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November 12, 2013

Pakistan should focus on COMSEC in light of NSA-CIA SIGINT collection

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by Zaki Khalid
[Terminal X Desk]

The US National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) initiated a joint intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance program that was primarily tasked with placing eavesdropping equipment in sensitive locations around the world through which both agencies could gather a sizable amount of data. This joint operational team-up was titled as the 'Special Collection Service' (SCS). 

Established in the 1970s and based in Maryland, personnel in the SCS are deployed at strategic locations around the world, almost always inside US embassies and consulates at countries which are of particular interest to the US security apparatus. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathered from these hotspots not only provide crucial intelligence leads for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) but also provide alternative perspectives for the American diplomatic community. 

Among other states, the SCS has long had a special interest in Pakistan as well. Considering the geostrategic importance of Pakistan being both an ally and 'undeclared foe', the US thought it should leave no stone unturned in intercepting communications networks in the country, especially to "tap in" into the wireless systems of the intelligence apparatus in Pakistan.

History

Attempts at eavesdropping were at peak during the Afghan jihad era. On March 8 1995, Gary C. Durell, a senior SCS officer who was housed at the US Consulate in Karachi, was gunned down by unknown assailants. He was reportedly part of an elite team of SIGINT specialists who, according to a report which appeared in The Baltimore Sun on December 28 1995,  "picked up secrets on drug trafficking, terrorist networks and nuclear arms from a windowless room deep inside the US Consulate".

SCS operatives generally portray themselves as employees of the US State Department or the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service to maintain their cover. Gary Durell himself was listed as a "State Department Communications Officer" while posted in Karachi. As The Baltimore Sun reported, "At what is cryptically called the "Maryland field site" in unclassified NSA documents, the undercover eavesdroppers learn to use sophisticated listening equipment, some the size of a briefcase and others stacked like a living-room stereo set. They are trained to work from locked rooms inside diplomatic facilities to glean political and military secrets from the other".

More recently, according to a report by Scott Shane of The Baltimore Sun, it were officials of the SCS who had zeroed-in on the alleged courier of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad. All this was made possible by pinpoint coordinates that were allegedly based on cellular phone intercepts from Kuwait, Pakistan and a few other locations. These coordinates were then also relayed to the main base in Beltsville, Maryland via satellite. 

There could be a host of reasons why the US must be very interested in gathering SIGINT at Pakistan. One reason could be the surveillance of the powerful military and intelligence agencies in the country. Another could be proliferation of militant organizations. According to a top-secret map recently made public in German magazine Der Spiegel by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the SCS has 4 collection zones in Pakistan, namely Peshawar in the restive north, Islamabad the federal capital, Lahore the capital of Punjab and Karachi, the metropolitan port city in lower Sindh which is home to severe political turmoil and ethnic tensions, including presence of high-profile Al Qaeda militants.

[Click on the map to enlarge]

Although the map is dated August 2010, it is very likely its operational status might have changed in Pakistan. The four Pakistani cities listed are colored in white, standing "staffed locations". Obviously, one need not guess the location of these compounds as the US has a large embassy in Islamabad, coupled with consulates in Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi.

The Raymond Davis Saga had engulfed Pakistan and the US in its fold for the entire first half of 2011. It was discovered that among other equipment seized from Raymond Allen Davis, he possessed a GPS receiver, two-way radios and a Nokia 6300 cell phone. Pakistanis were assuming for long that he was a "Blackwater agent", as is generally the label given to contractors in Pakistan; others suggested he was part of the CIA. But there exist reasons to believe he could have been a wreckless operative of the SCS. It is highly likely, consider the following: Pakistani ISI officials claimed that call records from Davis' phone showed he made most calls to South Waziristan, where numbers mostly belonged to clerics who ran madrassahs. Similarly, Davis was caught red-handed near Qurtaba Chowk, Lahore. This location happens to be not far from Qadsia Mosque where Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed delivers his Friday sermons. It might be that Davis was intercepting communication of JuD personnel since the vicinity he was traveling in had a signal range till the mosque.

Pakistani military and intelligence counter-measures against foreign SIGINT gathering

Pakistan's intelligence agencies owe their global repute to their impressive Human Intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities. With a vast array of informants and spies deployed at strategic locations around the world, it is their continued success to gather first-hand intelligence from on-ground sources which led to the success against Soviets in Afghanistan, resulting in the dismemberment of the Communist regime. 

This scribe had a conversation recently with a senior retired official who worked with a technical communications division of the Pakistan Army. Various aspects of SIGINT gathering in urban areas by foreign intelligence agencies were discussed, in particular the counter-mechanisms that are in place by the Pakistani security agencies. 

"Pakistan does not have the required technological equipment to deal with foreign SIGINT collection in urban areas of the country", admitted the now-retired official, "Even the Germans and the French do not have the technology to deal with these activities, so talking about Pakistan's capability is quite meaningless.".

