The NSA boom and the “Geolocation Cell”

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The NSA’s physical footprint is enormous. The U.S.’ preeminent “signals intelligence” agency is located in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Texas and Utah – as well as across the oceans in the UK and Australia. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, its workforce has mushroomed by a third, to about 33,000 civilian and military personnel; its budget has about doubled; and the number of private contractors it employs has tripled from 150 to 500. The NSA is now the single most important intelligence agency for overseas espionage, eclipsing the much more high-profile CIA. So writes Dana Priest of the Washington Post.

The military leaned heavily on the NSA for counter-terrorist operations in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 2001 and 2003 invasions. “There was nothing that gave you more insight into the inner workings of these organizations as the NSA,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counter­terrorism Center. “I can’t think of any terrorist investigation where the NSA was not a pre­eminent or central player.”

According to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, 60 percent of the President’s daily intelligence briefings were gleaned from NSA intelligence – and this was back in 2000, well before the “black budget” boom. There are many lines of descent that help explain the contemporary fusion between the NSA and the military. One that Priest unravels is particularly relevant:

The story of the NSA’s post-Sept. 11 history could begin in many places, including the parking lot of the CIA. There, in late 2001, a burly Navy SEAL paced inside a trailer with a telephone to his ear. The trailer had been hastily converted from a day-care facility to an operations center for the CIA’s covert armed drone program, which was about to kill one of its first al-Qaeda targets, 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan.

On the line with the SEAL was the drone operator and a “collector,” an NSA employee at the agency’s gigantic base at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. The collector was controlling electronic surveillance equipment in the airspace over the part of Afghanistan where the CIA had zeroed in on one particular person. The SEAL pleaded with the collector to locate the cellphone in Afghanistan that matched the phone number that the SEAL had just given him… The collector had never before done such a thing… The CIA wanted the phone as a targeting beacon to kill its owner.

The NSA collector in Georgia took what was then considered a gigantic leap — from using the nation’s most sophisticated spy technology to record the words of presidents, kings and dictators to using it to kill a single man in a terrorist group.

Unsurprisingly this vignette highlights the close relationship between the NSA and the CIA’s drone program–although I am still curious as to what the NSA collector’s “electronic surveillance equipment” over the Afghan airspace actually is?

In any case, the NSA soon assembled a new team for tracking people’s geography in real time. With analysts and technicians from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, they formed the “Geolocation Cell” or “Geo Cell”. The team constructed chat rooms that united CIA officers in Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing together targeting intelligence into a single platform. A motto quickly caught on at Geo Cell: “We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em.”

The post-2003 invasion of Iraq soon turned into a nightmare. The NSA began sending in “collectors” with surveillance equipment, who were then embedded with Army brigades and Marine regimental combat teams. The unit’s name?–tactical cryptological support teams. Simultaneously, the NSA supported the CIA and JSOC, moving into JSOC’s Balad base in Iraq. Amazingly, a year later, the NSA was able to to locate cellphones even when they were switched off–what JSOC referred to as “The Find”. It produced thousands of new targets in the Iraq insurgency with this new ability.

And the cherry on top was a new computer linkup developed by the NSA called the Real Time Regional Gateway,

“into which the military and intelligence officers could feed every bit of data or seized documents and get back a phone number or list of potential targets. It also allowed commanders to see, on a screen, every type of surveillance available in a given territory”.

From battlefield to homeland, the surge in data mining was paralleled back in the U.S. This was most evident in the bulk collection of telephone metadata–first revealed in 2005 by the New York Times’ revelation of “warrantless surveillance” of U.S. communications.

This large scale data operation requires an enormous infrastructure. Consider the construction of the NSA’s Bluffdale, Utah, site – which will be home to a million-square-foot facility. Other sites include a $1 billion site at Fort Gordon, a 250,000 square foot site in Hawaii, and the RAF’s Menwith Hill station on the moors of Yorkshire–which is fitted with 33 conspicuous white radar domes. Not forgetting Australia…

These “cryptologic centers” are all receiving significant investment. According to an NSA statement to the WP, these upgrades are done “to make the agency’s global enterprise even more seamless as we confronted increasingly networked adversaries”.

“Seamless” is key here: it mirrors the geographically borderless and temporally endless growth of the “war on terror”.  A war, or course, which is directed against thousands, perhaps only hundreds, of militants today. And the price paid is an entrenched form of surveillance that leaves no stone unturned, no email unread.

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8 Responses to The NSA boom and the “Geolocation Cell”

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  8. 13elves says:

    Glenn Greenwald and First Look Media just ripped you off, bro.

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