Inside the secret world of America’s top eavesdropping spies

Source: The Week

oon, Congress will begin drafting legislation reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which serves as the legal framework for domestic espionage against external threats. And while FISA doesn’t affect spy activities overseas, the attention it generates will shift scrutiny to the National Security Agency and its growing and astonishing capabilities. The NSA, the intelligence arm of the United States responsible for eavesdropping and code breaking, weathered criticism and high-profile legal challenges in 2005 for its warrantless wiretapping program, and now we have a decent idea of the sophisticated and controversial methods the NSA employs to penetrate global telecommunications networks. Still in the shadows, however, is a secretive joint program with the Central Intelligence Agency codenamed F6, but better known as the Special Collection Service.

The men and women of the Special Collection Service are responsible for placing super-high-tech bugs in unbelievably hard-to-reach places. Data collected is then transmitted to the National Security Agency for decryption and analysis. John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists put it best: “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.”

Officially, the Special Collection Service doesn’t exist, and isn’t headquartered in a guarded complex on a densely forested 300-acre lot outside of Beltsville, Md. But according to journalist James Bamford, the organization was founded in 1978 to bridge the NSA’s ability to infiltrate foreign networks and the CIA’s ability to penetrate foreign countries. (Its leadership alternates between the director of the NSA and the director of the CIA.) At the Beltsville facility, special tactics for tradecraft are devised, and a kind of mad scientist’s laboratory develops new technologies for use in the field.

The Special Collection Service is everywhere. In 1999, teams known as Special Collection Elements infiltrated Afghanistan to monitor al Qaeda training camps near Khost. That same year, they tapped Pakistan’s communications grid to listen for traffic on its nuclear arsenal. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, sent Special Collection Elements to supplement the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in Balad. (The director personally spoke with General Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of JSOC, by secure video teleconference at least once a week.)

But long before al Qaeda pinged U.S. radars, the Special Collection Service was invading communications networks of friend and foe alike, performing what Bob Woodward described as “espionage miracles, delivering verbatim transcripts from high-level foreign-government meetings in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.” As far back as the 1980s, Special Collections Elements were using a technique whereby invisible lasers are pointed at windows from safe houses hundreds of feet away. Conversations are then deciphered and recorded by measuring only the vibrations in the glass of the target windowpane.

How exactly do these missions go down? Based on what we know, they look something like this: Special Collection Elements made up of two to five people rotate into U.S. embassies around the world, working undercover as Foreign Service officers or members of the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service. When State Department cover is impossible, the agents enter countries under the guise of businesspeople. Some U.S. embassies are known to house dedicated facilities for Special Collection Elements to use as bases of operations. In other situations, and when circumstances dictate, they work surreptitiously, assembling elaborate listening devices from discrete, seemingly everyday components. (Bamford reports one item previously used: An umbrella that expands into a parabolic antenna.)

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