The Curious Silence about the Mostly Unremarked Russian BGP Hijack

These days, it seems that NYT-approved columnists and self-appointed THREADsters can start a conspiracy theory about anything just by slapping the label “Russia” on it. Which is why I find it so curious that the BGP hijack last week of a bunch of finance companies (and some other interesting targets) by Russian telecom Rostelecom has gone generally unnoticed, except by Ars’ Dan Goodin.

Here’s a great description of what the Border Gateway Protocol is — and why it’s ripe for hijacking.

Such is the story of the “three-napkins protocol,” more formally known as Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP.

At its most basic level, BGP helps routers decide how to send giant flows of data across the vast mesh of connections that make up the Internet. With infinite numbers of possible paths — some slow and meandering, others quick and direct — BGP gives routers the information they need to pick one, even though there is no overall map of the Internet and no authority charged with directing its traffic.

The creation of BGP, which relies on individual networks continuously sharing information about available data links, helped the Internet continue its growth into a worldwide network. But BGP also allows huge swaths of data to be “hijacked” by almost anyone with the necessary skills and access.

The main reason is that BGP, like many key systems on the Internet, is built to automatically trust users — something that may work on smaller networks but leaves a global one ripe for attack.

As BGPstream first noted, the data streams for 37 entities were rerouted by Rostelecom manually last Wednesday for a 6 minute period.

Starting at April 26 22:36 UTC till approximately 22:43 UTC AS12389 (PJSC Rostelecom) started to originate 50 prefixes for numerous other Autonomous systems. The 50 hijacked prefixes included 37 unique autonomous systems

The victims include Visa, Mastercard, Verisign, and Symantec.

Oh — and according to BGPmon, the victims also include Alfa bank — the bank that got mentioned in Christopher Steele’s dossier, that had some weird behavior involving a Trump marketing server last summer, and one of two banks for which the FBI allegedly got a FISA order as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election.

BGPmon provides one possible innocent explanation (which is, in fact, the analogue of the innocent explanation offered for the Alfa-Trump traffic): it could be BGP advertising gone wrong.

It’s also worth noting that at the same time as the hijacks we did see many (78) new advertisements originated by 12389 for prefixes by ‘other’ Rostelecom telecom ASns (29456,21378,13056,13118,8570). So something probably went wrong internally causing Rostelecom to start originating these new prefixes.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by… well let’s say an innocent misconfiguration. If this was in-fact an attempt to on purpose redirect traffic for some of these financial institutions, it was done in a very visible and large scale manner, so from that perspective perhaps not too likely. Then again, given the number of high value prefixes of all the same category (financial institutions and credit card processors) it seems a bit more than an innocent accidental hijack, especially considering the fact that new more specific prefixes were introduced.

But Goodin provides some reasons why the hijack should be treated with suspicion. First, Rostelcom — the company that hijacked this traffic — is considered an official Russian government entity.

According to shareholder information provided by Rostelecom, the Russian government owns 49 percent of the telecom’s ordinary shares. The US Department of Commerce lists Rostelecom as a state-owned enterprise and reports that one or more senior government officials have seats on Rostelecom’s board of directors. Rostelecom officials didn’t respond to e-mail seeking comment for this post.

He  cites Dyn’s Doug Madory explaining why the targeted nature of this hijack should rouse suspicion.

“I would classify this as quite suspicious,” Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at network management firm Dyn, told Ars. “Typically accidental leaks appear more voluminous and indiscriminate. This would appear to be targeted to financial institutions. A typical cause of these errors [is] in some sort of internal traffic engineering, but it would seem strange that someone would limit their traffic engineering to mostly financial networks.”

As Goodin notes, and as I have before, one reason an entity (especially a government) might want to hijack traffic is to make it cross a router where it has the ability to collect it for spying purposes. That process was described in some presentations from an NSA hacker that the Intercept published last year.

As Goodin notes, given that the victims here should be presumed to be using the best encryption, it would take some work for Rostelecom to obtain the financial and other data in the traffic it hijacked.

Such interception or manipulation would be most easily done to data that wasn’t encrypted, but even in cases when it was encrypted, traffic might still be decrypted using attacks with names such as Logjam and DROWN, which work against outdated transport layer security implementations that some organizations still use.

Madory said that even if data couldn’t be decrypted, attackers could potentially use the diverted traffic to enumerate what parties were initiating connections to MasterCard and the other affected companies. The attacker could then target those parties, which may have weaker defenses.

But there’s at least one other reason someone might hijack traffic. If you were able to pull traffic off of switches you knew to be accessible to an adversary that was spying on you, you might succeed in detasking that spying, even if only for 6 minutes.

One of my all-time favorite Snowden disclosures revealed that the NSA was forced to detask from some IRGC Yahoo accounts because they were being spammed and the data was flooding NSA’s systems. That happened at precisely the moment that the FBI was trying to catch some IRGC figures in trying to assassinate then Saudi Ambassador to the US (and current Foreign Secretary) Adel al-Jubeir, which I find to be a mighty interesting coinkydink.

This hypothetically could be something similar: a very well-timed effort to thwart surveillance by making it inaccessible to the switches from which the NSA was collecting it (though honestly, it would take some doing to pull traffic off all collection points accessible to the NSA, and I’m not even sure that would be possible for transatlantic traffic).

Don’t get me wrong. Accidental or not, this was a foot-stomping event. I’m sure the competent and responsible authorities at both the victim companies and the NSA have taken notice of this event, and are working to understand why it happened and if anything was compromised by it.

But I find it striking that the thousands of people spending all their time fervently creating conspiracies where none exist have not even noticed this event which, whatever it explains it, was a real event, and one involving the bank that has been at the center of so many real and imagined conspiracies.

I Con the Record Transparency Bingo (4): How 151 Million Call Events Can Look Reasonable But Is Besides the Point

Other entries in I Con the Record Transparency Bingo:

(1) Only One Positive Hit on a Criminal Search

(2): The Inexplicable Drop in PRTT Numbers

(3): CIA Continues to Hide Its US Person Network Analysis

If your understanding of the phone dragnet replacing the old USA Freedom dragnet came from the the public claims of USA Freedom Act boosters or from this NYT article on the I Con the Record report, you might believe 42 terrorist suspects and their 3,150 friends made 48,000 phone calls last year, which would work out to 130 calls a day … or maybe 24,000 perfectly duplicative calls, which works out to about 65 calls a day.

