2 September 2012
CIA-NSA Special Collection Service Whitewashed
A notes that Wikipedia has redirected the entry on the
Special Collection Service (SCS) by reducing it to a whitewashed sub-section
on the entry for the NSA Central Security Service. Several citations describing
SCS have been deleted, one of them the Village Voice article below
More on the SCS:
February 24 - March 2, 1999
Jason Vest and Wayne Madsen
A Most Unusual Collection Agency
How the U.S. undid UNSCOM through its empire of electronic ears
When Saddam Hussein raised the possibility of attacking U.S. planes in Turkey
last week, his threats illustrated what many in diplomatic circles regard
as an international disgrace? the emasculation of the UN by the U.S.
When UNSCOM, the UN's arms-inspection group for Iraq, was created in 1991,
it drew on personnel who, despite their respective nationalities, would serve
the UN. Whatever success UNSCOM achieved, however, was in spite of its
multinational makeup. While a devoted group of UN staffers managed to set
up an independent unit aimed at finding Saddam's weapons and ways of concealing
them, other countries seeking to do business with sanctions-impaired Iraq?
notably France and Russia? used inspectors as spies for their own ends.
But what ultimately killed UNSCOM were revelations that the U.S. government
had manipulated it by assuming control of its intelligence apparatus last
spring (or perhaps even earlier by using the group to slip spies into Iraq)
not so much to aid UNSCOM's mission, but to get information for use in future
aerial bombardments. When stories to this effect broke last month, however,
there was almost no consistency in descriptions of the agencies involved
or techniques used. The New York Times, for example, said only one CIA spy
had been sent into Baghdad last March to set up an automated eavesdropping
device. Time had multiple Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) operatives planting
bugs around Baghdad throughout 1998. The Wall Street Journal referred to
the use of one "device" from the National Security Agency (NSA) last year
and "a series of espionage operations used by the U.S. [since] 1996 to monitor
the communications" of Saddam and his elite.
When probing the world of espionage, rarely does a clear picture emerge.
But according to a handful of published sources, as well as assessments by
independent experts and interviews with current and former intelligence officers,
the U.S. government's prime mover in Iraqi electronic surveillance was most
likely a super-secret organization run jointly by the the CIA and the NSA?
the spy agency charged with gathering signals intelligence (known as SIGINT)?
called the Special Collection Service. Further, there is evidence to suggest
that the Baghdad operation was an example of the deployment of a highly
classified, multinational SIGINT agreement? one that may have used Australians
to help the U.S. listen in? months after the CIA failed to realize the U.S.
objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein through covert action.
According to former UNSCOM chief inspector Scott Ritter, when the U.S. took
over the group's intelligence last year, a caveat was added regarding staffing:
only international personnel with U.S. clearances could participate. "This
requirement," says Ritter, "really shows the kind of perversion of mission
that went on. The U.S. was in control, but the way it operated from day one
was, U.S. runs it, but it had to be a foreigner [with a clearance] operating
Under the still-classified 1948 UKUSA signals intelligence treaty, eavesdropping
agencies of the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
share the same clearances. According to Federation of American Scientists
intelligence analyst John Pike, this gives the U.S. proxies for electronic
espionage: "In the context of UKUSA, think of NSA as one office with five
branches," he says. As UNSCOM demonstrates, though, sometimes the partnership
gets prickly; the British, according to Ritter, withdrew their personnel
following the U.S.'s refusal to explain "how the data was going to be used."
(According to a longtime British intelligence officer, there was another
reason: lingering bad feelings over the NSA's cracking a secret UN code used
by British and French peacekeepers during a Bosnian UN mission.) At this
point, says Ritter, he was instructed to ask the Australian government for
a "collection" specialist. "We deployed him to Baghdad in July of 1998,"
recalls Ritter. "In early August, when I went to Baghdad, he pulled me aside
and told me he had concerns about what was transpiring.
He said there was a very high volume of data, and that he was getting no
feedback about whether it was good, bad, or useful. He said that it was his
experience that this was a massive intelligence collection operation? one
that was not in accordance with what UNSCOM was supposed to be doing."
In other words, the Australian -- most likely an officer from the Defence
Signals Directorate, Australia's NSA subsidiary, who was supposed to have
been working for the UN -- may have been effectively spying for the U.S.
Stephanie Jones, DSD's liaison to NSA, did not take kindly to a Voice inquiry
about this subject; indeed, despite being reached at a phone number with
an NSA headquarters prefix, she would not even confirm her position with
DSD. However, a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official said that
such a scenario was probable. "The relationship between the UKUSA partners
has always been of enormous value to U.S. intelligence, even when their
governments have been on the opposite sides of policy issues," the official
said. "I would not be surprised at all if the Aussies happened to be the
ones who actually did this [at U.S. behest]."
