide network of listening posts and other facilities.

The four-star general was asked how many NSA systems administrators had the same access to agency secrets as Mr. Snowden, who disclosed top-secret surveillance programs to the news media and who is now in hiding in Hong Kong.

“There is on the order of 1,000 system administrators — people who actually run the networks — who have, in certain sections, that level of authority and ability to interface with the systems,” Gen. Alexander said. “The majority are contractors.

“We do have significant concerns in this area, and it is something that we need to look at.

“The mistakes of one contractor should not tarnish all the contractors because they do great work for our nation as well,” Gen. Alexander said.

Since the disclosures, NSA technology directorate plans to adopt a two-member control system that will prevent a single system administrator from making any changes to networks, he added.

NSA decided about 13 years ago to downsize its workforce.

“We pushed more of our information technology workforce or system administrators to the contract arena,” he said. “That’s consistent across the intelligence community.”

Gen. Alexander said systems administrators have access to computer systems and are “helping to run the network and the Web service that are on that network that are publicly available.”

“To get to any data like the business records 215 data that we’re talking about, that’s in an exceptionally controlled area,” he said, referring to Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

“You would have to have specific certificates to get into that. I am not aware that Snowden had any access to that.”

Each type of sensitive or classified data needs “certificates” that require physical presence as opposed to remote access via computer, something that would be “extremely difficult” for Mr. Snowden, Gen. Alexander said.

Disclosures by Mr. Snowden so far have revealed NSA’s Prism program to spy on major data companies’ information, the court order to Verizon for its phone metadata and a classified presidential directive on cyberwarfare.

Federal investigators are trying to determine how Mr. Snowden, as an NSA systems administrator, was able to access such closely guarded secret documents, raising questions about his potential hacking into classified computer networks.

Gen. Alexander said the disclosures so far have caused national security damage by undermining spying efforts against terrorists and affecting partnerships with allies.

The disclosures by Mr. Snowden highlight a key vulnerability of what intelligence and security officials call the “insider threat,” the compromise of secrets through a trusted employee.

Mr. Snowden, in public interviews, said he disclosed the secret programs — along with the first disclosure of a document from a secret federal wiretapping court — to protest what he said were civil liberties abuses.

Gen. Alexander and other Obama administration security officials deny any improper electronic spying. The gathering of phone records on about 150 million Americans is limited to “metadata” — phone numbers and the duration of phone calls — but does not include recorded content of phone calls, Gen. Alexander said. The program is said to be limited solely to terrorism-related cases.

The general’s statement contradicted remarks to the Senate in March by James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, who denied the NSA was gathering any data on Americans’ phone calls.

Al Qaeda’s Lone Jihadists

The official al Qaeda’s English-language magazine is praising the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon as a model for “lone jihad” and future attacks against Americans.

The spring edition of Inspire, published June 1, says that the “blessed Boston bombings have been an absolute success on all levels and domains.”

“These heroic bombings have exposed many hidden shortcomings of the American security and intelligence system,” the magazine said. “They have also proved that the legendary acclaimed power of the enemy’s intelligence is nothing but a big lie indeed.”

The report said that the two suspects in the bombing, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are the real winners of the race.

The magazine urged other Muslims to follow the examples of the brothers in targeting cities like Boston that have less security than places like New York and repeat the bombers’ decision to strike a major sporting event that also fell on Tax Day, April 15.

The bombers used “excellent” terrorism trade craft by placing the bombs on the marathon home stretch and timing the two homemade, pressure-cooker bomb blasts seconds apart to “increase casualties.”

“All this means the Tsarnaev brothers planned smartly to strike at a crowded time to guarantee maximum killing and injuring,” the al Qaeda magazine said. “This timing is significant in Lone Jihad operations.”

A separate article praised the terrorist killing of a British soldier in the Woolwich section of London on May 26.

U.S. warns China

President Obama told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States would back Japan in any armed conflict over the Senkaku islands that are the subject of a major Chinese-Japanese dispute.

A U.S. official said the president’s comments were intended to avoid a military miscalculation by Beijing, which in recent weeks has ratcheted up tensions with military incursions near the uninhabited islands that the Chinese call Diaoyu.

The private U.S. warning — made during the June 8 “walk in the desert” by the two leaders and their translators at their Palm Springs, Calif., summit — sought to clarify the mixed public statements in recent months by the Obama administration on the disputed islands, located south of Japan’s Okinawa and north of Taiwan.

Initially, administration and military officials stated that the United States was neutral in the maritime dispute.

But under pressure from Tokyo, that policy line shifted to reminding the Chinese that the United States and Japan are part of a mutual defense treaty that would require U.S. military forces to come to Tokyo’s aid in a military dust-up.

There have been serious concerns among U.S. military and intelligence officials that China is quietly preparing to take some type of military action against Japan over the islands.

The mixed message prior to the summit was highlighted in December by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, who told reporters that “we don’t take sides on territorial disputes.” The comment appeared designed to avoid upsetting U.S. military exchanges with China.

The admiral has emerged as one of the more conciliatory military commanders at the Hawaii-based command. He was criticized this year for saying his biggest concern was climate change, not the Chinese military buildup that is alarming most of China’s neighbors.

During the summit with Mr. Xi, Mr. Obama said China should avoid increasing tensions and that the U.S. government opposes efforts by Beijing to intimidate Japan over the islands.

Mr. Xi responded that China was not escalating tensions.

The dispute began in September when the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from the family that owned them.

Since then, Chinese naval and air forces have made numerous incursions and flights near the islands. More than 300 Chinese fighter jets have buzzed the area.

Navy cybersecurity

The Navy is warning all service members to remain vigilant against disclosures of classified information in the wake of NSA leaks of secret information.

The tightening of cybersecurity is taking place throughout the Navy, with reviews of procedures and a general effort to plug any potential leaks and urge good “cyberhygiene.”

A June 13 blog posting on Navy Live reminded sailors not to download any classified information to unclassified systems and stated that “cybersecurity is an all-hands responsibility.”

A Navy official told Inside the Ring:

“The Navy takes very seriously the threat of cyberattacks and actively prepares for a wide range of cybercontingencies. Whether the threat comes from ‘hacktivists,’ criminal hackers, or foreign/nation state entities, we are always on watch to protect [naval and Pentagon] networks and to defend the nation.”

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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