That’s the math suggested by these two entries in the I Con the Record Transparency Report — showing that the 42 targets of the new phone dragnet generated over 151 million “call detail records.” But as I’ll show, the impact of the 151 million [corrected] records collected last year is in some ways far lower than collecting 65 calls a day, which is a good thing! But it supports a claim that USAF has an entirely different function than boosters understood.

 

Here’s the math for assuming these are just phone calls. There were 42 targets approved for use in the new phone dragnet for some part of last year. Given the data showing just 40 orders, they might only be approved for six months of the year (each order lasts for 180 days), but we’ll just assume the NSA gets multiple targets approved with each order and that all 42 targets were tasked for the entirety of last year (for example, you could have just two orders getting 42 targets approved to cover all these people for a year).

In its report on the phone dragnet, PCLOB estimated that each target might have 75 total contacts. So a first round would collect on 42 targets, but with a second round you would be collecting on 3,192 people. That would mean each of those 3,192 people would be responsible for roughly 48,000 calls a year, every single one of which might represent a new totally innocent American sucked into NSA’s maw for the short term [update: that would be up to a total of 239,400 2nd-degree interlocutors]. The I Con the Record report says that, “the metric provided is over‐inclusive because the government counts each record separately even if the government receives the same record multiple times (whether from one provider or multiple providers).” If these were phone calls between just two people, then if our terrorist buddies only spoke to each other, each would be responsible for 24,000 calls a year, or 65 a day, which is certainly doable, but would mean our terrorist suspects and their friends all spent a lot of time calling each other.

The number becomes less surprising when you remember that even with traditional telephony call records can capture calls and texts. All of a sudden 65 becomes a lot more doable, and a lot more likely to have lots of perfectly duplicative records as terrorists and their buddies spend afternoons texting back and forth with each other.

Still, it may mean that 65 totally innocent people a day get sucked up by NSA.

All that said, there’s no reason to believe we’re dealing just with texts and calls.

As the report reminds us, we’re actually talking about session identifying information, which in the report I Con the Record pretends are “commonly referred to” as “call events.”

Call Detail Records (CDR) – commonly referred to as “call event metadata” – may be obtained from telecommunications providers pursuant to 50 U.S.C. §1861(b)(2)(C). A CDR is defined as session identifying information (including an originating or terminating telephone number, an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, or an International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number), a telephone calling card number, or the time or duration of a call. See 50 U.S.C. §1861(k)(3)(A). CDRs do not include the content of any communication, the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer, or cell site location or global positioning system information. See 50 U.S.C. §1861(k)(3)(B). CDRs are stored and queried by the service providers. See 50 U.S.C. §1861(c)(2).

Significantly, this parenthesis — “(including an originating or terminating telephone number, an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, or an International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number)” — suggests that so long as something returns a phone number, a SIM card number, or a handset number, that can be a “call event.” That is, a terrorist using his cell phone to access a site, generating a cookie, would have the requisite identifiers for his phone as well as a time associated with it. And I Con the Record’s transparency report says it is collecting these “call event” records from “telecommunications” firms, not phone companies, meaning a lot more kinds of things might be included — certainly iMessage and WhatsApp, possibly Signal. Indeed, that’s necessarily true given repeated efforts in Congress to get a list of all electronic communications service providers company that don’t keep their “call records” 18 months and to track any changes in retention policies. It’s also necessarily true given Marco Rubio’s claim that we’re sending requests out to a “large and significant number of companies” under the new phone dragnet.

The fine print provides further elements that suggest both that the 151 million events collected last year are not that high. First, it suggests a significant number of CDRs fail validation at some point in the process.

This metric represents the number of records received from the provider(s) and stored in NSA repositories (records that fail at any of a variety of validation steps are not included in this number).

At one level, this means NSA’s results resulted in well more than 151 million events collected. But it also means they may be getting junk. One thing that in the past might have represented a failed validation is if the target no longer uses the selector, though the apparent failure at multiple levels suggests there may be far more interesting reasons for failed validation, some probably technically more interesting.

In addition, the fine print notes that the 151 million call events include both historical events collected with the first order as well as the prospective events collected each day.

CDRs covered by § 501(b)(2)(C) include call detail records created before, on, or after the date of the application relating to an authorized investigation.

So these events weren’t all generated last year — if they’re from AT&T they could have been generated decades ago. Remember that Verizon and T-Mobile agreed to a handshake agreement to keep their call records two years as part of USAF, so for major providers providing just traditional telephony, a request will include at least two years of data, plus the prospective collection. That means our 3,192 targets and friends might only have had 48 calls or texts a day, without any duplication.

Finally, there’s one more thing that suggests this huge number isn’t that huge, but that also it may be a totally irrelevant measure of the privacy impact. In NSA’s document on implementing the program from last year, it described first querying the NSA Enterprise Architecture to find query results, and then sending out selectors for more data.

Once the one-hop results are retrieved from the NSA’s internal holdings, the list of FISC-approved specific selection terms, along with NSA’s internal one-hop results, are submitted to the provider(s).

In other words — and this is a point that was clear about the old phone dragnet but which most people simply refused to understand — this program is not only designed to interact seamlessly with EO 12333 collected data (NSA’s report says so explicitly, as did the USAF report), but many of the selectors involved are already in NSA’s maw.

Under the old phone dragnet, a great proportion of the phone records in question came from EO 12333. NSA preferred then — and I’m sure still prefers now — to rely on queries run on EO 12333 because they came with fewer limits on dissemination.

Which means we need to understand the 65 additional texts — or anything else available only in the US from a large number of electronic communications service providers that might be deemed a session identifier — a day from 42 terrorists and their 3150 buddies on top of the vast store of EO 12333 records that form the primary basis here.