With an intelligence community of over a dozen components, billion-dollar
budgets, and cutting-edge technology, the U.S. can cast a wide net, be it
with human sources or signals interception. Iraq, however, has presented
a special challenge since Saddam's Ba'ath party took power in 1968. "In Iraq,"
says Israeli intelligence expert Amatzai Baram, "you are dealing with what
is arguably the best insulated security and counterintelligence operation
in the world. The ability of Western or even unfriendly Arab states to penetrate
the system is very, very limited."
According to the former Cairo station chief of the Australian Secret Intelligence
Service (ASIS), the West got this message loud and clear after Iraqi
counterintelligence pulled British MI6 case officers off a Baghdad street
in the mid '80s and took them to a warehouse on the outskirts of town. "They
had arrayed before them the various agents they had been running," the ex?ASIS
officer told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1994. "There were
wires hanging from the rafters in the warehouse. All the men were strung
up by wires around their testicles and they were killed in front of the faces
of their foreign operators, and they were told, you had better get out and
never come back."
When UNSCOM was inaugurated in 1991, it quickly became apparent that the
organization's intelligence capability would depend largely on contributions
from various UN member countries. According to several intelligence community
sources, while the CIA did provide UNSCOM with information, and, later, serious
hardware like a U-2 spy plane, the focus of the U.S. intelligence community
at the time was on working with anti-Saddam groups in and around Iraq to
foment a coup.
What resulted, as investigative authors Andrew and Patrick Cockburn demonstrate
in their just published book Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam
Hussein, were two of the most colossally bungled CIA covert operations since
the Bay of Pigs. While details of one of the failed operations were widely
reported, the Cockburns fleshed out details of an arguably worse coup attempt
gone awry in June 1996. Iraqi counterintelligence had not only managed to
finger most of the suspects in advance, but months before had even captured
an encrypted mobile satellite communications device that the CIA gave the
plotters. Adding insult to injury, the Cockburns report, Iraqi
counterintelligence used the CIA's own device to notify them of their failure:
"We have arrested all your people," the CIA team in Amman, Jordan, reportedly
was told via their uplink. "You might as well pack up and go home."
Some UNSCOM staffers -- first under Russian Nikita Smidovich, later under
American Scott Ritter -- managed to create what amounted to a formidable
micro-espionage unit devoted to fulfilling UNSCOM's mission. Between information
passed on from various countries and use of unspecified but probably limited
surveillance equipment, the inspectors were gathering a great deal. But in
March 1998, according to Ritter, the U.S. told UNSCOM chair Richard Butler
of Australia that it wanted to "coordinate" UNSCOM's intelligence gathering.
Ritter insists that no U.S. spies under UNSCOM cover could have been operating
in Baghdad without his knowledge prior to his resignation in August 1998.
However, as veteran spies point out, if they were, Ritter probably wouldn't
have known. A number of sources interviewed by the Voice believe it possible
that Special Collection Service personnel may have been operating undercover
According to a former high-ranking intelligence official, SCS was formed
in the late 1970s after competition between the NSA's embassy-based eavesdroppers
and the CIA's globe-trotting bugging specialists from its Division D had
become counterproductive. While sources differ on how SCS works? some claim
its agents never leave their secret embassy warrens where they perform
close-quarters electronic eavesdropping, while others say agents operate
embassy-based equipment in addition to performing riskier "black-bag" jobs,
or break-ins, for purposes of bugging? "there's a lot of pride taken in what
SCS has accomplished," the former official says.
Intriguingly, the only on-the-record account of the Special Collection Service
has been provided not by an American but by a Canadian. Mike Frost, formerly
of the Communications Security Establishment? Canada's NSA equivalent? served
as deputy director of CSE's SCS counterpart and was trained by the SCS. In
a 1994 memoir, Frost describes the complexities of mounting "special collection"
operations? finding ways to transport sophisticated eavesdropping equipment
in diplomatic pouches without arousing suspicion, surreptitiously assembling
a device without arousing suspicion in his embassy, technically troubleshooting
under less than ideal conditions? and also devotes considerable space to
describing visits to SCS's old College Park headquarters.
"It is not the usual sanitorium-clean atmosphere you would expect to find
in a top-secret installation," writes Frost. "Wires everywhere, jerry-rigged
gizmos everywhere, computers all over the place, some people buzzing around
in three-piece suits, and others in jeans and t-shirts. [It was] the ultimate
testing and engineering centre for any espionage equipment." Perhaps one
of its most extraordinary areas was its "live room," a 30-foot-square area
where NSA and CIA devices were put through dry runs, and where engineers
simulated the electronic environment of cities where eavesdroppers are deployed.
