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Revealed: How the Nsa Targets Italy

By Glenn Greenwald and Stefania Maurizi

Published in l'Espresso and espressonline, 6 December 2013


A special unit operating under cover and protected by diplomatic immunity, assigned to a very sensitive mission: to spy on the communication of the Italian leadership. That is what top secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published in Italy exclusively by l'Espresso in collaboration with "la Repubblica" reveal. A file mentions the "Special Collection Service " (SCS) sites in Rome and in Milan, the very same service which, according to the German weekly "Der Spiegel ", spied on the mobile phone of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. "Special Collection Sites", reads the file published today by l'Espresso, "provide considerable perishable intelligence on leadership communications largely facilitated by site presence within a national capital".

These documents are very important because they contradict recent statements by the Italian Prime Minister reassuring the Italian Parliament. Speaking to the Chamber of Deputies four weeks ago, Enrico Letta said: "Based on the analysis conducted by our intelligence services and our international contacts, we are not aware that the security of the communications of the Italian government and embassies has been compromised, nor are we aware that the privacy of Italian citizens has been compromised". These top secret documents tell a different story, however.

La Dolce Vita and the Bitter Secrets.

The Special Collection Service is likely one of the most sensitive units in U.S. intelligence. The service deploys teams under diplomatic cover, operating in US embassies around the world to control friendly and enemy governments. The top secret NSA document examined by l'Espresso reveals that "in 1988 [SCS] had 88 sites, our peak". The SCS is assigned to a special mission: monitoring the communications of the political, and likely economical, leaders of host nations. For this reason, SCS teams operate within the heart of power: in embassies and consulates, working in close collaboration with the CIA. Also in Rome, in the US embassy located in via Veneto, from those very same roofs which witnessed the Dolce Vita.

Snowden's files reveal that, at least until 2010, the Special Collection Service maintained two sites in Italy: one in Rome, a base staffed with agents, and one in Milan, the capital of the Italian economy where, according to a file dated 2010 and originally published in Der Spiegel, the SCS would run an unmanned site. Two sites in a relatively small country like Italy is unusual: only in Germany -- a prime target for NSA in Europe -- does SCS maintain two bases.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall the Special Collection Service's network had been downsized: the long season of spying, especially in the Old Continent, seemed to be on the wane, but 9/11 reopened the game, paving the way to NSA mass surveillance. A top secret file dating back to 2002 shows that the number of SCS effective in January 2002 was "approximately 65", some of which were registered as "future survey sites", like Milan, a city that soon emerged as a crossroads for Islamic terrorists. A decade later, the Special Collection Service seems to have returned to the peak reached in the '80s. According to a file dated 2010, the SCS is active in 80 locations: Rome and Milan are registered as active SCS sites.

In Berlin, the Special Collection Service antennas are very likely to be hidden on the roof of the US embassy. From there, the SCS equipment can pick up the mobile phone communication of the German government as well as radio links. What about Rome? L'Espresso requested a technical assessment from Duncan Campbell, the British journalist who, in 1988, revealed the existence of the "Echelon" project: the first global network for mass surveillance established by the so-called Five Eyes: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

By analyzing the roof of the US Embassy in via Veneto, Campbell concluded: “The location of the SCS 'concealed collection system' on the roof of the Rome US Embassy is obvious and is typical of many similar 'roof maintenance sheds' on US embassies around the world. I have no doubt that the cubic white tent like structure marked by the arrows is a SIGINT concealment, with multiple antennae behind listening to mobile phones on GSM, GPRS, 3G, and CDMA; and to government and police channels: and supporting special activities by the CIA, such as targeted bugging. The structure will involve a framework likely to be in plastic or wood, with dielectric panels fitted. The white satellite dish antenna at the other roof corner is not SIGINT or SCS but diplomatic communications probably over a US DSCS satellite”.

Targeting Italian diplomacy.

Snowden's files entirely contradict our Prime Minister on another key issue: NSA espionage against our diplomacy. Although the British press had published some information on these activities, Enrico Letta declared to the Chamber of Deputies: "we are not aware that the security of the communications of the Italian government and embassies has been compromised". However, the files obtained by l'Espresso clearly describe spying activities against our Embassy in Washington DC.A document dated September 2010 and classified as "top secret / noforn" - which means top secret and not releasable to foreign nationals - reveals that the Italian embassy in Washington was not targeted by a spy operation: it was targeted by two spy operations. The first, operating under the codename "Bruneau" refers to the top secret mission "Lifesaver", which allowed the NSA to suck out all the information contained in the computers by imaging their hard disks. Whereas the second, codenamed "Hemlock ", refers to the mission "Highlands", which gave access to embassy communications through "implants". The file does not specify whether these "implants" are bugs placed inside the electronic devices or software infecting embassy equipment, stealing phone conversations and emails. The file is titled " Close Access Sigads", which suggests a very close range data gathering. The document also contains two obscure acronyms: the suffix "PD" and the code "COOP"; no explanations are available for these acronyms in the file.

The spying operations against our embassy may have been suspended after 2010: in the Snowden file, the Italian embassy in Washington DC is marked with an asterisk which, according to the file, means that targets "have either been dropped or are slated to be dropped in the near future". The text mentions, among other things, a special NSA division: "Tao", an acronym that stands for "Tailored Access Operations". According to the German weekly Spiegel, the Tao division "devises special methods for special targets", such as the email of the former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon. At the bottom of the document, one can read that this file is derived from a NSA report dated 2004: has our embassy been spied on since 2004?

