In NYT’s Fictional Presentation, China Pioneered the “Collect It All” Strategy

Way down in the second-to-last paragraph of this NYT piece claiming the US will retaliate against China for the OPM hack, national security reporter David Sanger makes this claim about the hack, about experts affiliated with an agency that aspires to “Collect it all.”

Instead, the goal was espionage, on a scale that no one imagined before.

He follows it — he ends the entire article — with uncritical citation of this statement from a senior intelligence official.

“This is one of those cases where you have to ask, ‘Does the size of the operation change the nature of it?’ ” one senior intelligence official said. “Clearly, it does.”

Several paragraphs earlier, the reporter who did a lot of the most important work exposing the first-of-its-type StuxNet attack makes this claim. (NYLibertarian noted this earlier today.)

The United States has been cautious about using cyberweapons or even discussing it.

In other words, built into this story, written by a person who knows better, is a fiction about the US’ own aggressive spying and cyberwar. Sanger even suggests that the sensors we’ve got buried in Chinese networks exist solely to warn of attacks, and not to collect information just like that which China stole from OPM.

So if someone creating either a willful or lazy fiction also says this …

That does not mean a response will happen anytime soon — or be obvious when it does. The White House could determine that the downsides of any meaningful, yet proportionate, retaliation outweigh the benefits, or will lead to retaliation on American firms or individuals doing work in China. President Obama, clearly seeking leverage, has asked his staff to come up with a more creative set of responses.

… We’d do well to ask whether this is nothing more than propaganda, an effort to dissipate calls for a more aggressive response from Congress and others.

There is, however, one other underlying potential tension here. Yesterday, Aram Roston explained why some folks who work at NSA may be even more dissatisfied then they were when a contractor exposed their secrets for the world to see.

Employees at the National Security Agency complain that the director, Adm. Michael Rogers, is neglecting the intelligence agency in favor of his other job, running the military’s Cyber Command, three sources with deep knowledge of the NSA have told BuzzFeed News.

“He’s spending all his time at CYBERCOM,” one NSA insider said. “Morale is bad because of a lack of leadership.” A second source, who is close to the agency, agreed that employees are complaining that Rogers doesn’t seem to focus on leading the agency. A third said “there is that vibe going on. But I don’t know if it’s true.”

[snip]

[O]ne of the NSA sources said Rogers appears to be focusing on CYBERCOM not just because the new organization is growing rapidly but also because it has a more direct mission and simpler military structure than the complex and scandal-ridden NSA in its post-Snowden era. That makes focusing on CYBERCOM easier, that source said, “than trying to redesign the National Security Agency.”

If true (note one of Roston’s sources suggests it may not be), it suggests one of the most important advisors on the issue of how to respond to China’s pawning the US is institutionally limiting his focus to his offensive role, not on his information collection (to say nothing of defensive) role. So if Roston’s sources are correct, we are in a very dangerous position, having a guy who is neglecting other potential options drive the discussion about how to respond to the OPM hack.

And there’s one detail in Sanger’s story that suggests Roston’s sources may be right — where Rogers describes “creating costs” for China, but those costs consist of an escalation of what is, in fact, a two-sided intelligence bonanza.

Admiral Rogers stressed the need for “creating costs” for attackers responsible for the intrusion,

Those of us without the weapons Rogers has at his disposal think of other ways of “creating costs” — of raising the costs on the front end, to make spies adopt a more targeted approach to their spying. Those methods, too, might be worth considering in this situation. If we’re going to brainstorm about how to deal with the new scenario where both the world’s major powers have adopted a bulk collection approach, maybe the entire world would be safer thinking outside the offensive weapon box?

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.

9 replies
  1. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Sanger is nothing but a mouthpiece for the government. This is proven by his repeated false allegations regarding Iran going back many years. He’s nearly as bad as Judy Miller in the run up to the Iraq war.

  2. orionATL says:

    “… “He’s spending all his time at CYBERCOM,” one NSA insider said. “Morale is bad because of a lack of leadership.” A second source, who is close to the agency, agreed that employees are complaining that Rogers doesn’t seem to focus on leading the agency. A third said “there is that vibe going on. But I don’t know if it’s true…”

    this is no more than the natural bureaucratic whining one would expect from a group within nsa (the non-military spies) that had received attention and money galore for 15 years, not to mention receiving dispensation from following constitutional mandates and normal decency in international realations.

    the domestic spying brats at nsa are sending anonymous public messages and generally indulging in chracteristic bureaucratic tactics designed to change or undermine roger’s present goals.

    what is there of wisdom about anything this non-military part of nsa has done that they should be listened to now in our latest national security psuedo-crisis ? where were these cyber monkies when the u.s. was stealing trade secrets, spreading duqu and stuxnet, engaging in monumental and monumentally ineffective domestic spying, spying on leaders of allies, on trade negotiations, on banking regulation ?

    we, or admiral rogers, should be listening closely to these assholes now ?

    just why ?

  3. Mick Savage says:

    “This is one of those cases where you have to ask, ‘Does the size of the operation change the nature of it?’ ” one senior intelligence official said. “Clearly, it does.”

    Yes Virginia, size matters. Idiots. Stuxnet anyone?

  4. bloopie2 says:

    Do these reporters operate under a “publish or perish” dictum? I mean, if the guy hasn’t met in an underground garage with a source lately, what is he going to write about to meet his weekly quota or get fired? NYT will never punish him for stenography, so in that case, why not? Would you do it to feed your family?

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