Several years ago, according to sources, SCS relocated to a new, 300-acre,
three-building complex disguised as a corporate campus and shielded by a
dense forest outside Beltsville, Maryland. Curious visitors to the site will
find themselves stopped at a gate by a Department of Defense police officer
who, if one lingers, will threaten arrest.
There are good reasons, explains an old NSA hand, for havingelectronic ears
on terra firma in addition to satellites. "If you're listening to something
from thousands of miles up, the footprint to sort through is so huge, and
finding what you are looking for is not a simple chore. If you know more
or less specifically what you want, it's easier to get it in close proximity.
And if it happens to be a low-powered signal, it may not travel far enough."
According to two sources familiar with intelligence activity in Iraq, the
U.S. may have been aided by information delivered either to UNSCOM or SCS
from Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications firm. It's not an unreasonable
assumption; though Ericsson brushes off questions about it, in 1996 a Middle
Eastern businessman filed suit against the company, claiming, among other
things, that it had stiffed him on his commission for brokering a deal between
the Iraqis and Ericsson for sensitive defense communications equipment, which,
reportedly, included encrypted cell phones.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a veteran intelligence official confirmed
that the NSA has "arrangements" with other communications firms that allow
NSA to access supposedly secure communications, but cooperation from Ericsson
would be "a breakthrough? despite our best efforts, they always kept their
distance. But it's not beyond the realm of possibility." (This is not without
precedent; though hardly covered in the American press, it has been reported
that Switzerland's Crypto AG -- long the supplier of cipher equipment to
many of the world's neutral and "rogue" states? enjoyed such an "arrangement"
with the NSA for decades. Crypto AG denies this.)
There is, however, another possible scenario regarding participation by Ericsson
in an intelligence venture. According to FAS analyst Pike, it's much more
likely that anyone doing intelligence work in Iraq would want a schematic
of Baghdad's telephone system? which Ericsson installed in the late '60s
and has subsequently updated. "I would find it to be far more plausible that
the U.S. intelligence community would be interested in acquiring, and Ericsson
would be interested in supplying, the wiring diagram for Baghdad's telephone
exchange than encryption algorithms for cell phones," he says.
Also, he explains, finding ways to tap into a whole phone system or pull
short-range signals out of the air without being obvious is clearly SCS's
portfolio. "This type of risky close surveillance is what SCS was formed
to do," he says. "When you think of NSA, you think satellites. When you think
CIA, you think James Bond and microfilm. But you don't really think of an
agency whose sole purpose is to get up real close and use the best technology
there is to listen and transmit. That's SCS."
Regarding any possible collaboration in Iraq with SCS or UNSCOM, Kathy Egan,
Ericsson spokesperson, said she had no information on such an operation,
but if there was one, "It would be classified and we would not be able to
talk about it." It's also possible, according to Mike Frost, that cleverly
disguised bugs might have been planted in Baghdad? SCS, he recalls, managed
to listen in on secured facilities by bugging pigeons. But, says a retired
CIA veteran, with UNSCOM effectively dead, bugging is now out of the question.
"I hope the take from this op," he says, "was worth losing the only access
the outside world's disarmament experts had to Iraq."
The Radome Archipelago
During the Cold War there were hundreds of secret remote listening posts
spread around the globe. From large stations in the moors of Scotland and
mountains of Turkey that were complete with golf ball?like structures called
"radomes" to singly operated stations in the barren wilderness of Saint Lawrence
Island between Alaska and Siberia that had only a few antennae, these stations
constituted the ground-based portion of the United States Signals Intelligence
(SIGINT) System or "USSS."
Operated by the supersecret National Security Agency (NSA), these stations
were designed to intercept Morse Code, telephone, telex, radar, telemetry,
and other signals emanating from behind the Iron Curtain. At one time, the
NSA contemplated a worldwide, continuously operated array of 4120 intercept
stations. While the agency never achieved that goal, it could still boast
of several hundred intercept stations. These included its ground-based
"outstations," which were supplemented by other intercept units located on
ships, submarines, aircraft (from U-2s to helicopters), unmanned drones,
mobile vans, aerostats (balloons and dirigibles), and even large and cumbersome
With the collapse of the Communist "bloc" and the advent of microwaves, fiber
optics, and cellular phones, NSA's need for numerous ground-based intercept
stations waned. It began to rely on a constellation of sophisticated SIGINT
satellites with code names like Vortex, Magnum, Jumpseat, and Trumpet to
sweep up the world's satellite, microwave, cellular, and high-frequency
communications and signals. Numerous outstations met with one of three fates:
they were shut down completely, remoted to larger facilities called Regional
SIGINT Operations Centers or "RSOCs," or were turned over to host nation
SIGINT agencies to be operated jointly with NSA.
However, NSA's jump to relying primarily on satellites proved premature.