Because (particularly as the rest of the report shows continually expanding metadata analysis and collection) this is literally just the tip of an enormous iceberg, 151 million edge cases to a vast sea of data.

Update: Charlie Savage, who has a really thin skin, wrote me an email trying to dispute this post. In the past, his emails have almost universally devolved into him being really defensive while insisting over and over that stuff I’ve written doesn’t count as reporting (he likes to do this, especially, with stuff he claims a scoop for three years after I’ve written about it). So I told him I would only engage publicly, which he does here.

Fundamentally, Charlie disputes whether Section 215 is getting anything that’s not traditional telephony (he says my texts point is “likely right,” apparently unaware that a document he obtained in FOIA shows an issue that almost certainly shows they were getting texts years ago). Fair enough: the law is written to define CDRs as session identifiers, not telephony calls; we’ll see whether the government is obtaining things that are session identifiers. The I Con the Record report is obviously misleading on other points, but Charlie relies on language from it rather than the actual law. Charlie ignores the larger point, that any discussion of this needs to engage with how Section 215 requests interact with EO 12333, which was always a problem with the reporting on the topic and remains a problem now.

So, perhaps I’m wrong that it is “necessarily” the case that they’re getting non-telephony calls. The law is written such that they can do so (though the bill report limits it to “phone companies,” which would make WhatsApp but not iMessage a stretch).

What’s remarkable about Charlie’s piece, though, is that he utterly and completely misreads this post, “About half” of which, he says, “is devoted to showing how the math to generate 151 million call events within a year is implausible.”

The title of this post says, “151 Million Call Events Can Look Reasonable.” I then say, “But as I’ll show, the impact of the 131 [sic, now corrected] million records collected last year is in some ways far lower than collecting 65 calls a day, which is a good thing!” I then say, “The number becomes less surprising when you remember that even with traditional telephony call records can capture calls and texts. All of a sudden 65 becomes a lot more doable, and a lot more likely to have lots of perfectly duplicative records as terrorists and their buddies spend afternoons texting back and forth with each other.” I go on to say, “The fine print provides further elements that suggest both that the 151 million events collected last year are not that high.” I then go on to say, “So these events weren’t all generated last year — if they’re from AT&T they could have been generated decades ago.”

That is, in the title, and at least four times after that, I point out that 151 million is not that high. Yet he claims that my post aims to show that the math is implausible, not totally plausible.  (He also seems to think I’ve not accounted for the duplicative nature of this, which is curious, since I quote that and incorporate it into my math.)

In his email, I noted that this post replied not just to him, but to others who were alarmed by the number. I said specifically with regards the number, “yes, you were among the people I subtweeted there. But not the only one and some people did take this as just live calls. It’s not all about you, Charlie.”

Yet having been told that that part of the post was not a response to him, Charlie nevertheless persisted in completely misunderstanding the post.

I guess he still believed it was all about him.

Maybe Charlie should spend his time reading the documents he gets in FOIA more attentively rather than writing thin-skinned emails assuming everything is about him?

Update: Once I pointed out that Charlie totally misread this post he told me to go back on my meds.

Since he’s being such a douche, I’ll give you two more pieces of background. First, after I said that I knew CIA wasn’t tracking metadata (because it’s all over public records), Charlie suggested he knew better.

Here’s me twice pointing out that the number of call events was not (just) calls (as he had claimed in his story), a point he mostly concedes in his response.

Here’s the lead of his story:

What Queries of Metadata Derived from Upstream Data Might Include

In this post, I explained that at virtually the exact moment the NSA shut down the PRTT dragnet in 2011, FISC permitted it to start querying metadata derived from upstream collection. After that happened, it started distinguishing between data that was “handled” according to minimization procedures and data that was “processed” before being intelligible.

In this post, I want to talk about what we can learn about metadata derived from FAA 702 from the opinion that authorized it and this document which based on the date, I assume pertains at least to upstream 702 derived metadata (from which the two kinds of MCTs most likely to include domestic communications would be excluded).

First, assuming that this querying document does include upstream, then it means that entirely domestic communications might be included in the querying. The opinion allows,

NSA to copy metadata from Internet transactions that are not subject tosegregation pursuant to Section 3(b) without first complying with the other rules for handlingnon-segregated transactions – i.e., without ruling out that the metadata pertained to a discretewholly domestic communication or to a discrete non-target communication to or from a U.S.person or a person inside the United States.

This means that after the data comes in to NSA and the two types of metadata most likely to include domestic MCTs are segregated, it can be made available to metadata analysis. The NSA prevented queries of segregated data via technical means.

NSA’s technical implementation will ensure that USP metadata queries of FAA 702 collection will only run against communications metadata derived from FAA 702 [redacted] and telephony collection.

The document stated that “NSA’s Technical Directorate (TD) continues to work to implement this requirement.” It’s not clear whether that language dates to December 16, 2011, when it was first written, or to August 19, 2013, when it was most recently revised.

Yet even assuming that technical protection occurred, there would still be Americans in the pool. According to John Bates’ estimate from the same year, there might be 46,000 domestic communications in there that ended up in the batch because the domestic communication that made mention of targeted selector transited internationally, which led them to get caught in filters supposedly targeted at international traffic.

The opinion mandates that, if after doing the analysis, the analyst realizes she has a completely domestic communication, she has to destroy it (though that requirement would get softer the next year). But a footnote also reveals that the means of determining if a selector was American was not failsafe.

NSA will rely on an algorithm and/or a business rule to identify queries of communications metadata derived from the FAA 702 [redacted] and telephony collection that start with a United States person identifier. Neither method will identify those queries that start with a United States person identifier with 100 percent accuracy.

Moreover, in an apparent bid to have this querying process interact relatively seamlessly with Special Procedures Communications Metadata Analysis (SPCMA — a way to query EO 12333 metadata incorporating US person identifiers), the standards were lackadaisical. As with SPCMA, an analyst had to come up with a foreign intelligence justification, but that’s just a “memory aid” in case the analyst gets questioned about it “long after the fact” in a fact check. Analysts don’t have to seek approval before they use a particular selector to query and they’re not required to attach any supporting documentation for their justification (this was in 2013, so requirements may be stronger in the wake of the PCLOB report). And SPCMA training is considered adequate to query metadata derived from 702.