"But that is where the powerful HUMINT makes up for the apparent deficiency", he then added.

According to the official, American security personnel "rely more on machines", whereas Pakistan places its bets on the men on ground. "At some point or the other", the official added, "these SIGINT operatives have to liaise with someone on the ground. That is precisely where we get them through tip-offs. It is not that Pakistan's security officials are unaware of these activities, it is simply because our equipment is technologically outdated and comes with limitations that we have to rely more on field information"

The situation must be understood in a larger perspective if we are to get a better understanding of things. Pakistan has been sucked up into internal and external terrorism, the economy is still in a very miserable condition, the political playground is rife with mass confusion, chaos and disunity. In all this mess, the only institution that has managed to keep itself disciplined and intact is the powerful military and its intelligence services. There have indeed been many security lapses, but this is normal and no LEA anywhere in the world can guarantee a 100% success rate. 

Cyber security and Pakistan's strategic programs

Of late, certain segments of the government, along with a team of Information Security (INFOSEC) professionals, have joined hands for a nationwide awareness campaign on cyber security. Under the headship of Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Defence & Defence Production, these officials include technical experts such as Ammar Jaffri (Chairman Pakistan Information Security Association), Dr. Ashraf Masood (Rector, Military College of Signals, NUST), among others. The most recent awareness seminar in this regard, the 2nd Cyber Security Awareness Seminar, was held on November 5 at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

While it is a good step towards raising awareness on such matters, what is of critical note in all this progress though, and something which the military's top brass in Pakistan specifically needs to realize, is that in today's age, a conventional military force's operational tactics can remain remain protected only if it has a robust security mechanism in place.

On an outset though, the issue of cyber security in general certainly matters. Just recently, renowned Russian cyber security geek, Eugene Kaspersky of Kaspersky Lab, claimed that the network security of Russia's nuclear plant and space program too, were compromised by Stuxnet. While Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies have put fool-proof mechanisms in place to ensure the safety and security of its nuclear program and even has a massive response force as part of the Strategic Plans Division, further efforts must be put in place to ensure that the systems overseeing these activities are protected from the hostile sabotage plans of the US, Israel, UK and India. 

It is imperative to add here that all of Pakistan's strategic programs themselves are disconnected from any such network that could be subjected to attempted exploitation, such as that by Stuxnet perhaps; the Strategic Plans Division and the National Command Authority as the parent organization have been wise enough to foresee that increased technology will bring it with a host of malicious bugs and issues.

Rest assured, Pakistan has put effective mechanisms in place to ensure round-the-clock monitoring of its nuclear arsenal. If however, any considerable network security threat exists, it can only be from states with sophisticated malware technology: the US, UK and Israel. 

Focus on COMSEC: The need of time

So far, Pakistanis aren't sure whether any other country has been meddling in their country's communications networks, besides the US of course. This revelation itself has come to light courtesy of Edward Snowden's leaked documents. It is certainly worth emphasizing that Communications Security (COMSEC) is a vast domain in which Pakistan's security agencies need to put much focus on. A few efforts might have been put in place for adequate Emission Security (EMSEC), but the very meagre defence budget which the country has, is frankly insufficient to cope up with the expenditures for such R & D projects. 

Pakistan has the required brainpower and strategies to conduct extensive research into COMSEC and thereby create relevant protective measures. What is the dire need of time is that the country's powerful military realizes that today's "war-scape" is getting increasingly non kinetic with each passing day. Pakistan's Threat Matrix database should well consider giving high priority to strengthening military COMSEC, even in non-operational (mostly urban) zones. It will provide a shield to the country's political and diplomatic personnel from being the targets of foreign surveillance. 

Israeli intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon, in a commentary to Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv, disclosed that "attic-like rooms" positioned on roofs of US embassies in cities such as Tel Aviv, Madrid, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin and Stockholm "conceal very advanced wiretapping devices". He examined the structures and commented that while they possess solid exteriors, they are actually permeable by communication signals, as revealed in the findings by Der Spiegel

Therefore, the Special Collection Service basically proves as a vital service for Barack Obama's Disposition Matrix, which was coincidentally presented by John Brennan, presently Director of the CIA and then Homeland Security Advisor. 

Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies should be mindful of this important factor; it might be that in the coming times, the SCS might attempt at gathering coordinates of its targets within the country, which can then provide ground for CIA officials to conduct a dreaded targeted killing spree across Pakistan. These clandestine activities might further sabotage the counter-terrorism efforts which the government and military are together engaged in against militant organizations. Remember the Abbottabad raid, for which the SCS provided initial intelligence?

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Pakistan should focus on COMSEC in light of NSA-CIA SIGINT collection by Terminal X is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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