US Cyber Command: Documents Reveal Pentagon Launching Covert Cyber Attacks

In 2008, the Armed Forces Journal published a prescient piece by Colonel Charles W. Williamson III, a staff judge advocate with the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the National Security Agency listening post focused on intercepting communications from Latin America, the Middle East and Europe.

Titled “Carpet bombing in cyberspace,” Col. Williamson wrote that “America needs a network that can project power by building an af.mil robot network (botnet) that can direct such massive amounts of traffic to target computers that they can no longer communicate and become no more useful to our adversaries than hunks of metal and plastic. America needs the ability to carpet bomb in cyberspace to create the deterrent we lack.”

While Williamson’s treatise was fanciful (a DDoS attack can’t bring down an opponent’s military forces, or for that matter a society’s infrastructure), he had hit upon a theme which Air Force researchers had been working towards since the 1980s: the development of software-based weapons that can be “fired” at an adversary, potentially as lethal as a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet.

Two years later, evidence emerged that US and Israeli code warriors did something far more damaging.

Rather than deploying an “af.mil” botnet against Iran’s civilian nuclear infrastructure at Natanz, they unleashed a destructive digital worm, Stuxnet. In the largest and most sophisticated attack to date, more than 1,000 centrifuges were sent spinning out of control, “no more useful” to Iranian physicists “than hunks of metal and plastic.”

A line had been crossed, and by the time security experts sorted things out, they learned that Stuxnet and its cousins, Duqu, Flame and Gauss, were the most complex pieces of malware ever designed, the opening salvo in the cyberwar that has long-guided the fevered dreams of Pentagon planners.

‘Plan X’

Today, that destructive capability exists under the umbrella of US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), one which has the potential of holding the world hostage.

Last year the Pentagon allocated $80 million dollars to defense giant Lockheed Martin for ongoing work on the National Cyber Range (NCR), a top secret facility that designs and tests attack tools for the government.

Under terms of the five year contract, Lockheed Martin and niche malware developers have completed work on a test-bed housed in a “specially architected sensitive compartmented information facility with appropriate security protocols” that “emulates the public internet and other networks, and provides for the modeling of cyber attacks.”

Originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s geek squad, NCR has gone live and was transitioned last year to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, federal contracts uncovered by NextGov revealed.

As Antifascist Calling reported back in 2009, “NCR will potentially serve as a new and improved means to bring America’s rivals to their knees. Imagine the capacity for death and destruction implicit in a tool that can . . . cause an adversary’s chemical plant to suddenly release methyl isocynate (the Bhopal effect) on a sleeping city, or a nuclear power plant to go supercritical, releasing tens of billions of curies of radioactive death into the atmosphere?”

NextGov also reported that the “Pentagon is seeking technology to coordinate and bolster cyberattack capabilities through a funding experiment called ‘Plan X,’ contract documents indicate.”

A notice from DARPA’s Information Innovation Office (I2O) informs us that “Plan X is a foundational cyberwarfare program to develop platforms for the Department of Defense to plan for, conduct, and assess cyberwarfare in a manner similar to kinetic warfare. Towards this end the program will bridge cyber communities of interest from academe, to the defense industrial base, to the commercial tech industry, to user-experience experts.” (emphasis added)

Although DARPA claims “Plan X will not develop cyber offensive technologies or effects,” the program’s Broad Agency Announcement, DARPA-BAA-13-02: Foundational Cyberwarfare (Plan X), explicitly states: “Plan X will conduct novel research into the nature of cyberwarfare and support development of fundamental strategies needed to dominate the cyber battlespace. Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or systems.”

The document also gives notice that DARPA will build “an end-to-end system that enables the military to understand, plan, and manage cyberwarfare in real-time” as an “open platform architecture for integration with government and industry technologies.”

The Military & Aerospace Electronics web site reported that DARPA has “chosen six companies so far to define ways of understanding, planning, and managing military cyber warfare operations in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic networks.”

Collectively worth some $74 million, beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse include “Data Tactics Corp. in McLean, Va.; Intific Inc. in Peckville Pa.; Raytheon SI Government Solutions in Arlington, Va.; Aptima Inc. in Woburn Mass.; Apogee Research LLC in McLean, Va.; and the Northrop Grumman Corp. Information Systems segment in McLean, Va.”