In other words (again, assuming this pertains to upstream querying), there are several risks: that US person data will get thrown in the mix, that it won’t get identified by an algorithm as such, and so that that query result will lead to further spying on a US person without getting destroyed.

Still, as made clear, the alternative is SPCMA, which offers even fewer protections than 702 querying.

One more thought: the NSA report on the aftermath of Bates’ upstream decision (and the implementation of the 2012 certificates) revealed the PRISM providers incurred cost with the transition between certificates. It’s actually quite possible that the upstream metadata queries would come to constitute a critical part of the targeting process, effectively identifying what Goole or Yahoo content might be of interest at the metadata stage, only then to submit that to the provider for the content. If that’s true, it would be somewhat easy to end up targeting a US person for content collection via such upstream searches (though that presumably would be captured in the post-targeting process).

Why Susan Rice May Be a Shiny Object

A bunch of Republican propagandists are outraged that the press isn’t showing more interest in PizzaGate Mike Cernovich’s “scoop” that the woman in charge of ensuring our national security under President Obama, then National Security Advisor Susan Rice, sought to fully understand the national security intercepts she was being shown.

There are two bases for their poutrage, which might have merit — but coming from such hacks, may not.

The first is the suggestion, based off Devin Nunes’ claim (and refuted by Adam Schiff) that Rice unmasked things she shouldn’t have. Thus far, the (probably illegally) leaked details — such as that family members, perhaps like Jared Kushner (who met with an FSB officer turned head of a sanctioned Russian bank used as cover for other spying operations), Sean Hannity (who met with an already-targeted Julian Assange at a time he was suspected of coordinating with Russians), and Erik Prince (who has literally built armies for foreign powers) got spied on — do nothing but undermine Nunes’ claims. All the claimed outrageous unmaskings actually seem quite justifiable, given the accepted purpose for FISA intercepts.

The other suggestion — and thus far, it is a suggestion, probably because (as I’ll show) it’s thus far logically devoid of evidence — is that because Rice asked to have the names of people unmasked, she must be the person who leaked the contents of the intercepts of Sergey Kislyak discussing sanctions with Mike Flynn. (Somehow, the propagandists always throw Ben Rhodes’ name in, though it’s not clear on what basis.)

Let me start by saying this. Let’s assume those intercepts remained classified when they were leaked. That’s almost certain, but Obama certainly did have the authority to declassify them, just as either George Bush or Dick Cheney allegedly used that authority to declassify Valerie Plame’s ID (as some of these same propagandists applauded back in the day). But assuming the intercepts did remain classified, I agree that it is a problem that they were leaked by nine different sources to the WaPo.

But just because Rice asked to unmask the identities of various Trump (and right wing media) figures doesn’t mean she and Ben Rhodes are the nine sources for the WaPo.

That’s because the information on Flynn may have existed in a number of other places.

Obviously, Rice could not have been the first person to read the Flynn-Kislyak intercepts. That’s because some analyst(s) would have had to read them and put them into a finished report (most, but not all, of Nunes’ blathering comments about these reports suggest they were finished intelligence). Assuming those analysts were at NSA (which is not at all certain) someone would have had to have approved the unmasking of Flynn’s name before Rice saw it.

In addition, it is possible — likely even, at least by January 2017, when we know people were asking why Russia didn’t respond more strongly to Obama’s hacking sanctions — that there were two other sets of people who had access to the raw intelligence on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak: the CIA and, especially, the FBI, which would have been involved in any FISA-related collection. Both CIA and FBI can get raw data on topics they’re working on. Likely, in this case, the multi-agency task force was getting raw collection related to their Russian investigation.

And as I’ve explained, as soon as FBI developed a suspicion that either Kislyak was at the center of discussions on sanctions or that Flynn was an unregistered agent of multiple foreign powers, the Special Agents doing that investigation would routinely pull up everything in their databases on those people by name, which would result in raw Title I and 702 FISA collection (post January 3, it probably began to include raw EO 12333 data as well).

So already you’re up to about 15 to 20 people who would have access to the raw intercepts, and that’s before they brief their bosses, Congress (though the Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff briefing, at least, was delayed a bit), and DOJ, all the way up to Sally Yates, who wanted to warn the White House. Jim Comey has suggested it is likely that the nine sources behind the WaPo story were among these people briefed secondarily on the intercepts. And it’s worth noting that David Ignatius, who first broke the story of Flynn’s chats with Kislyak but was not credited on the nine source story, has known source relationships in other parts of the government than the National Security Advisor, though he also has ties to Rice.

All of which is to say that the question of who leaked the contents of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak is a very different question from whether Susan Rice’s requests to unmask Trump associates’ names were proper or not. It is possible that Rice leaked the intercepts without declassifying them first. But it’s also possible that any of tens of other people did, most of whom would have a completely independent channel for that information.

And the big vulnerability is not — no matter what Eli Lake wants to pretend — the unmasking of individual names by the National Security Advisor. Rather, it’s that groups of investigators can access the same intelligence in raw form without a warrant tied to the American person in question.

Devin Nunes’ So-Called Bibi Netanyahu Precedent

Throughout his ongoing information operation to claim the Obama White House spied on the Trump transition team, Devin Nunes has pointed to what he claimed was a precedent: when, in December 2015, members of Congress suddenly copped on that their conversations with Bibi Netanyahu would get picked up incidentally. In his March 22 press conference, he explained,

We went through this about a year and a half ago as it related to members of Congress, if you may remember there was a report I think it was in the Wall Street Journal and but then we had to have we had a whole series of hearings and then we had to have changes made to how Congress is informed if members of Congress are picked up in surveillance and this looks it’s like very similar to that.

Eli Lake dutifully repeated it in the second of his three-post series pitching Nunes’ information operation.

