Early in the fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq, the National Security Agency was blindsided by enemy fighters’ frequent use of rudimentary wireless communications devices known as “high–powered cordless phones,” according to documents among 263 published today by The Intercept.
The documents, drawn from the agency’s internal news site, SIDtoday, and provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, date mostly to the latter half of 2003, and show the NSA was at the time rapidly expanding its internet monitoring. But even as its digital surveillance grew more sophisticated, the agency saw its targets increasingly adopting crude forms of communications like shortwave radio, SMS cellphone messaging and, most vexingly, high-powered cordless phones. The “poor man’s cell phones,” as the cordless devices were called, spread through Afghan borderlands and along Iraqi roadsides. Meanwhile, the NSA was scrambling to fill what one SIDtoday article referred to as an “intelligence gap” around the devices. The agency assembled more than 500 people at Fort Meade, including foreign intelligence partners and contractors, in order to understand, and plan how to crack into, a type of communication “increasing exponentially worldwide,” as an internal bulletin put it.
The NSA’s scramble to monitor cordless phones helps illustrate how the agency, despite its best efforts to predict the future, can end up blindsided. Just as the military after the Cold War continued to buy sophisticated weapons for use against conventional forces, leaving it poorly prepared for guerilla warfare, so too did the NSA’s state-of-the-art mass internet surveillance leave it unprepared for enemies in rural areas with crude radios.
The NSA documents about cordless phones are among many highlights from The Intercept’s second release of SIDtoday postings, made available for download starting today. As detailed in the roundup below, SIDtoday articles from the second half of 2003 also outline how the NSA obtained credit card information from the Secret Service, fed intelligence to the FBI, requested investigations of suspected leakers, spied on diplomats to advance the U.S. war in Iraq, exposed a purported terrorist computer as much less menacing than U.S. news media had reported, and cooperated extensively with the 9/11 Commission.
A SIDtoday article from the period also discloses that the NSA spied on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in order to collect information to feed into the U.S.’s extensive medical intelligence apparatus. Using this and other Snowden documents, Intercept reporter Jenna McLaughlin filed a story about the NSA’s “medical SIGINT” operation and other ways the U.S. collects so-called medical intelligence.