Ever since the NSA scandal broke out, the United States has argued that the NSA mass surveillance programme aims to protect the country and its allies from terrorism. But what does espionage against a friendly country have to do with the fight against al-Qaeda fundamentalism ? The Italian governments have always been considered reliable on this front. US diplomacy cables published by WikiLeaks reveal that the former US Ambassador in Rome, Ronald Spogli, even wrote that Berlusconi's Italy "automatically engages on our behalf" and the trust in the current Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, was so deep that Spogli even approached Letta - when he was the undersecretary to Prime Minister Romano Prodi - to ask for help in halting the investigation by the magistrates of Milan into the CIA's extraordinary abduction of Abu Omar. Today Enrico Letta even turns directly to President Obama and his deputy, John Kerry, for clarification on the US intelligence spying activities in our country: "I am sure it will be fully explained to us", he said.

L'Espresso contacted the National Security Agency, the US State Department and the Department of Justice for comments on the top secret files pertaining Italy before publication of this article. L'Espresso even offered the opportunity to raise specific issues and security concerns. The US State Department and the Department of Justice did not reply to our request, whereas the NSA asked l'Espresso to “share the exact names/titles of all of the documents that you plan to cite [in your article]. It would help if we knew exactly what you are viewing”, Nsa spokeswoman, Vanee Vines wrote l'Espresso via email. We provided some of the titles available for the four documents we cite in this article and publish today in our newsmagazine, at that point Vines asked us to “shed ligh on the story itself: what are the findings/conclusions? What are your key claims?”. L'Espresso refused to share information on the story before publication, at that point Nsa spokeswoman, Vanee Vines, replied: “we are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and the US government has made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations”. Finally, Vines asked us: “At the very least, please redact all names and phone numbers and email addresses for security reasons”. The top secret documents examined by l'Espresso did not contain any name, phone number and email address.

A country under surveillance.

NSA's mass spying activities did not target our leadership and diplomacy alone, but it possibly also targeted millions of Italian citizens. A file on the top secret programme "Boundless Informant" that is labeled "Italy" reveals that between December 10, 2012 and January 9, 2013, the NSA collected the metadata for 45.893.570 telephone calls. Estimates close to this figure had already circulated, but now the actual document indicates the penetration of this monitoring.

All of the metadata gathered in our country between December 10^th and January 9^th 2013 as reflected on this slide relate to phone communication, unlike the slides published in Germany and France, where internet communication metadata were targeted as well.

The NSA has denied this interpretation of the Boundless Informant slides when they have been reported in some (though not all) countries, claiming that the slide only shows collection from the named country, not against. But the NSA's own documents describing Boundless Informant and its function repeatedly state that the program is designed to show collection against the specific named country. It is unclear how and why Italy would be collecting and then turning over to the NSA more than 45 million telephone call data each month, and is equally unclear whether the Italian intelligence service has cooperated in the gathering of this data that ends up in the NSA's repositories. But what is clear is that a program which the NSA itself describes as counting "collections capabilities against" the named country has produced a document showing the collection of a huge amount of communications pertaining to Italy.

Gathering metadata is not a sort of "second class" espionage activity. While it is true that metadata does not allow acquiring the actual content of phone conversations, it does allow reconstructing people's lives, their direct and indirect contacts and relationships, their location minute by minute. Using metadata, data can be compared and contrasted to learn about meetings between politicians or encounters between politicians and their assistants, a very detailed map can be obtained of relations in a very short time. In theory, you can tail the entire Parliament, leaders of political parties, ministries, institutions and millions of citizens.

The Snowden file examined by l'Espresso reveals that the collection of phone metadata in Italy between December 10, 2012 and January 9, 2013 reached over four million metadata per day during the period of political crisis that culminated in the resignation of the Mario Monti government. In Paris, publication of the amount of phone metadata gathered in that same period by the NSA sparked off a serious crisis between the U.S. and France. Instead in other countries, local intelligence services have defended the U.S. initiative. Norwegian secret services, for example, declared that they themselves were responsible for the metadata collection indicated by the Snowden file on Norway, to support Norwegian military operations in areas of conflict around the world. This interpretation, however, clashes with the program description in the Boundless Informant FAQ slide. "Clicking on a country will show the collection posture (record count, type of collection, and contributing sigads or sites) against that particular country", the documents reads. It is important to stress that the document reads "against that particular country", not "from" the territory of that particular country.

"The Norwegians services are spinning", Thomas Drake, a former NSA senior executive turned whistleblower, tells l'Espresso. "Boundless Informant is simply designed to indicate how well the NSA surveillance system is meeting the collection requirements. Some of this collection is done with the cooperation of the host country security services" says Drake, "The purpose is to track the mass surveillance and targeting activity against the host country".

Just as Enrico Letta has ruled out NSA espionage against the Italian government, diplomacy and citizens, so Italian intelligence has always rejected any accusations of complicity. In his speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Prime Minister Letta came forward sustaining that "it is reasonable to believe that the publication of fresh material [from the Snowden files] will not contradict the current framework". This conclusion has proved incorrect. The top secret documents published today by the Espresso paint a completely different picture.