A precedent to what may have happened with the Trump transition involved the monitoring of Israel’s prime minister and other senior Israeli officials. The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of 2015 that members of Congress and American Jewish groups were caught up in this surveillance and that the reports were sent to the White House. This occurred during a bitter political fight over the Iran nuclear deal. In essence the Obama White House was learning about the strategy of its domestic political opposition through legal wiretaps of a foreign head of state and his aides.

But Lake didn’t apparently think through what the implications of Nunes’ analogy — or the differences between the two cases.

Here’s the WSJ report and CBS and WaPo versions that aren’t paywalled. All make it very clear that Devin Nunes took the lead in worrying about his conversations with Bibi Netanyahu being sucked up (I don’t remember Republicans being as sympathetic when Jane Harman got sucked up in a conversation with AIPAC). They also describe that Obama’s WH, faced with the potential that their surveillance would be seen as spying on another branch of Congress, had the NSA take charge of the unmasking.

The administration believed that Israel had leaked information gleaned from spying on the negotiations to sympathetic lawmakers and Jewish American groups seeking to undermine the talks.

According to the Journal, when the White House learned that the NSA eavesdropping had collected communications with U.S. lawmakers, it feared being accused of spying on Congress and left it to the NSA to determine what information to share with the administration. The Journal said the NSA did not pass along the names of lawmakers or any of their personal attacks on White House officials.

That’s not to say they’d take the same approach here — indeed, Lake now claims, at  least, that Susan Rice requested some Trump officials’ names to be unmasked, distinguishing it from the Bibi case in that White House did not leave it up to NSA to decide what to unmask (though the underlying reporting makes the silly claim that Rice, Loretta Lynch, and John Brennan were among a very limited number of people who could request a name be unmasked).

The larger point is, even assuming the collection of conversations between your political opponents and a foreign government designed to undermine your executive branch authority was scandalous, it’d still fall under the very legitimate concern of separation of powers.

Yes, Trump’s aides are from a different party. But they are nevertheless part of the executive branch. And the entire basis of counterintelligence spying — the entire point of FISA — is to ensure that executive branch officials are not targeted by foreign countries to be spies, which is part of the reason Mike Flynn attracted attention (which is not to justify the leaking of that intercept). Add in the legitimate necessity to implement executive branch policy and this is a very different case than the Bibi case, even if you want to defend (as I do, to a point) Republican members of Congress collaborating with foreign governments to undermine Article II authorities.

Nunes’ imagined solution — from his March 22 White House press conference — is ever nuttier.

Q: You’ve said legal and incidental. That doesn’t sound like a proactive effort to spy.

Nunes: I would refer you to, we had a similar issue with members of Congress that were being picked up in incidental collection a little over a year ago, we had to spend a full year working with the DNI on the proper notification for members of Congress to be notified which comes through the Gang of Eight. I would refer you to that because it looks very similar to that, would be the best way I can describe it.

The ODNI current informs the Gang of Eight when members of Congress get spied on (which means claims that a lot of GOP candidates got spied on is likely hot air, but which also means that if Nunes were collected as a member of the transition team, he’d have been the first to learn of it). Which is an important protection for separation of powers, but which also enables corrupt members of Congress to not just learn they’re being surveilled but, potentially, to alert the foreign targets what channels we’re using.

Maybe Trump wants that standard applied to the executive branch, but if he adopts it, we’re going to have a leaking free for all. Not to mention, it would make it absolutely impossible for the government to protect against espionage related to elections.

Or perhaps Nunes is just saying something more simple. Perhaps Nunes is saying the “dozens” of intercepts where Trump officials had been unmasked (to the extent that’s true) disclosed Trump’s transition-period attempts to drum up a war with Iran at the behest of Israel. Perhaps the real stink here is that, in the very same days Mike Flynn was telling Russia sanctions would be loosened, Trump was publicly undermining US efforts to take a stand against Israeli illegal settlements.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is still about a belief that the Israelis should never be wiretapped.

Who Violated Their Designated Role: Ezra Cohen-Watnick or Susan Rice?

In the original version of the latest right wing claim — that Susan Rice requested that multiple incoming Trump figures’ names be unmasked in intercepts — Mike Cernovich describes the genesis of Devin Nunes’ concern this way:

The White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking after examining Rice’s document log requests. The reports Rice requested to see are kept under tightly-controlled conditions. Each person must log her name before being granted access to them.

Upon learning of Rice’s actions, H. R. McMaster dispatched his close aide Derek Harvey to Capitol Hill to brief Chairman Nunes.

But as Eli Lake — fresh off having apologized for letting Devin Nunes use him — tells the story, close Mike Flynn associate Ezra Cohen-Watnick discovered it and brought the discovery to the White House Counsel’s office, whereupon he was told to “end his own research” on unmasking.

The pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports as something like “U.S. Person One.”

The National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was conducting the review, according to two U.S. officials who spoke with Bloomberg View on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. In February Cohen-Watnick discovered Rice’s multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons in intelligence reports that related to Trump transition activities. He brought this to the attention of the White House General Counsel’s office, who reviewed more of Rice’s requests and instructed him to end his own research into the unmasking policy.

This repeats a claim Lake had made in his earlier apology post, which he presented as one detail in the NYT version of this story that was not accurate.

Another U.S. official familiar with the affair told me that one of the sources named in the article, former Defense Intelligence officer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, did not play a role in getting information to Nunes. This official said Cohen-Watnick had come upon the reports while working on a review of recent Justice Department rules that made it easier for intelligence officials to share the identities of U.S. persons swept up in surveillance. He turned them over to White House lawyers.

But it adds the detail that Cohen-Watnick had been told to stand down. That would explain why Lake and others would want to claim that Cohen-Watnick wasn’t involved in dealing all this to Nunes: because he had already been told not to pursue it further. If the multiple accounts saying he was involved in the hand-off to Nunes, it appears he did.

The WaPo’s version of this included a detail not included by the right wingers: that Cohen-Watnick went to John Eisenberg, not Don McGahn, with his “discovery.” Eisenberg is significantly responsible, dating back to when he was at DOJ, for ensuring that ordinary Americans would be sucked up in surveillance under PRISM. For him to be concerned about the legal unmasking of Americans’ identities (to the extent that did exist — and the record is still unclear whether it did) is laughable.