Additional confirmation of US government plans to militarize the internet were revealed in top secret documents provided by former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden. Those documents show that the Pentagon’s goal of “dominating cyberspace” are one step closer to reality; a nightmare for privacy rights and global peace.

Such capabilities, long suspected by security experts in the wake of Stuxnet, are useful not only for blanket domestic surveillance and political espionage but can also reveal the deepest secrets held by commercial rivals or geostrategic opponents, opening them up to covert cyber attacks which will kill civilians if and when the US decides that critical infrastructure should be switched off.

Before a cyber attack can be launched, however, US military specialists must have the means to tunnel through or around security features built into commercial software sold to the public, corporations and other governments.

Such efforts would be all the easier if military specialists held the keys that could open the most secure electronic locks guarding global communications. According to Snowden, NSA, along with their corporate partners and private military contractors embarked on a multi-year, multi-billion dollar project to defeat encryption through the subversion of the secure coding process.

Media reports published by Bloomberg Businessweek, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, also revealed that US intelligence agencies are employing “elite teams of hackers” and have sparked “a new arms race” for cyberweapons where the “most enticing targets in this war are civilian–electrical grids, food distribution systems, any essential infrastructure that runs on computers,” Businessweek noted.

Confirming earlier reporting, The Washington Post disclosed that the US government “carried out 231 offensive cyber-operations in 2011, the leading edge of a clandestine campaign that embraces the Internet as a theater of spying, sabotage and war, according to top-secret documents” provided by Snowden to the Post.

Since its 2009 stand-up as a “subordinate unified command” under US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), whose brief includes space operations (military satellites), information warfare (white, gray and black propaganda), missile defense, global command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as global strike and strategic deterrence (America’s first-strike nuclear arsenal), Cyber Command has grown from 900 personnel to a force that will soon expand to more than “4,900 troops and civilians,” The Washington Post reported earlier this year.

Under the USSTRATCOM umbrella, the organization is comprised of “Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER); Air Forces Cyber (AFCYBER); Fleet Cyber Command (FLTCYBERCOM); and Marine Forces Cyber Command (MARFORCYBER).”

“The Command,” according to a 2009 Defense Department Fact Sheet, “is also standing up dedicated Cyber Mission Teams” that “conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.”

The Defense Department Memorandum authorizing its launch specified that the Command “must be capable of synchronizing warfighting effects across the global security environment as well as providing support to civil authorities and international partners.”

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee during 2010 confirmation hearings, NSA head General Keith Alexander agreed, and The New York Times reported that Cyber Command’s target list would “include civilian institutions and municipal infrastructure that are essential to state sovereignty and stability, including power grids, banks and financial networks, transportation and telecommunications.”

But what various “newspapers of record” still fail to report is that the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure are war crimes that cause catastrophic loss of life and incalculable suffering, as US attacks on the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and more recently, Libya, starkly demonstrate.

In a portrait of Alexander published earlier this summer by Wired, James Bamford noted that for years the US military has “been developing offensive capabilities, giving it the power not just to defend the US but to assail its foes. Using so-called cyber-kinetic attacks, Alexander and his forces now have the capability to physically destroy an adversary’s equipment and infrastructure, and potentially even to kill.”

While the specter of a temporary “interruption of service” haunt modern cities with blackout or gridlock, a directed cyber attack focused on bringing down the entire system by inducing widespread technical malfunction would transform “the vast edifices of infrastructure” into “so much useless junk,” according to urban geographer Stephen Graham.

In Cities Under Siege, Graham discussed the effects of post-Cold War US/NATO air bombing campaigns and concluded that attacks on civilian infrastructure were not accidental; in fact, such “collateral damage” was consciously designed to inflict maximum damage on civilian populations.

“The effects of urban de-electrification,” Graham wrote, “are both more ghastly and more prosaic: the mass death of the young, the weak, the ill, and the old, over protracted periods of time and extended geographies, as water systems and sanitation collapse and water-borne diseases run rampant. No wonder such a strategy has been called a ‘war on public health,’ an assault which amounts to ‘bomb now, die later’.”

A further turn in US Cyber Command’s brief to plan for and wage aggressive war, was telegraphed in a 2012 Defense Department Directive mandating that autonomous weapons systems and platforms be built and tested so that humans won’t lose control once they’re deployed.

There was one small catch, however.

According to Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, a former member of the Board of Trustees at the spook-connected MITRE Corporation, the Directive explicitly states it “does not apply to autonomous or semi-autonomous cyberspace systems for cyberspace operations.”

