Or Maybe Those Cables WERE Cut

Remember those four five six who knows how many telecom cables to the Middle East and South Asia that were cut? Ryan Singel finds a UN official suggesting at least four of them may well have been cut intentionally.

The five underseas cables that were cut or went out of service in the Middle East in recent weeks might have been sabotaged, an officer at the International Telecommunication Union told the Agence France-Presse.

"We do not want to preempt the results of ongoing investigations, but we do not rule out that a deliberate act of sabotage caused the damage to the undersea cables over two weeks ago," the UN agency’s head of development, Sami al-Murshed, told AFP.[…]

Some experts doubt the prevailing view that the cables were cut by accident, especially as the cables lie at great depths under the sea and are not passed over by ships," Murshed said on the sidelines of a conference on cyber-crime held in Gulf state of Qatar.

(I don’t know if this is his source, but it’ll suffice for a link.)

Let’s see. Since the cables were cut, Hamas agreed to close up its borders with Egypt, Pakistan’s rigged election wasn’t rigged enough to save Musharraf, and the Saudi Foreign Minister has been on a "for your ears only" tour around the world. Any of those look like probable explanations?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

52 replies
  1. JTMinIA says:

    How many of you saw the piece in the Economist making fun of these “conspiracy” theories, including quotes from bloggers?

  2. MadDog says:

    Wrt to the idea that the cables were cut so that a 3rd-party device could be attached for “monitoring” or other devious purposes, I don’t believe that’s on.

    Per Wiki:

    To effect repairs on deep cables, the damaged portion is brought to the surface using a grapple. Deep cables must be cut at the seabed and each end separately brought to the surface, whereupon a new section is spliced in.

    Adding a “monitoring device” would be real obvious when the cable was brought to the surface.

    If the cables were cut on purpose, it was not to add such a device.

    • emptywheel says:

      That’s never been my idea (not least bc the cables are owned by different people, so it’d be hard to collect all that data).

      IMO, if it was intentional, it was either to make Egypt and/or Pakistan go black to cut off communications that were eluding the US, or it was a test run.

      • MadDog says:

        That’s never been my idea (not least bc the cables are owned by different people, so it’d be hard to collect all that data).

        IMO, if it was intentional, it was either to make Egypt and/or Pakistan go black to cut off communications that were eluding the US, or it was a test run.

        Another strong possibility is to effect the re-routing of the traffic on those cables to networks where a 3rd party (can you say US Government?) does have monitoring capability.

        Based on some of the press reports, it sure sounded like some large portion of the re-routed traffic would be stuck on the re-route for some time to come.

        And just so folks can “sing along”, here’s the Wiki entry about the cable cut mystery.

    • freepatriot says:

      you could work on the cable at some other location

      the real trick is how to interrupt the service so you can attach your doohickys

      cutting the cable provides a period of dead time you’d need

      if you had a doohicky

      • MadDog says:

        Ah hah…the “double cut” scenario! Wouldn’t put it past the Merry Techno-Tricksters of the NSA.

        And AT&T (New Corporate slogan: “We’ll work for Retroactive Immunity”) were the folks who developed the mystery monitoring device used in the Operation Ivy Bells against the former Soviet Union (per Wiki):

        In October of 1971, the United States sent the purpose-modified submarine USS Halibut deep into Soviet territory in the Sea of Okhotsk. Its mission was to find the undersea telephone cable that connected the Soviet submarine base at Petropavlovsk on the peninsula of Kamchatka to the Soviet Pacific Fleet headquarters on the mainland at Vladivostok. The mission was a success, and the divers eavesdropped on the wire with an instrument that measured electromagnetic emanations. What they heard was easily understandable Russian conversations with no encryption. The following year, Halibut installed a permanent tap on the line to record the conversations, with a plan to return in about a month to retrieve the records. Eventually more taps were installed on Soviet lines in other parts of the world—the more advanced instruments could store a year’s worth of data. The recording device was built by AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, and was powered by a tiny nuclear generator.

        • TomJ says:

          I wonder if it would be possible for someone to lay hundreds or thousands of miles of cable at the bottom of a sea and not be able to detect the location of a failure “from both ends”. A double cut would indicate this problem, if the designers were actual engineers. And, to be honest, this is the simple stuff from an engineering point of view. Installing the cable is much more difficult than detecting what is going on.