The timing of Cohen-Watnick’s research — dating back to February — intersects in interesting ways with the timeline in this March 14 Politico story of H.R. McMaster’s attempt to sideline him, which was overruled by Steven Bannon.

On Friday [March 10], McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday [March 12], and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

The House Intelligence Committee first asked NSA, CIA, and FBI for details on unmasking on March 15, the day after this story broke, at which point Nunes already knew of the White House effort. When Nunes first blew this up on March 22, he falsely claimed that that March 15 request had been submitted two weeks earlier.

It’s clear the right wing wants to shift this into Benghazi 2.0, attacking Susan Rice for activities that are, at least on the face of it, part of her job. But the only way the White House could be sure that she (or Ben Rhodes, who they’re also naming) were the ones to leak this would be to investigate not just those two, but also all the FBI (which would have access to this information without unmasking these names, which not a single one of these right wing scribes admit or even seem to understand). That is, the only way they could make credible, as opposed to regurgitated right wing propaganda accusations about leakers is to have spied even more inappropriately than they are accusing the Obama White House of doing.

Raw Versus Cooked: Could NSC Monitor FBI’s Investigation?

Multiple people,including Bart Gellman and Josh Marshall, are now arguing that the reason Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis found intercepts involving Trump’s people is that they were monitoring FBI’s investigation of the investigation.

I certainly think the Trump people would like to do that — and would be willing to stoop to that. I even believe that the response to the Russian hack last year had some counterintelligence problems, though probably not on the FBI side.

But there are some details that may limit how much the NSC can monitor the investigation.

First, Devin Nunes has always been very clear: the intercepts he was shown have nothing to do with Russia. That’s not, itself, determinative. After all, Cohen-Watnick and Ellis might have found a bunch of Russian intercepts, but only shared the non-Russian ones so Nunes could make a stink without being accused of endangering the investigation. Also, it’s possible that intercepts involving other countries — most notably Turkey, but there are other countries that might be even more interesting, including Ukraine or Syria — would impact any Russian investigation.

Also note that among the many things Nunes appears not to understand about surveillance is that there are two ways an American’s name can be visible outside the circle of analysts doing the initial review of them: their names can be put into finished intelligence reports that get circulated more broadly, with customers asking to have the name unmasked after the fact. Alternately, their names can be found off of subsequent searches of raw data. At the NSA and CIA, searches for US person content are somewhat controlled. At FBI they are not only not controlled, but they are routine even for criminal investigations. So if, say, General Flynn (or Paul Manafort) were under investigation for failing to register as a foreign agent, the FBI would routinely search their database of raw FISA material on his name. (These are the “back door searches” Ron Wyden has been screaming about for years, concerns which people like Devin Nunes have previously dismissed on national security grounds.) And we have every reason to believe that counterintelligence intercepts of Russians in the US are among the raw feeds that the FBI gets. So if Flynn had conversations with Russians (or Turks) in the US, we should assume that FBI saw them as a routine matter if Flynn became the subject of an investigation at all. We should also assume that the FBI did a search on every Sergey Kislyak intercept in their possession, so they will have read everything that got picked up, including all recorded calls with Trump aides.

On March 15, the House Intelligence Committee asked the NSA, CIA, and FBI for information on unmasking. I don’t believe that request asked about access to US person names on subsequent searches or raw material. Furthermore, at least as of last week, the FBI was not rushing to comply with that request. As I noted after the Jim Comey hearing before HPSCI, none of the Republicans concerned about these issues seemed to have any basic clue about FBI’s searches on raw data. If Nunes doesn’t know (and he appears not to), it’s unlikely Ellis knows, who was until this month Nunes’ aide.

But there’s one other thing that may prevent NSC from obtaining information about the investigation: FBI sometimes uses what are called “ad hoc databases” that include raw FISA data (and probably, post EO 12333 sharing rule changes, raw EO 12333 data) tied to particular investigations. It’s unclear what conditions might necessitate the use of an ad hoc database (see page 25ff for a discussion of them), but if security concerns would encourage their use, it would be likely to have one here, an investigation which Comey described as being so sensitive he delayed briefing the Gang of Four. Ad hoc databases are restricted to those working on investigations, and include specific records of those authorized to access the database. So if FBI were using an ad hoc database for this investigation, it would be even harder for the NSC to learn what they were looking at.

If the FBI’s investigation relies on raw intelligence — and it would be unfathomable that it does not, because it would probably receive the raw FISA data tied to such an investigation routinely, and EO 12333 sharing rules specifically envision the sharing of raw data associated with counterintelligence investigations — then the NSC’s access to finished intelligence reports would provide little insight into the investigation (Nunes was a bit unclear on whether that’s what he was looking at, but the entire premise of his complaints is that these were finished reports).

But while we’re worrying about whether and how Trump would monitor an investigation into his aides, remember that in 2002, Jay Bybee wrote a memo authorizing the sharing of grand jury information with the President and his close advisors including for counterintelligence investigations.

In addition, the Patriot Act recently amended 6(e) and Title III specifically to provide that matters involving foreign intelligence or counterintelligence or foreign intelligence information may be disclosed by any attorney for the government (and in the case of Title III, also by an investigative or law enforcement officer) to certain federal officials in order to assist those officials in carrying out their duties. Federal officials who are included within these provisions may include, for example, the President, attorneys within the White House Counsel’s Office, the President’s Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and officials within the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense.

[snip]

Although the new provision in Rule 6(e) permitting disclosure also requires that any disclosures be reported to the district court responsible for supervising the grand jury, we conclude that disclosures made to the President fall outside the scope of the reporting requirement contained in that amendment, as do related subsequent disclosures made to other officials on the President’s behalf.

In other words, Trump could demand that he — or his National Security Advisor! — get information on any grand jury investigations, including those covering counterintelligence cases. And no judge would be given notice of that.

With Jeff Sessions’ recusal, that’s far less likely to happen than it might have been. But understand that the Executive Branch believes that the President can learn about the happenings in grand jury investigations of the sort that might target his aides.

