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US intelligence leaks as extradition still hangs over Assange

Written by: (Contributed) on 28 April 2023


(Jack Teixeira, alleged orchestrator of the 2023 Pentagon document leaks.  Photo:  Public Doman Wikimedia)


Governments loathe spy scandals; they, invariably, involve sensitive information being divulged which they would rather was kept away from the public gaze and questions.

The recent scandal of leaked classified documents in the US has, therefore, seen representatives of the Biden administration scramble into damage limitation mode.

Problems, however, have arisen: they have difficulty covering up the sources of the already leaked information together with the pressing issue of renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act looming on the not-too-distant horizon, which has already made them feel very uncomfortable due to the likely consequences at the hands of professional journalists and researchers.

In mid-April, the arrest of a 21-year old Air National Guardsman, Jack Teixeira, on charges of leaking classified intelligence material and posting it on social media in an on-line chatroom, was given extensive media coverage. The real world of spies, however, does not tend to be particularly glamorous. They tend to lurk in the mundane world of trivia.

Teixeira, it would appear, was little other than a clerical or administrative figure inside the secret world of spooks. He had, nevertheless, been given a high-level security clearance at just 19 years of age, which had provided him with access to documents usually provided for senior decision-makers in Washington and the Pentagon. His access to the elite Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System together with, 'sensitive compartmented access' to other classified US government programs caused a few raised eyebrows inside the corridors of power, when it was finally revealed. (1)  

The timing of the problem can also be regarded as particularly embarrassing for the Biden administration. The whole issue of the extradition of Julien Assange from Britain to the US with charges pending over the Wikileaks scandal, is still before the courts. The Biden administration are also faced with a tough struggle in Washington later this year over their plan to re-new Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  

While the recently leaked documents have long disappeared from social media, the legacy has included serious questions about the US and their intelligence-gathering facilities. Ethical considerations, however, appear to not be an agenda item. In fact, the US would appear to be literally hoovering up vast quantities of intelligence, including that of their so-called allies, without the appropriate safeguards.

The leaked documents were known to have included: sensitive information from the Korean peninsula, the Ukraine, MOSSAD, Nicaragua and the Ivory Coast, together with 'foreign governments' military movements, diplomatic efforts and weapons sales, as well as debates in friendly capitals'. (2) The latter reveals how the eyes and the ears of agents and correspondents, in well-placed positions, remain expected to faithfully report all manner of trivia in order to enable intelligence analysts to profile individuals, groups and those with access to decision-makers. They are referred to inside the intelligence services as 'ground human'.

One document noted Jordan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and their diplomatic efforts to mollify China after they were excluded from the country's 5G mobile telephone system. (3) Jordan had followed US directives to not engage with China's 5G system, although it was still spied on by the US intelligence facilities.

The response and damage limitation to the leakage was accompanied with reference to the Justice Department, 'which did not immediately respond to a request for comment'. (4) Silence was chosen over the problem of divulging further incriminating information. Later, however, an official statement was issued from Pentagon press secretary, Brigadier General Ryder, who noted the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered a review of access to classified intelligence material … to help prevent future leaks'. (5)

Then further silence ensued.

The fact the US intelligence services only came to know about the leak after media coverage in the press has revealed an appalling lack of professionalism on the part of those responsible. (6) But then, a preoccupation with trivia inside a cocoon-like existence, is hardly the most productive of working environments; getting the correct surname onto the right intelligence file, for example, has been known to be problematic on occasions.  

