US spy community takes new online hammering

NSA whistleblower William Binney

 ROME-- A massive information dump by Wikileaks has exposed the electronic espionage abilities of the Central Intelligence Agency and the difficulty of keeping secrets in the digital age.

 Among the more exotic projects revealed by Julian Assange were a CIA plot to spy on people by turning their smart TVs into covert microphones and another to take control of modern cars and trucks by infecting electronic vehicle control systems with malware.

 The former, developed in cooperation with the United Kingdom's MI5, was codenamed  Weeping Angel and appeared worthy of a George Orwell novel. The software programme places the target TV in a 'Fake-Off' mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is actually on. “In 'Fake-Off' mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server,” Wikileaks wrote

 The hijacking of vehicle control systems could be used in even more nefarious ways, the whistleblowing organisation said: “The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.”

 Another CIA capability to emerge from the leak raises interesting questions in the light of the controversy over the alleged hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails by operators linked to Russian intelligence.

 “The CIA's Remote Devices Branch's UMBRAGE group collects and maintains a substantial library of attack techniques 'stolen' from malware produced in other states including the Russian Federation,” Wikileaks wrote.

 With UMBRAGE and related projects the CIA can increase its total number of attack types and misdirect attribution by leaving behind the "fingerprints" of the groups that the attack techniques were stolen from, Mr Assange claimed.

 An expert take on the email hacking controversy was offered to journalists at Rome’s Foreign Press Club by William Binney, a whistleblower who used to work at the National Security Agency — the organisation dedicated to electronic surveillance — and who left in disgust at the corruption and malfeasance that he witnessed there.

 In Rome for the presentation of “A Good American”, an impressive documentary chronicling his battle against a power-crazed intelligence establishment, Mr Binney pointed out that the NSA had access to Hillary Clinton’s emails and was outraged that she had jeopardised some of the agency’s most sensitive secrets — codenamed Gamma — by storing the information on an insecure server.

 That irritation would have given a motive. By some accounts the Russians were actually rooting for Mrs Clinton, preferring the devil they knew to the unpredictable Donald Trump.

 In the film Mr Binney recounts how the NSA top brass had discarded an electronic surveillance system he himself had developed, which was cheap and worked, in favour of a grandiose alternative that cost over a billion dollars and didn’t.

 ThinThread, Mr Binney’s system, might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. It’s rival, TrailBlazer, contained information that could have led to the hijackers, but it was buried in the mass of data illegally gathered about US citizens.

 “Collection of data is not intelligence,” Mr Binney said. “In ThinThread we had a programme that solved the problem (of targetted intelligence gathering), but it was too cheap. It didn’t require the billions they wanted to build their empire.”

 Mr Binney’s system winnowed out data relating to law-abiding citizens and left a real chance of finding terrorist needles in a haystack of modest size. “They wanted the data for the power, and they wanted all of the data so they had power over everybody,” he said of the top NSA management.

 The abuses began under George W. Bush and continued under Obama, Mr Binney maintains.

 “They are committing treason against the fundamental principles of the US constitution. I had to stand up against this.”

 The intelligence veteran, who resigned from the NSA in 2001, is hopeful that an outsider like President Tump might stop the rot. Both CIA and NSA are so corrupt and dysfunctional that they ought to be dismantled and rebuilt from zero, he said.

 In an interview with American television Mr Binney insisted that ThinThread might have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

 “We should have implemented it, the ThinThread, connect-the-dots program on everything in the world, but we didn't. That's why we failed. It wasn't a matter of not having the programme; it was a matter of not implementing the programme we had,” he told the PBS Frontline programme. “It's disgusting that all those people had to die. That's disgusting that our government did that. They traded the security of the people of the United States for money. That's disgusting.”

 Mr Binney is currently supporting four different law suits against the US government over the illegal surveillance of Americans and is hopeful that the maverick Mr Trump may push things in the right direction.

 “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said. “You have to participate, or you’re going to lose it.”