Update: additional details have been added to this post after it was first posted.

The Lesson Trump Has (Thus Far) Not Taught Us: Civilian Casualties

I have a confession.

There’s something I like about the Trump Administration.

It’s the way that his unpopularity taints long-standing policies or practices or beliefs, making people aware of and opposed to them in a way they weren’t when the same policies or beliefs were widely held under George Bush or Barack Obama. Many, though not all, of these policies or beliefs were embraced unquestioningly by centrists or even avowed leftists.

I’ve been keeping a running list in my mind, which I’ll begin to lay out here (I guess I’ll update it as I remember more).

  • Expansive surveillance
  • The presumption of regularity, by which courts and the public assume the Executive Branch operates in good faith and from evidence
  • Denigration of immigrants
  • Denigration of Muslims
  • Denigration health insurance

As an example, Obama deported a huge number of people. But now that Trump has expanded that same practice, it has been made visible and delegitimized.

In short, Trump has made things that should always have been criticized are now being far more widely so.

But there’s one thing that Trump has escalated that has thus far — with the singular exception of the botched raid on Yemen — escaped widespread condemnation: the bombing of civilians. There was the Al Jineh mosque on March 16, a school sheltering families in Raqqa on March 21, and this strike last week in Mosul, not to mention continued Saudi attacks in Yemen that the US facilitates.

Again, I’m not saying such civilian strikes didn’t happen under Obama. And it’s not clear whether this spate of civilian bombings arises from a change in the rule of engagement put in place in December, the influence of James Mattis, or Trump’s announced review of rules of engagement. But civilians are dying.

And for the most part, unlike all the other horrible things happening under President Trump, they’re getting little notice and condemnation in the US.

Update: This NYT story on the Mosul strike says that the increased civilian casualties do reflect a change in rules of engagement put in place under Trump.

If Amazon Web Services Goes Down, Do the Cloud Services AWS Provides the Intelligence Community Too?

As you may have heard, Amazon has had a bad outage today, taking down many entities that rely on its cloud service.

Most of the coverage has focused on the private businesses that have been affected, from small businesses to larger ones (I suspect Office Max was broadly affected, because they were down today too), to media outlets.

I want to know if, when Amazon’s Northern Virginia cloud services go down, whether the cloud services Amazon provides to the Intelligence Community goes down too. The IC cloud is supposed to be completely separate from AWS’ commercial services. But if things are going haywire generally in Northern Virginia, those problems may extend to Amazon’s (understood to be NoVA located) IC servers.

I raise that, in part, because of a point I made in these two posts about the new EO 12333 sharing rules Obama implemented in January. The data sharing envisioned can happen in one of three places: on NSA’s own servers, on the recipient agency’s own servers, or on the cloud.

NSA may choose to make raw SIGINT available (i) through NSA’s systems; (ii) through a shared IC or other Government capability, such as a cloud-based environment; or (iii) by transferring some or all of the information to the recipient IC element’s information systems. Only information that can be afforded appropriate handling, storage, retention, and access protections by the recipient IC element will be made available.

Indeed, rolling out the IC cloud was a necessary technical precondition for this sharing process.

As I subsequently pointed out, one application for this expanded sharing was to make counterintelligence information — of the kind that would be central to the investigation into Russia’s hack of the DNC and/or other influence peddling with Trump allies — more widely available (for example, to CIA and FBI).

In the procedures, the conditions on page 7 and 8 under which an American can be spied on under EO 12333 are partially redacted. But the language on page 11 (and in some other parallel regulations) make it clear one purpose under which such surveillance would be acceptable, as in this passage.

Communications solely between U.S. persons inadvertently retrieved during the selection of foreign communications will be destroyed upon recognition, except:

When the communication contains significant foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, the head of the recipient IC element may waive the destruction requirement and subsequently notify the DIRNSA and NSA’s OGC;

Under these procedures generally, communications between an American and a foreigner can be read. But communications between Americans must be destroyed except if there is significant foreign intelligence or counterintelligence focus. This EO 12333 sharing will be used not just to spy on foreigners, but also to identify counterintelligence threats (which would presumably include leaks but especially would focus on Americans serving as spies for foreign governments) within the US.

Understand: On January 3, 2017, amid heated discussions of the Russian hack of the DNC and public reporting that at least four of Trump’s close associates may have had inappropriate conversations with Russia, conversations that may be inaccessible under FISA’s probable cause standard, Loretta Lynch signed an order permitting the bulk sharing of data to (in part) find counterintelligence threats in the US.

This makes at least five years of information collected on Russian targets available, with few limits, to both the CIA and FBI. So long as the CIA or FBI were to tell DIRNSA or NSA’s OGC they were doing so, they could even keep conversations between Americans identified “incidentally” in this data.

Certain state adversaries would have big incentives to destabilize AWS, just for shits, giggles, and the chaos it would cause. If they could get into Amazon private clients’ servers, there would be plenty of data to make such an attack worthwhile.

But if such an attack also affected the IC cloud, that might be a different thing entirely.

Robert Eatinger Brags that CIA Complies with Law Passed 2 Years Ago — But Will It Really Limit CIA?

Robert Eatinger — the former CIA lawyer deeply implicated in torture who referred the authors of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture to DOJ for criminal investigation — has a curious column in The Cipher Brief. Eatinger purports to rebut commentators who have described “Executive Order 12333 as a sort of mysterious, open-ended authorization for U.S. intelligence agencies to engage in secret, questionable activities.” But mostly he addresses the Agency’s new Attorney General Guidelines under EO 12333 approved by Loretta Lynch on January 17.

Eatinger doesn’t explain what led to the adoption of new procedures. He does at least admit that the CIA had been operating on procedures written in 1982, a year after EO 12333 mandated such procedures. He also admits that those procedures did not reflect, “advances in collection methods due to changes in technology and privacy interests unforeseen in 1982, which did not contemplate the ubiquitous use of mobile phones, computers, and other digital media devices or evolving views of privacy and thus did not seek to address ‘big data’ or ‘bulk’ collection.” But readers who didn’t know better might conclude from Eatinger’s piece that the CIA just decided out of the blue to start protecting Americans’ privacy.

