Hidden Gems In The Snowden Files: Part One

In this series we divulge fascinating nuggets of information found hidden within the Snowden files that were not reported by corporate media and are not yet widely known.

Last May, The Intercept published it’s first bulk release of files from the Snowden archives, 166 documents from SIDtoday, the newsletter of the Signals Intelligence Directorate of the National Security Agency.

It is an internal publication of bite size proportions, averaging just over a page per article. Predictably upbeat and celebratory in nature, the general theme is news bulletins on:

  • HR: awards, promotions and vacancies
  • Compliance & oversight
  • Theatres of NSA operations and “customers” (other agencies)
  • Employee safety including mental health
  • Events, meetings, trainings and employee profiles

Some of the reference terms inspire deeper digging. An early but unexplained reference to the ‘Target Office of Primary Interest (TOPI)’ led me to search the term. According to an extremely edifying article on Electrospaces.net:

topi

So these are the people who were famously revealed to have been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s cellphone, among others.

There are other interesting references that appear in the SIDtoday files, which are from 2003.

The NSA was already perturbed about the consequences of ‘today’s information overload‘, suggesting that analysts already had more data than they knew what to do with. However this doesn’t appear to have put a damper on the ‘Collect It All‘ mentality on display a decade later.

The following is a set of unique findings from analysis of the first batch of SIDtoday files.


1. There is an oblique reference to ‘Transformation 2.0‘ which in the context it is placed in, reads as if it is some kind of NSA strategic directive or change management program.

It is followed by talk of allowing people in other agencies with ‘unique expertise‘ to access data that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, by having them ‘swim upstream‘.


2. The Director of Central Intelligence gives out Denial and Deception Awards‘. Over 100 NSA employees were on the awards list.


3. As far back as 2003, the U.S. relationship with Turkey was ‘seriously weakened and the U.S. was ‘unlikely to champion Turkey’s cause with Europe‘.


4. The files show an obsession with controlling the flow of information to congressional overseers and adherance to established protocols for responding to requests from them. These seem to be largely budget related. In a document titled ‘SIDs Interactions With Congress: Setting The Budget‘ there is a reference to a 761-page ‘Congressional Budget Justification Book’ for the 2004 fiscal year, and an explanation of budget ‘markups‘.

In a document titled ‘SIDs Interactions With Congress: Communications‘ there is a reference to opportunities ‘to influence the markups‘ in the budget and it is stressed that Congress should hear both ‘good news as well as bad news…from us before they read it in the paper’. Bad news includes power outages that have resulted in degradation of service or security breaches at field stations‘ which in theory means that Congressional overseers learned about the Snowden leaks before reading them in the Washington Post or The Guardian.


5. In ‘Profile: SIGINT Legislative Affairs‘ this is expanded upon. The writer states that the Signals Intelligence Directorate must be ‘proactive with Congress‘ in ‘providing notifications‘ and that the Legislative Affairs office will advise ‘affected offices‘ of any ‘funding impacts‘ and ‘will assist you with preparing reclamas to adverse funding language‘. Reclamas are, to paraphrase Merriam Webster, requests for reconsideration of a policy directive or decision. Use of the term is prevalent within military circles and related organisations.

The document says that all communications with Congressional overseers should adhere to ‘The 5 c’s‘, namely ‘candid, complete, correct, consistent, corporate‘.


6. In ‘Crisis Support For Employees SIDtoday incongruously states in back-to-back sentences that employees can seek help with obtaining weapons training and with potential employee suicides, from the same department.


7. As early as November of 2003, SIDtoday was announcing that ‘elements of‘ the exit strategy for Iraq (referred to in the document as ‘phase IV’) were ‘already underway‘. In the document titled ‘Post-War Iraq Plan‘ key responsibilities mentioned include ‘maintaining domestic security’, ‘watching for efforts to undermine the nascent Iraqi government’, and ‘uncovering war criminals’. These tasks are stated to have been ‘complicated by much broader international participation’.


8. Sometimes it is easy to forget just how far back this type of spying goes. In a document titled SID Support To POW Rescue, particularly, that of Jessica Lynch, there is a reference to SIGINT reporting (on the location of an Iraqi General Hospital) dating back to 1979. Of course, the history of the NSA goes back even further – formally, to 1952 but in its historical forefather was in its earliest incarnation established in 1917.


This article is part of a series so keep an eye out for more fascinating insights from the Snowden docs.

This series would not be possible without the obviously immense amount of work invested by staff at The Intercept in preparing the Snowden files for release – you can read their report on the May 2016 SIDtoday files by clicking on this link.

Thanks to the awesome Twitter account @HelpSnowden for creating the header graphic used in this article.

By Suzie Dawson

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We Are Change investigative reporter Suzie Dawson is one of the most accomplished independent New Zealand journalists on the international stage. She specialises in writing about whistleblowers, intelligence agencies and technology.

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