          If I’m wrong about this, then these companies really need to hire real engineers.

          • MadDog says:

            Your point is well made!

            So to “inventively” support the idea of the “double cut” scenario, one would have to assume that those engineers could locate “approximately” where the cable broke, AND that the margin of error in their ability to locate was sufficient to allow the second cut to occur without suspicion.

            And just because I threw out this theory doesn’t mean I buy it. *g*

    • NCDem says:

      I’ll beg to differ. Here’s the way it may have gone/go down. It is all planned in advance and our own repairmen are ready. The cable is cut and inoperative. A few miles away a good portion of the cable is pulled to the surface, cut/spliced with needed electronics to monitor cable and then left for “real repairmen” to re-connect the first cut. Since the cable is down after the first cut, no one could detect the second splice since it was “dead”.

      The key will be how far apart the dead ends of the first cable are when they are located. I would hope that a good detective would also require that when the new splice is done that the area where the cut was made is preserved for others to analyze.

  3. FrankProbst says:

    “The five underseas cables that were cut or went out of service in the Middle East in recent weeks might have been sabotaged…”

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious (again), this is one of those “Duh!” statements that really doesn’t even need to be sourced.

  4. freepatriot says:

    anybody see Obama tonight ???

    he went on a little bit too long for the media asshats

    they don’t like long speeches

    they need Obama to speed the fuck up so they can get their cocktail wienies

    gotta love a guy who can make the talking heads miss their cocktail wienies enough to whine about it on the air

  5. ProfessorFoland says:

    On topic: what freepatriot #6 said.

    OT–behindthefall and bmaz were asking a few threads ago about the relatively low weight, compared to other reconnaissance satellites, of the USA 193 satellite that is about to be shot down. The best article I could find (from last August) with any bearing on the question is this one from Reuters:

    The two officials declined to identify what exactly the experimental Lockheed satellite was meant to test, but said its failure was troubling, given that other countries were rapidly plowing ahead with development and launch of new capabilities, especially in the area of synthetic aperture radars.

    It was nominally a test satellite, not a true reconnaissance satellite. I suppose that doesn’t rule out any diabolical intentions from the start, but at least the story does seem to be consistent from times well before any of the shootdown talk began.

    The article seems to suggest, but never actually says so, that it was a test of a synthetic aperture radar system. 5000 lbs does seem to be a reasonable size for an SAR satellite.

      • BillE says:

        Here’s the wiki

        This form of radar and its cousins phased array radars are used for very detailed imagery. The martian flybys are from phased arrays. The technique is to DSP sample 360 pulses on multiple sensors/transmitters in the arrays. Then use hardware datamining concepts to build virtual “beams” in the sample sets to produce interesting image products. Most ground mapping is done by phased array. The SARs is another multiple more accurate. This is another thing the Bushies fucked up. The rest of the world is getting accomplished at building and deploying these things and ours are just going into the crony mill.

        • emptywheel says:

          You know, amid the discussion of the shoot down, I keep thinking back to the many ridiculous incidents of 1) censoring otherwise obvious sat stuff, 2) egregious contracting problems with it, and 3) equally egregious revolving door.

          So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised the satellite doesn’t work.

  6. klynn says:


    There is also this:


    Remember..They are just saying they have not ruled it out. The investigation is not complete. There are three telecom conferences going on right now and two of them are addressing telecom cable security. SO it’s a timely topic and lots of talk is going on at the conferences. But the point about the depth of the cables was one I posted a while back. The causation of cable failure at great water depths is minimal and statistically low as well. Most breaks are in shallow to medium depths.

    If it is intentional, I still want to add Iran to the mix for this reason: Verizon carried most of Iran and lost all of it to a Chinese Telecom as Iran worked to reroute. Some areas were picked up by BT as well…Iran wants to rage a war on the dollar(among their other visions). Additionally, the number of cable deals struck the following week is astonishing. Many buyers who were “on the fence” suddenly came out of the woodwork and ponied up the $$$ for new deals – a few which were about to fall flat…Not one US telecom in any of these large deals…

    None of the telecom security organizations nor ICPC has released any data or investigation results as of yet. FLAG continues to not post the results of their investigation -they claim it is ongoing…

  7. selise says:

    Adding a “monitoring device” would be real obvious when the cable was brought to the surface.

    no reason it would be brought up in the same location, is there?