Studies of the documents have revealed the findings were based on signals intelligence (SIGINT), which usually involves the interception of electronic telecommunications, from 'phone calls to emails and radar pulses'. (7) So much for secure communications facilities. In fact, it was noted by one former National Security Agency (NSA) official, that it was, 'a vivid explanation of the technological capabilities of the US government in this area'. (8)

Elsewhere, information in the public domain has revealed the NSA had been experimenting with various means of accessing 'the global reach of Google, Microsoft, Venizon and other US technical powers', for many years. (9) They also appear to have successfully upgraded Echelon systems for specific use with the internet. It has already been noted the US intelligence services also use 'techniques such as gaining access into foreign telecommunications networks, and has specialised planes, drones and satellites that collect signals as well'. (10)

A particularly insidious intelligence tool used by the US is the seemingly educational website of Grammarly, based at Stanford University. It is packaged as a writing and editing website; it is, however, an intelligence-gathering program for use with profiling. Once targeted, an individual has extreme difficulty deleting the on-line website. Any attempt to reduce it to spam, also fails. It returns with regularity several times over a 24-hour cycle. Attempts to contact the main provider with a request to stop the continual spamming, is, inevitably, ignored. But then, that is what is expected of intelligence organisations. Bad habits and poor judgement would appear to take priority over common-sense and good manners.  

Echelon grew from standard telecommunications advancement and included a vast global network of intelligence facilities converging on the NSA at Fort Meade in Maryland. (11) The interception of vast troves of intelligence material is then subject to select trigger words to compartmentalise what is regarded as important and worthy of analysis. Further advances in technological expertise has involved the system being regularly upgraded; it is now capable of providing 'an awesome spying capacity for the USA, allowing it to monitor continuously most of the world's communications targeting civilian as well as military traffic'. (12)

The computer analytical programs were pre-dated by psycho and socio-linguistic analysis; it was used by the intelligence services to study patterns of communication and the ability of the sender to use certain structural patterns with their language. The positioning of adverbs in sentence structures, for example, was often used to highlight various psycho and socio frameworks of reference.

The internet has indeed revolutionised intelligence-gathering for those in control of class and state power. It has enhanced their ability to place whole societies under surveillance: psychological warfare techniques and widespread social manipulation have become commonplace. It can only increase with further technological advancement; as civil liberties
are further reduced.

The Australian government also uses similar techniques: the Real-time Analytics Platform for Interactive Data-mining (RAPID) has facilities for 'fast -moving data streams and delivery of analysis in real-time … for access to … cluster networks of tweets, users, keywords and topics, and deep dives into discussions or between persons of interest, quickly zeroing in on significant data. Purpose-designed techniques, paradigms and algorithms are used to analyse a large amount of data in real time'. (13)

The RAPID system is fully operational inside the Five Eyes, linking Canberra directly with Fort Meade and the Pentagon.

Toward the end of this year, however, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act comes up for renewal: it has already been uniformly criticised by civil liberties groups and others for its 'lack of transparency'. (14) It has been noted 'the battle over renewing Section 702 is expected to be hard fought'. (15) The spies will be hell-bent on ensuring as little information about their world enters the public domain. It will, therefore, also be interesting to follow the coverage of the discourse and what further information about the US intelligence services, and their Five Eyes counterparts, is revealed with open source access. In intelligence jargon it has the designated status of overt intelligence (OSINT). (16)

1.     Intelligence leak a blow for allies, Editorial,  Australian, 17 April 2023.
2.     Pentagon leaks expose how the US snoops on its allies, Australian, 17 April 2023.
3.     Ibid.
4.     Congress applies blowtorch to Pentagon, spooks over leaks, Australian, 18 April 2023.
5.     Ibid.
6.     Editorial, op.cit., 17 April 2023.
7.     Australian, op.cit., 17 April 2023.
8.     Ibid.
9.     See: The intelligence coup of the century, The Washington Post, 11 February 2020.
10.   Australian, op.cit., 17 April 2023.
11.   Espionage, Spies and Secrets, Richard M. Bennett, (London, 2003), pp. 89-93.
12.   Ibid.
13.   Fast, on-the-ground military intelligence gleaned from social media, thanks to AI.,Defence Research Supplement, Australian, 5 April 2023; and, Eye in sky enhances view on the ground, Defence Research Supplement, Australian, 5 April 2023.
14.   Australian, op.cit., 17 April 2023.
15.   Ibid.
16.   Espionage, Spies and Secrets, op.cit., page 208.


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