In 1993, Somali clan leader Mohammed Farah Aideed taught the agency an important
lesson. Aideed's reliance on older and lower-powered walkie-talkies and radio
transmitters made his communications virtually silent to the orbiting SIGINT
"birds" of the NSA. Therefore, NSA technicians came to realize there was
still a need to get in close in some situations to pick up signals of interest.
In NSA's jargon this is called improving "hearability."
As NSA outstations were closed or remoted, new and relatively smaller intercept
facilities? such as the "gateway" facility in Bahrain, reportedly used for
retransmit signals intercepted in Baghdad last year to the U.S.? sprang up
around the world. In addition to providing NSA operators with fresh and exotic
duty stations, the new stations reflected an enhanced mission for NSA economic
intelligence gathering. Scrapping its old Cold War A and B Group SIGINT
organization, NSA expanded the functions of its W Group to include SIGINT
operations against a multitude of targets. Another unit, M Group, would handle
intercepts from new technologies like the Internet.
Many people who follow the exploits of SIGINT and NSA are eager to peruse
lists of secret listening posts operated by the agency and its partners around
the world. While a master list probably exists somewhere in the impenetrable
lair that is the NSA's Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, it is assuredly
stamped with one of the highest security classifications in the U.S. intelligence
community. -- W.M. & J.V.
The United States SIGINT System (USSS)
The following list is the best unclassified shot at describing the locations
of the ground-based "ears" of the Puzzle Palace. It is culled from press
accounts, informed experts, and books written about the NSA and its intelligence
partners. It does not include the numerous listening units on naval vessels
and aircraft nor those operating from U.S. and foreign embassies, consulates,
and other diplomatic missions.
NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland
Buckley Air National Guard Ground Base, Colorado
Fort Gordon, Georgia (RSOC)
Imperial Beach, California
Kunia, Hawaii (RSOC)
Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico
San Antonio, Texas (RSOC)
Shemya, Alaska -3
Sugar Grove, West Virginia
Winter Harbor, Maine
Two Boats -1
Bamaga -6 -7
Canberra (Defense Signals Directorate Headquarters) -5
Kojarena, Geraldton -1
Pine Gap, Alice Springs -1
Shoal Bay, Darwin -1
Al-Muharraq Airport -3
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mapharangwane Air Base
British Indian Ocean Territory
Diego Garcia -1
Bandar Seri Begawan -7
Masset -6 -7
Ottawa [Communications Security Establishment (CSE) Headquarters] -5
Korla -1 -6
Qitai -1 -6
Brac? Island, Croatia -6
Zagreb-Lucko Airport -7
Ayios Nikolaos -1
Almindingen, Bornholm -7
Dueodde, Bornholm -7
Dahlak Island -1 (NSA/Israel "8200" site)
Addis Ababa -1
Kourou -7 (German Federal Intelligence Service station)
Bad Aibling -2
Bad M?nstereifel -7
Pullach (German Federal Intelligence Service Headquarters) -5
British Consulate, Victoria ("The Alamo") -7
Herzliyya (Unit 8200 Headquarters) -5
Mitzpah Ramon -7
Mount Hermon, Golan Heights -7
Mount Meiron, Golan Heights -7
San Vito -6
Higashi Chitose -7
Higashi Nemuro -7
Kanghwa-do Island -7
Pyong-dong Island -7
Taegu -1 -2 -6
Amsterdam (Technical Intelligence Analysis Center (TIVC) Headquarters)-5
Wellington (Government Communications Security Bureau Headquarters -5
Goat Island, Musandam Peninsula -3
Khasab, Musandam Peninsula -3
Masirah Island -3
Galeta Island -3
Papua New Guinea
Port Moresby -7
Terceira Island, Azores
S?o Tom? and Pr?ncipe
Pico de las Nieves, Grand Canary Island -7
Playa de Pals -3
Lov?n (Swedish FRA Headquarters) -7
Shu Lin Kuo -5 (German Federal Intelligence Service/NSA/Taiwan J-3 SIGINT
Khon Kaen -1 -3
Galangala Island, Ssese Islands (Lake Victoria)
United Arab Emirates
Ras al-Khaimah -3
Sir Abu Nuayr Island -3
Belfast (Victoria Square) -7
Brora, Scotland -7
Cheltenham (Government Communications Headquarters) -5
Culm Head -7
Hawklaw, Scotland -7
Irton Moor -7
Menwith Hill, Harrogate -1 (RSOC)
Westminster, London -7
Socotra Island (planned)
-1 Joint facility operated with a SIGINT partner.
-2 Joint facility partially operated with a SIGINT partner.
-3 Contractor-operated facility.
-4 Remoted facility.
-5 NSA liaison is present.
-6 Joint NSA-CIA site.
-7 Foreign-operated "accommodation site" that provides occasional SIGINT
product to the USSS.
Tell us what you think. editor[at]villagevoice.com