    • MadDog says:

      no reason it would be brought up in the same location, is there?

      In a “single cut” scenario, to fix the cable cut, yes.

      If it was the “double cut” scenario, then the 2nd cut where the device was attached would never see the light of day.

    • freepatriot says:

      after you cut the cable, and it goes dead, you can cut it somewhere else and attach the aforementioned doohickies.

      when the cable is repaired and running, nobody knows you added the doohickies somewhere else

      but you can’t just cut the cable and add the doohickies

      they gotta be added during an interruption caused by something else

      but it don’t make much sense to cut FIVE CABLES in the same week

      then again, when did the intelligence community try to make sense

      I know what the CIA does. A bunch of crazy shit; stuff that doesn’t make any sense, stuff that nobody would ever believe. That way, if a guy like me gets caught, he tells the police a story nobdy would ever believe

      Danny Aeillo, from the flik “Ruby”

      so you can never really be sure what’s going on

      I exsist, therefore I am. I’ll concede that much. But all the rest of you could be a figment of my imagination …

  8. freepatriot says:

    I was really glad this cable issue came up

    until this happened, my phone went out every time it rained

    then I started asking the service people who were supposed to be providing me with “excellent service” how the FUCK the rain could knock out my service if they lay phone cables under the fucking ocean

    they didn’t really have an answer to that …

    so they fixed my phone

    just so everyone knows that some good came of this issue allready

    anderson cooper timed Obama

    44 AND ONE HALF MINUTES, Obama, you bastard


    now we’re hearing about “speech etiquettes”

    it’s so funny it burns

    make em stop …

  9. JohnLopresti says:

    It is difficult to imagine the advantage of disrupting the debut of the Iran oil stock exchange and its non USD denomination plan, but one abstruse website holds forth on that theory, seemingly similar to the economically inclined commenter, above. I agree with the engineering review of one writer, above; diagnostics are fairly explicit in fiber, from either side of a break, as well as from built in splices, as cuts cause echoes and other waveform aberrations; yet, perhaps even surreptitious splice technology has improved in the years since I studied the technology.

  10. WilliamOckham says:

    I would argue that the documents released in the Nacchio trial make it clear that the U.S. doesn’t need to install physical taps when we can control the switches. If we did it, it was done to force traffic through switches we control. I don’t buy the idea that we wanted force somebody to go dark. There is too much redundancy built into the network to affect any serious player (one worth cutting cables to affect).

    I keep trying to figure out if the Russians had a motive. This seems more their style than ours.

    • emptywheel says:

      Though the cuts did, in fact, make both Pakistan and Egypt lose over 70% of their capability. Both countries we might want to make go dark. Both countries in which Islamic extremists are the marginal users of telecom services, the ones that would be first cut and last restored in the event of a severe cut in capabilities country-wide.

      Except for OBL’s sat phone. That would have remained functional.

  11. WilliamOckham says:

    Even when you lose 70% of capacity, there are always ways for the determined to stay in touch. The folks I work with who have family in Pakistan didn’t have any problems staying in touch.

  12. felixculpa says:

    Hey, the US dinosaur is sinking under its own weight; the center doesn’t hold. The three events could be incidental results of the cut; they suggest the loss of US grip.

  13. JohnJ says:

    You can rule out any need to cut the cables to tap into them. That went away with copper wires and mechanical switches.

    • freepatriot says:

      You can rule out any need to cut the cables to tap into them. That went away with copper wires and mechanical switches.

      fiber optics, no ???

      and I presume you would just tap the repeaters-splitters-routers (whatever the fuck they are). You wouldn’t need to tap-cut the cable if you already had access to one of the “whatever-they-are” thingys

      but there are some things that require a complete shutdown of the system

      I was at a community college while they were converting to fiber optics, and there were a couple of times when we couldn’t log on to the “localnet” cuz of some weird shit they were doing-attaching-adding

      from what I know of fiber optics (not much), to steal dat from outside a cable, you would need a pretty sensitive radar to read the individual frequencies of each fiber. It’s pulses of light, which doesn’t create much magnetic force to be read fiber optics also use different spectrums-colors for multiple simultaneous data streams You would have to sort the different colors in each thread of fiber within the cable

      stuff like that would be better done at the source. from the outside of the cable, the different threads of fiber would be hard to separate. how could you be sure what goes to what ???

      but I could be wrong

      • JohnJ says:

        Now you just do the tap in parallel then switch the patched cable in in a microsecond or two. Actually, you just program the switch to do a parallel route. The hardware is designed for that kind of switching. It is part of the fault tolerant design. Most of the service down stuff today would be software changes with the need to reboot.

