Shane Harris writes: In a meeting of senior national security officials with President George W. Bush in the spring of 2007, the commander-in-chief authorized the NSA to begin hacking into the phone and computer networks of Iraqi insurgents.
The Iraqi cell phone network was a potential intelligence gold mine. Cell phone contracts were among the first business deals struck in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Wireless was cheaper than wired communications, and cell phones were proliferating. The NSA had access to foreign telecommunications networks through agreements struck with the United States—based carriers that operated them. These companies were paid handsomely — each receiving tens of millions of dollars annually, according to one former company executive — to give the spy agencies privileged access to their networks and the data coursing through them….
After Bush gave his order, daily strikes in Iraq were being carried about by a hybrid military and intelligence unit that brought together soldiers and spies. Their center of operations was a concrete hangar at the Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, which had once housed Iraqi fighter jets. Most of the planes here now were unmanned drones. Their pilots worked alongside NSA hackers, FBI cyber forensics investigators, and special operations forces — the military’s elite commando squads. They all broke off into clusters, working with a seamless, almost organic precision. The hackers stole information from the enemy’s electronic devices and passed it to the analysts, who drew up target lists for the troops. As they went off on raids, the drone pilots watched overhead, giving eye-in-the-sky warning to the troops on the ground, thanks to sophisticated cameras and other sensors developed by the CIA. Sometimes the drone pilots themselves made the kill with a missile shot.
When an attack was finished, the troops gathered more intelligence from the site or from the fighters they captured — cell phones, laptop computers, thumb drives, address books, scraps of paper called “pocket litter” that might contain nothing more than a name, a phone number, or a physical or e-mail address. The troops brought the information back to the base and gave it to the analysts, who fed it into their databases and used data-mining software to look for connections to other fighters either in custody or at large. They paid close attention to how the fighters were getting money for their operations, including sources outside Iraq — in Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Every day the unit netted between ten and twenty fighters. Whole terrorist networks were illuminated in this way, by U.S. forces who were starting to think and act like their enemy. They structured themselves not in vertical hierarchies but in networks, each member responding to conditions on the ground. They were making it up as they went along, and creating a new kind of warfare. [Continue reading…]