The National Security Agency inadvertently brought Syria’s Internet to a screeching halt nationwide in 2012 after a failed attempt to hack into the war-torn country’s communications data, according to a new claim by Edward Snowden.
The fugitive leaker, in a sprawling new interview with Wired, said that NSA agents tried to exploit a core router of a major Internet service provider in order to tap into Syria’s emails. But the plot backfired, bringing the country’s Internet down for days amid an escalating civil war.
When he went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton in early 2013, Snowden was already disillusioned with the government’s surveillance practices but “had not lost his capacity for shock,” writes James Bamford:
One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO—a division of NSA hackers—had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn’t know that the U.S. government was responsible. (This is the first time the claim has been revealed.)
Inside the TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an “oh shit” moment. They raced to remotely repair the router, desperate to cover their tracks and prevent the Syrians from discovering the sophisticated infiltration software used to access the network. But because the router was bricked, they were powerless to fix the problem.
Fortunately for the NSA, the Syrians were apparently more focused on restoring the nation’s Internet than on tracking down the cause of the outage. Back at TAO’s operations center, the tension was broken with a joke that contained more than a little truth: “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has periodically turned off Internet services in specific areas before launching an attack, according to The Washington Post. On at least three occasions, the sporadic outages, which have continued into this year, were nationwide.
It is unclear which blackout Snowden is referencing, but any blackout would have the potential to disrupt communications among fractured rebel groups and aid the Assad regime.
During one massive, prolonged blackout in November of 2012, the Associated Press, a number of other news outlets, and cyberwarfare experts concluded the Syrian government was likely to blame. Syrian authorities, meanwhile, pointed the finger of responsibility at rebel insurgents. Other theories for how the blackout started circulated widely, but few appear to have suggested the U.S. government could be the culprit.
The November blackout was seen as the worst to hit Syria since its civil war began in early 2011. During the Internet shutdown, Reuters reported that Assad’s forces were planning a “military showdown around Damascus.”
U.S. officials attempted to provide Syrian opposition forces with an alternative to circumvent the blackout, and berated those thought to be responsible for bringing down the country’s Internet.
“We condemn this latest assault on the Syrian people’s ability to express themselves and communicate with each other,” a State Department spokeswoman said at the time, noting that it had provided 2,000 units of communications gear to some rebel groups.
The NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding its potential involvement with Internet blackouts in Syria.
Also in the Wired profile, Snowden claims to have witnessed a program, known as MonsterMind, under development that would hunt for the origins of a potential foreign cyberattack. Once threatening malware was detected at a point of entry, MonsterMind “would automatically fire back,” a level of aggression which Snowden said gave him concern because “attacks can be spoofed.”
“You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia,” Snowden said. “And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”
Snowden repeated his harsh criticisms of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who months before the initial Snowden leaks told a Senate panel that the U.S. did “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.
Clapper “saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary,” Snowden said. The computer techician added that Clapper’s testimony in part drove him to expose the NSA’s secret surveillance programs.
Snowden, 31, is living in Russia, where last week he earned a three-year residency permit after his one year of asylum expired. He faces espionage charges in the U.S. for leaking classified government secrets.