        It is much easier and effective to buy off the service provider since, by design he is already tapped in and filtering the data.

        I deleted a much longer post to explain this last night for fear of boring the crap out of the non hardware people.

        Tapping switched packet lines like phone and WAN is just done at any switch. The internet is very difficult to directly tap since there is no “path” the data takes. The data basically just enters a cloud of packets and is gathered as it hits the destination. Since the receiver removes the packet from the “cloud”, a tap into the backbone can never be sure of reading the packet first. That’s why you need the TELCOMS to tap into e-mail, they, by design, have to sift and capture data going to individual subscribers.

        That’s an extreme oversimplification, but illustrates the technology.

  14. Rayne says:

    EGYPT: Clampdown on Islamists ahead of elections | LA Times — Egyption elections are scheduled April 8th. (Was that a 60-day window in advance of elections from cable cut?)

    Egypt rounds up Palestinians to deport to Gaza | Africa – Reuters.com — Egypt is very unhappy with the blockade of Gaza, but they are also unable to accept the Palestinians fleeing Gaza.

    Beginning to wonder if the blockade is really an effort to foment discontent in Egypt; have there been any leaks of information pertinent to security issues or torture that the Bush administration doesn’t want leaked that might encourage certain entities to pursue a change in leadership in Egypt?

    Also wonder whether Verizon’s loss of routes due to the cable cuts wasn’t the point; perhaps Verizon was wavering too much with the political heat about PAA and FISA, making overseas communications providers more reliable sources for information?

  15. drational says:

    Maybe someone had a pressing need to remove existing monitoring devices, and was not into patching things back together?

    Any way to exclude the communications of US persons from a theoretical tap on those cables?

    What was the name of the US contractor that laid the cables?

  16. prostratedragon says:

    Was that a 60-day window in advance of elections from cable cut?

    Just about, now that you mention it: 1/23, 1/30, 2/1, 2/3-4. Of course, some commenters around here thought of Egypt, tho’ not necessarilty the elections, right away, as the Gaza uprising was still hot. Egypt has been mentioned as a top rendiition destination at least since Abu Omar, but some of the recent news has freshened it up probably a lot from the perspective of Egyptian readers. But there are so/too many possibilities.

    Here’s a thing on another topic. The UK govt is on the verge of nationalizing the failed bank Northern Rock. The banking industry and financial ptb in the US govt are twisting themselves into all sorts of unseemly poses(!) trying to keep alive the fiction that nothing beyond an ordinary sort of crunch is going on (”…and he went and did a silly thing. …), while controlling the flow of information out of these banks and financial creations as much as possible. What might happen here if the center cannot hold?

    Nationalizing at least some of our banks might sound like an idea to take seriously in view of the last 30 years of their history until you then consider, shall we say, the resulting dynamics.

    • Rayne says:

      Yeah, about the banks…

      Did we miss that Abu Dhabi became the largest shareholder of Citigroup in late November?

      How is it that stock acquisitions of this size that impact overall ownership of a financial corporation the size of Citigroup never make it to CFIUS review?

      I suspect that the reason for all the communications hijinx has a lot less to do with banking than military-political targets if this Abu Dhabi transaction could happen without any scrutiny, in the open.

      • emptywheel says:

        I’ve pointed to it a couple of times before. In the 1970s and 1980s, it took a great deal of fraud to let outsides (including some with ties to terrorism) to take over our banks and therefore set up graft and money laundering in the US. Now, our top banks are available for a song.

        • Rayne says:

          My bad — I don’t remember the Abu Dhabi purchase. It’s not unlike the recent acquisition of a nursing home chain in our state by Carlyle Group; doesn’t qualify as a change in ownership event, no notification required by the parties involved, since it was a stock transfer. Ugh.

          That the ports sale never did get the full amount of attention it deserved should have been a warning to us that they’d go further with acquisitions of infrastructure, in this case financial. I’m still waiting for somebody to get riled up over the change of NYSE’s ownership…nothing but crickets chirping for almost a year.

