The Kill-Net: NSA and CIA Collaboration in Drone Manhunt


The National Security Agency (NSA) provides crucial signals intelligence (SIGNIT) to the CIA’s drone manhunt. The “revelations”, while not surprising, do at least detail the extensive collaboration between different government agencies. And of course, both of these agencies are nominally civilian organizations. To talk of the “civilianization” of the kill-chain is now well-established, but if its novelty has worn off, that should not distract  from how quickly the administration of death has changed its stripes.

Perhaps, the very idea of a “kill–chain” is now limiting and no longer captures the nonlinear movement of information: a kill-network or kill-net might be a more appropriate cartographic designation.

Such a kill-net recognizes the centrality of the flow of digital information, the analysis and coding of information (often through quantitative techniques and “scientific” algorithms), and the automation of surveillance-strike operations. All of this signifies the intensely bureaucratic nature of assassination today.

But we can push things even further here: the very idea of a “drone” needs to be expanded. A drone is an operating unit that is remotely controlled; that can process data (semi-)autonomously; and can “effect” the battlepsace with some kind of kinetic force. This description adequately captures the Predator drone of course. But it also captures the instruments that the NSA uses to infect compromised computers and networks around the world. As a cause celebre, take the “Stuxnet” virus that was let loose to sabotage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. To call such a virus a drone is no real leap of the imagination: it was remotely launched, processed data autonomously, and certainly effected (even instantiated) the battlespace with kinetic force (wrecking thousands of centrifuges). In short, by thinking of drones as both “real” and “cyber” weapons, we loop back to the very machinery that launched them: the kill-net. The materiality of the kill-net may take different forms and assemblages, but the logic is singular: the full-spectrum dominance of information. Here, it is not simply that “knowledge is power”, to rehearse the Foucaultian refrain; it is that knowledge becomes “death-as-evidence”.

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Documents leaked to the Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden further reveal the scope of CIA and NSA collaboration. The story centers around the 2012 killing of Hassan Ghul, an associate of Osama bin Laden – and who previously supplied the CIA with critical intelligence in 2004, spending two years at a “black site”, before being released to Pakistani authorities and then set free in 2007.

The NSA created a unit called the “Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell” or CT MAC to focus on terrorism targets such as Ghul, part of the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) division, which concentrates on surveillance targets across the world, using sophisticated online attacks and hacks, and using codenames such as UNITED DRAKE and VALIDATOR.

As I previously wrote of the NSA’s sophisticated cyber-toolkit:

The Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) is an NSA group charged with developing unique software implants to hack into an enemy system, bypassing and exploiting routers, switches, and firewalls. The TAO implants harvest all kinds of data, and can endure hardware upgrades and tunnel into connected networks. In some cases, a comprised device can open the door to thousands of others. The purpose of such implants can be to lay dormant, creating a “back door” for future access. Under U.S. cyberdoctrine, these operations are known as “exploitation”, and serve to prefigure future attacks.

Of particular relevance to the drone wars, the NSA has blanketed “dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan” with a sophisticated surveillance apparatus. In the hunt for Ghul, “the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might ‘bed down.'” CT MAC spent a year tracking him and his courier network, “tunneling into an array of systems and devices”. This includes extracting vast quantities of digital information, including key logs and audio files.

In October 2012 the CIA launched a fatal drone strike against Ghul after an email from his wife geo-located, or “fixed”, his position–although this has still not being publicly acknowledged, nor did the Snowden documents  reveal how the email was intercepted. The CIA’s equivalent signals unit is the “Information Operations Center”, which also specializes in high-tech tools and intimate surveillance technologies. Despite both the CIA and NSA being the U.S.’s largest agencies in the intelligence community, the NSA dwarfs the CIA in terms of budget (20 times more) and manpower (100 times more).

The real story here is not simply a rare peek into the cooperation between two distinct agencies, the CIA and NSA, but the infrastructure that binds them. While the idea of a “kill-net” may risk exaggerating the resonance between information, analysis, and death, it certainly gives shape to the machinery that unites discrete agencies in the intelligence and military communities: the CIA, the NSA, JSOC, the White House–these various agencies are configured around an automating “manhunt” that sends drones into real and digital clouds.

This entry was posted in CIA, NSA, Secrecy and Surveillance. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Kill-Net: NSA and CIA Collaboration in Drone Manhunt

  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup 10/21 | Center for the Study of the Drone

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