CIA Worked With DOJ To Re-Purpose Foreign Surveillance Airborne Cell Tower Spoofers For Domestic Use

The CIA’s recent rebranding as Valhalla for US cyberwarriors notwithstanding, the agency’s general focus has been intelligence gathering on foreign governments, corporations and people. That it has often mistaken “torturing people into saying whatever they can to make it stop” for “intelligence gathering” isn’t necessarily germane to the following discussion, but it’s worth noting that the CIA is almost single-handedly responsible for destroying the term “extraordinary rendition” — a formerly innocuous (and complimentary) term previously used to highlight something like, say, Johnny Cash’s amazing cover of Soundgarden’s’ “Rusty Cage.” (That Cash’s two best covers are “Hurt” and “Rusty Cage” is not germane to the discussion of CIA torture programs, but what a coincidence!)

But the emphasis here is foreign. Which is why the following news makes so little sense.

The Central Intelligence Agency played a crucial role in helping the Justice Department develop technology that scans data from thousands of U.S. cellphones at a time, part of a secret high-tech alliance between the spy agency and domestic law enforcement, according to people familiar with the work.

The CIA and the U.S. Marshals Service, an agency of the Justice Department, developed technology to locate specific cellphones in the U.S. through an airborne device that mimics a cellphone tower, these people said.

“These people” are likely keeping both eyes on their backs at this point, considering this revelation sheds more light on two things both agencies would like to keep in permanent darkness: the CIA’s involvement in domestic surveillance and the US Marshals’ airborne “dirtboxes,” which are hoovering up tons of phone call info using high-flying IMSI catchers.

The planes fly from five US cities and cover “most of the US population,” according to the Wall Street Journal and its unnamed sources. The technology appears to have debuted overseas under the CIA’s auspices. Nothing about that fact is surprising or, indeed, of major concern in terms of US civil liberties (although likely not welcome news for any foreign citizens in the CIA’s coverage area). What is more surprising — or rather, disappointing — is that the DOJ saw the foreign surveillance tech deployed by the CIA and said, “We could really use this here. In the US. On our fellow Americans.”

Not only that, but if the CIA is involved in any significant way, there are some legal issues that need to be discussed.

The CIA has a long-standing prohibition that bars it from conducting most types of domestic operations, and officials at both the CIA and the Justice Department said they didn’t violate those rules.

Phew. [Wipes brow.] Oh. Wait. The DOJ utilizing CIA dirtboxes to surveill US citizens probably breaks some rules. (The courts will probably have to sort this out — and, unfortunately, there’s a chance they’ll find otherwise.) But that’s not what the DOJ is saying. It’s saying that the CIA doesn’t violate the “don’t conduct [most types] of domestic surveillance” rules. Which is probably true. It just hands of the tools of totalitarianism to the DOJ and the domestic side of the equation takes over. It’s wrong because it subverts the roles of both agencies but it’s technically right because the DOJ’s agencies do the actual surveillance — not the CIA. That’s how that works. Technically legal. But wrong in just about every other way.

It isn’t as though the DOJ just stopped by to ask about the CIA’s flying machines. It had a very active role in the creation of the domestic Mile High Spy Club.

For years, the U.S. Marshals’ Technical Operations Group worked with the CIA’s Office of Technical Collection to develop the technology. In the early days it was the CIA that provided the most resources, said the people familiar with the matter.

For now, it’s the unnamed “people” vs. the public front-mouths for various incestuously intertwined intelligence/law enforcement agencies. Last last year, the DOJ was asked to explain its flying cell tower spoofers, but the best defense it offered was, “Hey, at least it’s not the Section 215 program,” along with a half-assed Glomar (“neither confirm nor deny”) that admitted more than it withheld.

The CIA is likewise mostly silent on the matter, offering up only the weak defense that the CIA has given other stuff to domestic agencies and that’s all been perfectly legal. Likewise the DOJ… again with its “We’re not the NSA” assertions meant to make it look like Captain Fourth Amendment by comparison:

A Justice Department spokesman said Marshals Service techniques are “carried out consistent with federal law, and are subject to court approval.” The agency doesn’t conduct “domestic surveillance, intelligence gathering, or any type of bulk data collection,” the spokesman said, adding that it doesn’t gather any intelligence on behalf of U.S. spy agencies.

But it’s not just metadata or call records. The CIA-built, DOJ-deployed devices also listen in.

In 2005, the CIA gave the Marshals Service technology to conduct “silent stimulation” of those types of cellphones, both for identifying them and, with a court order, intercepting the communications, these people said.

So, according to the DOJ, it doesn’t participate in bulk data collection. But an untargeted device that flies overhead and forces all phones in range to submit to its advances isn’t anything but a bulk data collection. Sure, there may be an eventual target, but until that target is acquired, everything else gets swept up into the DOJ’s flying coffers. Even with “catch-and-release” — the least intrusive form of cell tower spoofing — innocent Americans are still at the mercy of the government as spoofers gather communications, cut off data usage and force all phones to the least technologically-advanced connection possible.

The DOJ’s excuses are horrible, especially in light of the surveillance tool’s origins. If the Wall Street Journal’s sources are correct, the DOJ re-deployment of foreign intelligence gathering tech makes it the Victor Kiam of domestic spookery: “We liked it so much, we used it on our own people!”

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