Presidential Policy Directive 20: Authorizing ‘Cyber-Kinetic’ War Crimes

We now know, based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, that President Barack Obama “has ordered his senior national security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks,” according to the 18-page top secret Presidential Policy Directive 20 published by The Guardian.

Though little commented upon at the time due to the avalanche of revelations surrounding dragnet domestic surveillance carried out by NSA, in light of recent disclosures by The Washington Post on America’s bloated $52.6 billion 2013 intelligence budget, PPD-20 deserves close scrutiny.

With Syria now in Washington’s crosshairs, PPD-20 offers a glimpse into Executive Branch deliberations before the military is ordered to “put steel to target.”

The directive averred that Offensive Cyber Effects Operations (OCEO) “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging.”

These are described in the document as “cyber effects,” the “manipulation, disruption, denial, degradation, or destruction of computers, information or communications systems, networks, physical or virtual infrastructure controlled by computers or information systems, or information resident thereon.”

To facilitate attacks, the directive gives notice that “cyber collection” will entail “Operations and related programs or activities conducted by or on behalf of the United States Government, in or through cyberspace, for the primary purpose of collecting intelligence–including information that can be used for future operations–from computers, information or communications systems, or networks with the intent to remain undetected.”

Such clandestine exercises will involve “accessing a computer, information system, or network without authorization from the owner or operator of that computer, information system, or network or from a party to a communication or by exceeding authorized access.”

In fact, PPD-20 authorizes US Cyber Command to “identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power.”

Indeed, the “directive pertains to cyber operations, including those that support or enable kinetic, information, or other types of operations . . . that are reasonably likely to result in ‘significant consequences’” to an adversary.

We are informed that “malicious cyber activity” is comprised of “Activities, other than those authorized by or in accordance with US law, that seek to compromise or impair the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of computers, information or communications systems, networks, physical or virtual infrastructure controlled by computers or information systems, or information resident thereon.”

In other words, if such activities are authorized by the President acting as Commander-in-Chief under the dubious “Unitary Executive” doctrine, like Richard Nixon, Obama now claims that “when the President does it that means that it is not illegal,” a novel reading of the US Constitution and the separation of powers as it pertains to declaring and waging war!

“Military actions approved by the President and ordered by the Secretary of Defense authorize nonconsensual DCEO [Defensive Cyber Effects Operations] or OCEO, with provisions made for using existing processes to conduct appropriate interagency coordination on targets, geographic areas, levels of effect, and degrees of risk for the operations.”

This has long been spelled out in US warfighting doctrine and is fully consistent with the Pentagon’s goal of transforming cyberspace into an offensive military domain. In an Air Force planning document since removed from the web, theorists averred:

Cyberspace favors offensive operations. These operations will deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or deceive an adversary. Cyberspace offensive operations ensure friendly freedom of action in cyberspace while denying that same freedom to our adversaries. We will enhance our capabilities to conduct electronic systems attack, electromagnetic systems interdiction and attack, network attack, and infrastructure attack operations. Targets include the adversary’s terrestrial, airborne, and space networks, electronic attack and network attack systems, and the adversary itself. As an adversary becomes more dependent on cyberspace, cyberspace offensive operations have the potential to produce greater effects. (Air Force Cyber Command, “Strategic Vision,” no date)

Those plans were made explicit in 2008, when the Air Force Research Lab issued a Broad Agency Announcement entitled Dominant Cyber Offensive Engagement and Supporting Technology, BAA-08-04-RIKA.

Predating current research under “Plan X” to build “an end-to-end system that enables the military to understand, plan, and manage cyberwarfare in real-time,” the earlier notification solicited bids from private military contractors to build cyberweapons.

We learned that the Air Force, now US Cyber Command, the superseding authority in the realm of cyberweapons development, a mandate made explicit in PPD-20, was “interested in technology to provide the capability to maintain an active presence within the adversaries information infrastructure completely undetected. Of interest are any and all techniques to enable stealth and persistence capabilities on an adversaries infrastructure.”

“This could be a combination of hardware and/or software focused development efforts.”

“Following this,” the solicitation read, “it is desired to have the capability to stealthily exfiltrate information from any remotely-located open or closed computer information systems with the possibility to discover information with previously unknown existence.”