The proximate change to the procedures was likely a desire to finally expand data sharing under Obama’s new EO 12333 sharing rules, a final step before accessing a firehose of data from the NSA (curiously, Eatinger doesn’t mention that these new procedures will probably enable the expanded intake of vast amounts of bulk data including US person information). It also (as I’ll explain) belatedly responds to a mandate from Congress.

But in reality, the change comes in response to over three years of nagging from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which asked James Clapper and Eric Holder to make agencies update these procedures back in August 2013, pointing out how much technology had changed in the interim. Which is another way of saying that, for the entire time when Eatinger was a top CIA lawyer, CIA was perfectly happy to operate on 35-year old procedures not reflecting current technology.

Among the procedures limiting CIA’s (newly expanded) access to bulk data, Eatinger highlights the five year restriction on retention of information including US person data.

These sections also satisfy the requirements to create procedures that limit to five years the retention of any nonpublic telephone or electronic communication acquired without the consent of a person who is a party to the communication except in defined circumstances (Section 309).

[snip]

Section 6 creates two different types of handling requirements for unevaluated information; one for “routine” handling and one for “exceptional” handling.  Exceptional handling requirements apply to intelligence collections either of nonpublic communications that were acquired without the consent of a party to the communication, or that are anticipated to contain U.S. person identifying information that is significant in volume, proportion, or sensitivity.  The exceptional requirements include segregating the unevaluated information, limiting access to CIA employees who receive special training, creating an auditable record of activity, and importantly, requiring such information to be destroyed no later than five years after collection, permitting extensions in limited circumstances.

The five-year limit in Section 6 is but one example of how specifics in the new procedures attempt to find the right balance of intelligence and privacy interests.  Each procedure involves an effort to find the right tradeoffs to allow lawful intelligence collection and protect privacy and civil liberty rights and interests. The tradeoff was between the risk to a loss in intelligence capabilities by destroying information at five years against the risk to compromising privacy interests by keeping the information longer.

It’s not until nine paragraphs after Eatinger introduces this requirement, which he notes arises from “Section 309” in paragraph 8, that he explains where it comes from in paragraph 17, from Congress.

The five-year retention period in Section 6 was not set by the CIA, DNI, or Attorney General, however, it was set by Congress through Section 309.

Eatinger doesn’t describe when Congress passed that law, but I will. It was in the Intelligence Authorization for FY 2015. It became law on December 19, 2014.

Which is another way of saying that for over two years after Congress passed this law mandating the destruction of bulk data including US person data after five years, CIA hadn’t updated its EO 12333 procedures to reflect that requirement (this was after Eatinger left CIA, so we can’t blame him for the tardiness).

Now, Eatinger helpfully confirms something I’ve long believed but hadn’t confirmed: rather than sorting through and deleting the US person data in the collection, which would be all the law requires, the CIA instead destroys the entire data set at the five year interval, effectively extending the privacy protections passed to cover US persons to foreigners as well (you’re welcome, Europe). Eatinger does so in a passage laying out the trade-offs to deleting data after five years.

Deleting all unevaluated information specifically concerning U.S. persons has little to no intelligence downside because intelligence agencies will never want or have reason to search their intelligence holdings.  The five-year period to destroy all unevaluated information, however, will remove not only information concerning U.S. persons but also any information potentially concerning valid intelligence targets, such as international terrorists, from the intelligence agencies holdings.  In this latter case, however, intelligence agencies will want and may have a reason to search its holdings for information on these targets.  The deletion of that information could thus have an adverse intelligence impact, particularly on counterterrorism and counterproliferation intelligence reporting, as well as on the conduct of human intelligence operations, all of which are important activities of the CIA.

The CIA could be expected to search all of its holdings upon receiving intelligence identifying a previous unknown person as a suspected terrorist or proliferator.  Under the five-year retention period, when the CIA conducts the search, any unevaluated information on that person that may have been acquired during a bulk collection activity over five years ago will have been deleted; CIA’s search will not retrieve that information.  Thus, CIA might gain an incomplete or misleading understanding of the individual, his place in a terrorist network, and his contacts.  Or, CIA may send intelligence officers to conduct dangerous human intelligence operations to collect information it once had.  The loss of five-year old information could also adversely impact the spotting, assessing, recruiting, and running of human sources. [my emphasis]

This is how Eatinger introduces Congress’ role in requiring CIA to destroy data after five years: to blame them for limiting the CIA’s ability to sit on bulk data on Americans and foreigners for 25 years. To his credit, Eatinger does describe Congress as “the right body” to “impose” a “single retention period … on the entire intelligence community.” Given his direct attacks on Congressional oversight of the torture program, though, I wonder precisely in what spirit he intended this comment.

In any case, Eatinger also emphasizes that CIA doesn’t have to abide by this “single retention period …  imposed on the entire intelligence community.” After suggesting that some agencies might be able to abide by the Congressional mandate, he asserts unnamed other agencies may not be able to.

Some intelligence entities likely could accomplish their mission and destroy unevaluated information in less than five years.  Others may need to retain information longer than five years.

He then notes that Congress has given agencies an out.

Congress has provided that intelligence agency heads may retain information longer than five years if the head determines a longer retention “is necessary to protect the national security of the United States” and certifies in writing to the intelligence committees the reasons for that determination, the new retention period, the particular information to be retained; and the measures that will be taken to protect the privacy interests of U.S. persons and persons located inside the United States.

That out is laid out in CIA’s procedures at 6.2.2.2, but rather than stating the intelligence committees must get notice, the section says only that, “Upon such extension, the [CIA Director] shall complete any notifications required by statute, Executive Order, or other Presidential decree” which, given the way the Bush Administration ignored FISA based on Presidential decree, doesn’t inspire confidence that Congress would get the notice mandated under Section 309.

In any case, we have reason to believe the CIA is just one month into receiving an expanded firehose of data, including a great deal of data on Americans. And Eatinger sure seems to suggest the CIA may never give the data obtained via that firehose up.

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