In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange have become, if possible, even more controversial than they were previously. Yet their latest contribution to the political chaos swirling in Washington may set some kind of new record.
In March, Wikileaks began publishing a trove of Central Intelligence Agency documents that it dubbed “Vault 7.” This ongoing release has included documentation of CIA capabilities to hack into smart phones, computer operating systems, and even devices such as televisions, among other revelations. Yet this week’s Vault 7 release of documents on a tool called “ExpressLane” — allegedly used by the CIA to secretly siphon biometric data collected by partner agencies including the FBI, National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security — may top anything seen so far.
“The OTS (Office of Technical Services), a branch within the CIA, has a biometric collection system that is provided to liaison services around the world — with the expectation for sharing of the biometric takes collected on the systems,” according to Wikileaks. “But this ‘voluntary sharing’ obviously does not work or is considered insufficient by the CIA, because ExpressLane is a covert information collection tool that is used by the CIA to secretly exfiltrate data collections from such systems provided to liaison services.”
Under the guise of updating the biometric data collection system they provide, CIA technicians use ExpressLane to save the collected data to a thumb drive, which technicians can then compare to known data in the shared database with the liaison agency to see if it is actually providing everything that it has.
As Wikileaks puts it, the documents “show one of the cyber operations the CIA conducts against liaison services — which includes among many others the National Security Agency (NSA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).” Yet exactly which “liaison services” are targeted has become the subject of some debate. “Wikileaks suggests” targets could include the FBI, NSA and DHS, “though the documentation for the program does not name targets,” notes AJ Dellinger for International Business Times.
“It’s still unclear who exactly those intel partners are,” writes Russell Brandom for The Verge. “WikiLeaks claims the program was primarily used against US agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, although the targets are far less clear from the documents themselves.”
Indeed, one of the documents refers to “liaison services around the world,” and in other contexts, “liaison services” has referred to foreign intelligence agency partners such as those of the other four member countries in the “Five Eyes” (the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Covertly taking biometric data from our allies arguably does not look as bad as one U.S. intelligence agency spying on another — although it still looks pretty bad.
Other Wikileaks Vault 7 releases have already included documents on CIA hacking tools that cast the agency in a fairly negative light — such as the so-called Marble Framework, which apparently could allow CIA agents to effectively obfuscate the origin of their hacking and spoof foreign languages to make it appear as though an enemy intelligence agency or foreign hacker was behind the CIA’s own cyber operations.
Even as Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign’s potential collusion with Russia continues in the wake of shocking revelations last month that Donald Trump Jr. seemingly leapt at the chance of meeting with someone claiming to represent a Trump-supporting Russian government, the “Russiagate” case remains controversial and far from closed.
Earlier this month the left-leaning magazine The Nation published a lengthy article on the findings of a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), which challenged the official narrative of last year’s hack of the Democratic National Committee. According to VIPS, the data breach was not a remote hack at all, and instead, because of forensic evidence of how quickly the data was transferred, must have been carried out by an insider with access to the system — or in other words the hack was actually a leak.
This view, of course, has not gone undisputed. New York Magazine called the Nation‘s story “too incoherent to even debunk” while John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at cybersecurity firm FireEye told The Hill that “the theory is flawed” and “the report didn’t consider a number of scenarios and breezed right past others. It completely ignores all the evidence that contradicts its claims.” The DNC itself also chimed in to defend itself, post-publication of the Nation story.
“U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the Russian government hacked the DNC in an attempt to interfere in the election,” the DNC wrote in response to the Nation article. “Any suggestion otherwise is false and is just another conspiracy theory like those pushed by Trump and his administration. It’s unfortunate that The Nation has decided to join the conspiracy theorists to push this narrative.”
Despite the DNC’s rhetoric, the “conspiracy theorists” of VIPS include William Binney, the NSA’s former technical director for world geopolitical and military analysis, along with numerous other retired intelligence community members with experience at the CIA, FBI, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency and other agencies. “Unlike the cacophony of anonymous sources cited by the media over the past year, these experts are ready to put their names to their assertions,” notes Danielle Ryan of Salon.
And yet, there has been little coverage of the VIPS report. “The silence from mainstream outlets on this is interesting,” Ryan writes, “if for no other reason than the information appears in a highly-regarded liberal magazine with a reputation for vigorous and thorough reporting — not some right-wing fringe conspiracy outlet carrying water for Donald Trump.”
Assange, for his part, continues to claim he will be able to prove that Russia did not provide Wikileaks with the leaked DNC emails. Perhaps this latest exposure of CIA duplicity — towards not only the spy agencies of allied nations but, if what Wikileaks suggests is true, towards other intelligence agencies of the U.S. government — is a step towards providing that proof. Certainly, if elements of the U.S. intelligence community really are systematically spying on each other through tools like ExpressLane, it would explain why internal feuds of the kind represented by VIPS’ dispute with those officials pushing the Russiagate narrative are spilling out into the open.
Wikileaks and Assange have yet to provide documents conclusively proving their claims regarding the DNC leaks, or even their more recent ones about ExpressLane being used against U.S. agencies. Yet even if the CIA only uses ExpressLane against “liaison services” in other countries, the diplomatic fallout could be quite serious. The CIA has not confirmed that the ExpressLane documents are real, but as Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept notes, Wikileaks has a “perfect, long-standing record of only publishing authentic documents.” It’s understandable that the agency doesn’t want to talk about it.