While the United States has accused China of carrying out widespread espionage on US networks, we know from information Snowden provided the South China Morning Post, that NSA and US Cyber Command have conducted “extensive hacking of major telecommunication companies in China to access text messages”; carried out “sustained attacks on network backbones at Tsinghua University, China’s premier seat of learning”; and have hacked the “computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, which owns one of the most extensive fibre optic submarine cable networks in the region.”

China isn’t the only target of US industrial espionage.

Earlier this month, O Globo disclosed that “one of the prime targets of American spies in Brazil is far away from the center of power–out at sea, deep beneath the waves. Brazilian oil. The internal computer network of Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant partly owned by the state, has been under surveillance by the NSA, the National Security Agency of the United States.”

Top secret documents mined from the Snowden cache revealed that NSA employees are trained “step-by-step how to access and spy upon private computer networks–the internal networks of companies, governments, financial institutions–networks designed precisely to protect information.”

In addition to Petrobras, “other targets” included “French diplomats–with access to the private network of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France–and the SWIFT network, the cooperative that unites over ten thousand banks in 212 countries and provides communications that enable international financial transactions. All transfers of money between banks across national borders goes through SWIFT,” O Globo disclosed.

The 2008 Air Force solicitation stressed that the service was interested in “any and all techniques to enable exfiltration techniques on both fixed and mobile computing platforms are of interest. Consideration should be given to maintaining a ‘low and slow’ gathering paradigm in these development efforts to enable stealthy operation.”

The Air Force, however, was not solely interested in defense or industrial spying on commercial rivals; building offensive capabilities were viewed as a top priority. “Finally,” the solicitation reads, “this BAA’s objective includes the capability to provide a variety of techniques and technologies to be able to affect computer information systems through Deceive, Deny, Disrupt, Degrade, Destroy (D5) effects.”

As Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2011, recipients of that Broad Agency Announcement may have included any number of “boutique arms dealers that trade in offensive cyber weapons. Most of these are ‘black’ companies that camouflage their government funding and work on classified projects.”

“Offensive Cyber Effects Operations” will be enhanced through the development and deployment of software-based weapons; the Obama administration’s intent in PPD-20 is clear.

The US government “shall identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power, establish and maintain OCEO capabilities integrated as appropriate with other US offensive capabilities, and execute those capabilities in a manner consistent with the provisions of this directive.”

Evidence has since emerged these programs are now fully operational.

On the Attack: Economic, Political and Military ‘Exploits’

Despite diplomatic posturing and much handwringing from the “humanitarian intervention” crowd, the Obama administration’s itchy trigger finger is still poised above the attack Syria button.

The conservative Washington Free Beacon web site reported recently that US forces “are expected to roll out new cyber warfare capabilities during the anticipated military strike on Syria,” and that the targets of “cyber attacks likely will include electronic command and control systems used by the Syrian military forces, air defense computers, and other military communications networks.”

Whether or not that attack takes place, NSA and US Cyber Command are ramping-up their formidable resources and would not hesitate to use them if given the go-ahead.

This raises the question: what capabilities have already been rolled out?

“Under an extensive effort code-named GENIE, The Washington Post disclosed, “US computer specialists break into foreign networks so that they can be put under surreptitious US control.”

According to top secret budget documents provided by Snowden, the Post revealed the “$652 million project has placed ‘covert implants,’ sophisticated malware transmitted from far away, in computers, routers and firewalls on tens of thousands of machines every year, with plans to expand those numbers into the millions.”

“Of the 231 offensive operations conducted in 2011,” the Post reported, “nearly three-quarters were against top-priority targets, which former officials say includes adversaries such as Iran, Russia, China and North Korea and activities such as nuclear proliferation. The document provided few other details about the operations.”

As other media outlets previously reported, the Post noted that US secret state agencies “are making routine use around the world of government-built malware that differs little in function from the ‘advanced persistent threats’ that US officials attribute to China.”

One firm featured in Bloomberg Businessweek’s cyberwar exposé is Endgame Systems, which first gained notoriety as a result of the 2011 HBGary Federal hack by Anonymous.

The shadowy firm has received extensive funding from venture capitalists such as Bessemer Venture Partners, Columbia Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and the intelligence-connected Paladin Capital Group.

Endgame is currently led by CEO Nathaniel Flick, previously the CEO of the “nonpartisan” Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a warmongering Washington think tank focused on “terrorism” and “irregular warfare.”

