Documents detail U.S. cyber-espionage plans

231 operations planned for 2011 – both small scale and large scale

September 01, 2013 11:52 pm | Updated June 02, 2016 08:27 am IST - WASHINGTON

Newly disclosed budget documents for America’s intelligence agencies show how aggressively the United States is conducting offensive cyber-operations against other states, even while the Obama administration protests attacks on U.S. computer networks by China, Iran and Russia.

The documents, obtained by The Washington Post from Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, indicate 231 such operations in 2011, a year after the first evidence emerged of a U.S.-and Israeli-led cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear-enrichment centre.

It suggests that President Barack Obama was not deterred by the disclosure of the Iranian operation, which became evident because of a technological error, and is pressing ahead on using cyber-weapons against a variety of targets.

The Post had said it has withheld most of the 178 pages of documents at the request of government officials because of the sensitivities of the spying operations they describe.

Unlike drone attacks, which the administration has begun to acknowledge publicly and provide legal justifications for, cyberattacks are still regarded as part of a secret arsenal.

The attacks described in the budget documents appear to be on a far smaller scale than the series of attacks on Iran, which were part of a classified operation called “Olympic Games”.

The Post talked of a parallel effort, code-named GENIE, which it described as an effort by U.S. intelligence officials working for the NSA and the military’s Cyber Command to insert surreptitious controls into foreign computer networks. That computer code, a form of malware, allows U.S. officials to hijack the computers or route some of their data to servers that enable U.S. espionage.

It is unclear how many, if any, of those 231 operations are merely for espionage or data manipulation, and how many may be intended to destroy or disable infrastructure. Mr. Obama, in an executive order signed last year, has reserved the right to decide when the United States should conduct such operations. It is not clear how many of the 231 he approved.

Diplomatically, the disclosure of the latest Snowden documents poses a new challenge to Mr. Obama. He has pressed China to cease its own cyber-operations in the United States, many of which are aimed at the theft of intellectual property — including corporate secrets and plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the country’s most expensive new weapons system.

The Chinese have responded that America also conducts extensive cyber-operations — including against China — and will doubtless use the most recent disclosures to press that case. So far, Mr. Obama’s effort to get the Chinese engaged in a deeper dialogue on cyberissues has yielded discussions, but little fruit.

The Pentagon has insisted that the United States does not engage in economic espionage but it does conduct what specialists call “network exploitation” — which it distinguishes from “attacks” — to obtain military or intelligence secrets and intercept cell and digital communications. Attacks, at least as defined by the military, would involve destruction of computer equipment or the facilities those networks run.

The Post said a budget document defined network exploitation as “surreptitious virtual or physical access to create and sustain a presence inside targeted systems or facilities”, which can often pave the way to “facilitate future access”.

The documents indicate that the NSA spent $25 million on “covert purchases of software vulnerabilities”. These are often flaws in commercial software, often in the near-ubiquitous Windows operating system, that make it possible to secretly enter and manipulate data.

— New York Times News Service

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