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An in-depth undercover investigation by ProPublica and NBC News shows that three former U.S. intelligence operatives were enlisted to hack American websites for the U.S. government and other corporate clients to provide information used in battles against terrorists and to protect US national security.
The men — two Australian and one U.S. citizen — worked for the government agency United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Dubai. They communicated via a fake social media account for a government agency in America. The undercover journalists used the fake account, which was in English, to order up a cyberwarfare campaign against the websites of several news outlets. The operation included the taking down of several news websites owned by Russia Today (RT), a Russia-based television network.
The operatives’ identity was a surprise to the British-Australian and the U.S. citizens, who made money from giving political intelligence and information to the agency. It was also surprising to the CIA, which normally does not recruit former operatives to conduct espionage against other countries.
It was no secret to the FBI. The Agency has recruited both the British-Australian and the U.S. citizen to spy. But the CIA kept the Australian in office in Washington as long as possible in order to collect more intelligence about him. The American citizen worked for the CIA and was not aware of the Australian’s work for the agency.
To understand what the CIA knew about the Australian’s work for UAE, ProPublica and NBC News observed more than 50 weeks of conversations that ranged from February 2016 through May 2019 — some 21 months — between the operatives and people inside government. The talks revealed their participation in an array of political activities in the U.S. involving Australia and the UAE.
When the executives outside the government sought help with political spying against America’s adversaries, they were getting it from a team of former American operatives. Among the supervisors of the operation was Richard Armitage, a former top aide to Dick Cheney during the Bush Administration and former deputy secretary of state.
One of the operatives discussed how to communicate with potential targets. He said: “We make the wire intercepts and you send them to someone and you say, ‘Do you want to kill [fill in the blank]?’ and you put [fill in the blank] in the body of the email, and then you hit the send.”
“What do you send the individual?” the manager asked.
“You send them a message,” the operative replied.
The operative discussed the kind of information he might try to obtain by spoofing identities and pretending to be a trusted insider. “Do you know the government person that has a [record of] American news websites to get rid of?”
In another conversation, they discussed targeting information from the news websites, such as the digital source code for Drupal, a popular open-source content management system that helps websites manage content.
“We found out they use Drupal. We’ll try and find out how the majority of their websites are really run and why is it so interesting?” Armitage asked.
As details emerged, CIA Director Gina Haspel and several other top officials were made aware of the operation. The agent who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the CIA’s operations was taken off and put on leave, according to sources familiar with the case.
Even though they believed the individuals they were discussing were in the CIA, the operatives believed it was their role to continue the online operations to give the intelligence operation the upper hand. “We wanted to keep this information out there to continue this operation, to keep it rolling because in this business, to my way of thinking, having people talking constantly and staying abreast of what’s going on, is our [secret advantage],” said the Australian.
Over time, the spy organizations that sought their help made great strides in what was known as “black ops” — clandestine activities conducted by governments, clandestine organizations and private security firms.
Within the Obama Administration, special operations officers, with great discretion, worked behind the scenes to add jihadi targets to kill lists and advised clients who needed help to carry out assassinations. In recent years, the general public and media were less aware of some of these types of covert operations.
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