Black Budget: NSA's Team of Elite Hackers Tasked with 'Sabotage'

Snowden leaked the “black budget” to the Washington Post (officially known as the less-snappy-sounding fiscal 2013 National Intelligence Program budget). It turns out that the intelligence community has a fairly extensive $52.6 billion to work with. Out of that, the US spends $4.3 billion annually on cyber operations, according to the report, including efforts to prevent hackers from accessing US systems. But the CIA and NSA also have funding for "offensive cyber operations” to hack into foreign computer networks and sabotage systems.

The hacking unit is known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, and the Post describes it as “a highly secret but incredibly important NSA program that collects intelligence about foreign targets by hacking into their computers, stealing data and monitoring communications.” A Post source said that TAO is also responsible for developing programs that could “destroy or damage foreign computers and networks via cyberattacks if commanded to do so by the president.”

This jives with conventional wisdom surrounding Stuxnet and Flame, the malware that was reportedly jointly developed by the US and Israel to target Iran’s nuclear program.

It’s not all hacking and cyber-warfare though. Notably, the fiscal earmarking also shows funding for an extensive crypto-cracking program and other cyber-espionage efforts aimed at uncovering threats from other nation-states. The Post noted that NSA and the military have 35,000 code-breakers on the payroll for the Consolidated Cryptologic Program. And the CIA devotes $1.7 billion, or nearly 12 percent of its budget, to “technical collection efforts,” including a joint program with the NSA called “CLANSIG,” a covert program to intercept radio and telephone communications from hostile territory.

“We are bolstering our support for clandestine SIGINT [Signals intelligence] capabilities to collect against high-priority targets, including foreign leadership targets,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote the opening statement for the document. “Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic.”

Data collection and storage are a focus, too. “In the context of a cryptanalytic effort, maintenance of technical databases requires retention of all communications that are enciphered or reasonably believed to contain secret meaning, and sufficient duration may consist of any period of time during which encrypted material is subject to, or of use in, cryptanalysis,” the document said.

Speaking of storage, in terms of PRISM and the spying scandal, the budget incidentally also shows that $50 million is allocated for storage of the surveillance data the NSA gathers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the PRISM program.

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