  17. JTMinIA says:

    WRT the idea that you wouldn’t cut five cables at the same time if you were using the disruption to install “doohickies”: why not? The M$M has been fantastic at marginalizing “conspiracy” theories, making it harder and harder for these ideas to get any traction. So you go ahead and cut five at once, let the theories loose (as we are doing here), and then make fun of the theories when the cables show no sign of doohickies at the location of the cut.

    By the time the idea that the doohickies were installed elsewhere makes it to the street, it will look like a desperate attempt to save face by the “conspiracy” theorists, which will immunize the public against the idea. In other words, by controlling the timing of when the ideas come out, the M$M can virtually guarantee that the public won’t believe it.

    If you want a recent example of this, go back and look at the proportion of stories that were about Bldg 7 at various points in time. The M$M did mention a few “conspiracy” theories about the towers, but avoided any mention of Bldg 7 until the general public was fully immunized by raised and shot-down straw-man theories about the towers.

    In short: I see cutting five at once as being completely consistent with a cover for installing doohickies elsewhere. You invite misplaced or easily refuted theories, so the theorists will be too embarrassed to keep banging away on the real possibility.

    • JohnJ says:

      I worked for a guy that never heard a conspiracy theory he didn’t believe. I don’t work for him anymore b/c he told one of the top Anesthesiologists, our client, that the AMA had hit squads that killed anyone that got close to a cure for cancer. For some strange reason, the contract got pulled and went elsewhere. And this is the engineer that invented the way that we talk to 50watt transmitters a few million miles away on space probes. I was telling him one day about watching “Stargate” on Sci-Fi and he claimed it was all true!

      Now my own tidbit.
      A friend of mine, a preacher with his own little church and a day job was telling me about his daughter. She spent her whole college education targeted to becoming an FBI agent. She quit the FBI a little over a year after she stated in early 2001. It seems that she said the whole top of the FBI and Secret Service was running around worried about where to put Chimpy on 9/11, two week BEFORE 9/11. That was why he was down with his brother in Florida (even a terrorist wouldn’t attack an elementary school). I tried to get her to talk one day by telling her about my ex-FBI parents and she just left the room.

      Make what you will of THAT!

      Also from my ex-boss:
      Cell phone towers have government mind control devices on all of them, the problem; smoking pot immunizes you against that control so it needs to be stamped out. I think the Gray aliens told him that, or his reincarnated Egyptian Princess wife (interesting that the slaves are never reincarnated) channeled it one day. I don’t know which.

      It’s like UFO research, there is so much weird crap out there that it’s hard to find credible evidence that doesn’t get tainted by crackpots.

        • freepatriot says:

          Let us all insure that our minds can’t be controlled then

          got that one covered

          they can’t control my mind

          I can’t even control my mind

          took me 40 years to learn to control my mouth …

          and my mind still occasionally slips some stuff past my mouth’s monitoring system when I ain’t lookin …


  18. JohnJ says:

    Geeze, I think I set a personal record: I count 8 grammar errors in my last 2 posts. I am not even going to try to correct them. Sorry, not enough coffee yet.

  19. malcontent says:

    Whether it was installing doohickies or uninstalling doohickies there is obviously shenanigans afoot. It may be the USS Jimmy Carter, it may the the Russians who are pissed about new US missiles in Poland and it may be Mossad prepping for their new military offensive.

    All have motives in both directions, that is installing and uninstalling.

  20. Mary says:

    41 – that may be your personal best, but you aren’t even close to being in my league yet. *g*

    I wouldn’t really understand the long hardware post if you put it up, but I wouldn’t be bored by it.

    OK – on my conspiracy front, I’d say that IF the cut lines have to do with anything, then my guess on what they have to do with would be the assassination of Mughniyeh.

  21. klynn says:

    O/T …

    Credit Suisse and USB have released analyst reports which say this will not be the move to dent the dollar… But did so before they had their books cooked and had to write down more US credit…Just thought this was an interesting read…


  22. MrChip says:

    My theory is it was one of those Katrina dolphins that the military armed and trained, either we set it loose upon the cables on porpoise (get it;) or it escaped during the storm and did it for the sheer joy those evil mammals get from doing tricks. Either way it’s political embarrassing on a global scale.

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