Flick replaced Christopher Rouland, Endgame’s founder and CEO in December 2012. A former hacker, Rouland was “turned” by the Air Force during the course of a 1990 investigation where he was suspected of breaking into Pentagon systems, Businessweek reported.

The Board of Directors is currently led by Christopher Darby, the President and CEO of the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel. Earlier this year, the firm announced that Kenneth Minihan, a former NSA Director and managing partner at Paladin Capital had joined the Board.

According to Businessweek, Endgame specializes in militarizing zero-day exploits, software vulnerabilities which take months, or even years for vendors to patch; a valuable commodity for criminals or spooks.

“People who have seen the company pitch its technology,” Businessweek averred, “say Endgame executives will bring up maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The executives then create a list of the computers running inside the facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of attacks that could work against those particular systems.”

While the United States has accused the Technical Reconnaissance Bureau of China’s People’s Liberation Army of launching attacks and stealing economic secrets from US networks, American cyberoperations involve “what one budget document calls ‘field operations’ abroad, commonly with the help of CIA operatives or clandestine military forces, ‘to physically place hardware implants or software modifications,’” according to The Washington Post.

“Endgame weaponry comes customized by region–the Middle East, Russia, Latin America, and China–with manuals, testing software, and ‘demo instructions.’”

“There are even target packs for democratic countries in Europe and other US allies,” Businessweek noted.

Readers will recall that Snowden documents have exposed how NSA has carried out widespread economic and political espionage against erstwhile “friends and allies” such as Brazil, France, Germany, India, the European Union and the United Nations.

Add to that list, Endgame exploits which are solely military in nature; in all probability these have been incorporated into NSA and US Cyber Command’s repertoire of dirty tricks.

“Maui (product names tend toward alluring warm-weather locales) is a package of 25 zero-day exploits that runs clients $2.5 million a year,” Businessweek reported. “The Cayman botnet-analytics package gets you access to a database of Internet addresses, organization names, and worm types for hundreds of millions of infected computers, and costs $1.5 million.”

“A government or other entity could launch sophisticated attacks against just about any adversary anywhere in the world for a grand total of $6 million. Ease of use is a premium. It’s cyber warfare in a box.”

Sound familiar?

“An implant is coded entirely in software by an NSA group called Tailored Access Operations (TAO),” Snowden documents revealed. “As its name suggests, TAO builds attack tools that are custom-fitted to their targets,” according to The Washington Post.

“The implants that TAO creates are intended to persist through software and equipment upgrades, to copy stored data, ‘harvest’ communications and tunnel into other connected networks” the Post disclosed.

“This year TAO is working on implants that ‘can identify select voice conversations of interest within a target network and exfiltrate select cuts,’ or excerpts, according to one budget document. In some cases, a single compromised device opens the door to hundreds or thousands of others.”

This does much to explain why NSA’s parallel, $800 million SIGINT Enabling Project stresses the importance of obtaining total global access and “full operating capacity” that can “leverage commercial capabilities to remotely deliver or receive information.”

With “boutique arms dealers” and others from more traditional defense giants along for the ride, NSA and US Cyber Command hope their investment will help “shape the global network to benefit other collection accesses and allow the continuation of partnering with commercial Managed Security Service Providers and threat researchers, doing threat/vulnerability analysis.”

“By the end of this year,” the Post noted, “GENIE is projected to control at least 85,000 implants in strategically chosen machines around the world. That is quadruple the number–21,252–available in 2008, according to the US intelligence budget.”

The agencies are now poised to expand the number of machines already compromised. “For GENIE’s next phase, according to an authoritative reference document,” the Post disclosed, “the NSA has brought online an automated system, code-named TURBINE, that is capable of managing ‘potentially millions of implants’ for intelligence gathering ‘and active attack’.”

It should be clear, given what we have learned from Edward Snowden and other sources, that the US government views the internet, indeed the entire planet, as a battlespace.

In congressional testimony earlier this year, General Alexander told the House Armed Services Committee that “Cyber offense requires a deep, persistent and pervasive presence on adversary networks in order to precisely deliver effects.”

“We maintain that access, gain deep understanding of the adversary, and develop offensive capabilities through the advanced skills and tradecraft of our analysts, operators and developers.”

With US Cyber Command fully funded and mobilized, those “offensive capabilities” are only a mouse click away.

Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His articles are published in many venues. He is the editor of Police State America: U.S. Military "Civil Disturbance" