Hidden Gems In The Snowden Files: Part Two

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.

In August 2016, The Intercept published it’s second bulk release of files from the Snowden archives, 263 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 themes are 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

The following is a set of unique findings from analysing the second batch of SIDtoday files.


1. Rather than it being strange, as many suggested, that Snowden moved from CIA to the NSA, the exchange of human resources between the agencies seems common.

In fact, the SIDtoday files lay waste to the theory that the CIA and NSA are in competition with each other, or that they aspire to usurp each other’s roles and resources. The documents consistently depict the agencies working in partnership as the left and right hands of the executive.

One specialises in collecting the information and the other specialises in acting on it.

Multiple documents announce appointments from senior executives on down to analysts moving between one agency and the other. As revealed in the last part of this series, the CIA even gave service awards to over 100 NSA employees.

This document refers to “a retired NSA senior executive with significant CIA experience” and details NSA staff members attending classes at the CIA which the then Director of the CIA participated in.

The tone of the class was set on the first full day of presentations with a discussion led by the Honorable George J. Tenet, DCI.”


2. Bloated overstatement over the historical significance of the Iraq War effort is rife in SIDtoday.

In a document titled “Driving History, the NSA likens its participation in the Iraq War to the cracking of the Enigma code in World War II.

The publication claims that history will see the “role of NSA in the global war on terrorism… in a similar light” to the cryptographic breakthrough that SIDtoday says won World War II for the Allies.

Several documents assert how great it is that ‘democracy’ has been brought to Iraq. Thirteen years on it is clear that the actual historical record on the conflict is a far cry from what the NSA had predicted it would be. The Iraqi ‘theater’ remains, of course, an unmitigated disaster.


3. “Analysts want to see data the way the user saw it“, says one document, explaining the concept of a “native view” of data being viewed in the same environment as the target experienced it, as if through their eyes. It states a need to enhance this view with easy access to analytical tools.


4. Multiple documents in the cache brag about NSA’s contributions to ‘capture-and-kill’ operations in Iraq.

This document in particular states that NSA analysts on the ground in Baghdad “witnessed the importance of ‘translating’ SIGINT for the tactical commanders to help them understand how the SIGINT could serve as the basis for military operations.

It continues: “in the last six months, tactical units have captured, killed, or wounded tens of thousands of insurgent forces in Iraq..

The documents are littered with references to analysts being spread out in various locations around the world and the agency aspires to “evolve into an expeditionary SIGINT force.”


5. Post-Patriot Act Intelligence-sharing hubs known as Fusion Centers have existed on American soil since at least 2006.

If you type “Fusion Center” into Wikipedia, the search result in the drop-down has a blurb which reads: “Fusion Centers are owned and operated by state and local entities. They are not a product of, or under the control of the Federal Government.”

However, this SIDtoday document reveals that there are in fact fusion centres operated by the military, specifically the NSA. There is a specific reference to one being in Baghdad.

More, there is another reference to a mobile Fusion Center being established at the Olympics and partially staffed by an (expeditionary) 8-man NSA team.

This raises hugely significant questions. Such as:

  • Did the very concept of Fusion Centers come from the military?
  • Why does Wikipedia insist in its description of them that Fusion Centres operating on U.S. soil are non-military and not Federal entities if the very concept is from the military, as is a portion of the data?
  • Is this because it is illegal for the military to operate on US soil? If so, are they not in fact participating in the ventures anyway, by feeding them information collected at military facilities by military resources?

6. There is perhaps no greater insight into the psyche of an ‘expeditionary’ NSA staff member than that found within this document. It was authored by a female NSA staffer who was deployed to Iraq:

I’m in the military, we kill people and blow things up. It’s our job.”


7. When friends are enemies and enemies are friends: in the days of Obama’s ‘Pivot To Asia’ it’s hard to imagine that Chinese military officers would be hanging out in the halls of the Pentagon but according to this Snowden document, they were in 2003.


8. Many companies are hesitant to hire spouses or family members of existing employees. The NSA is apparently the opposite. In this document, a second-generation NSA employee tells a story of a co-worker having three parents (mother, father, step-father) and a sibling all working at the agency.


This article is part of a series so keep an eye out for more fascinating insights from the Snowden docs. To read Part One please click here.

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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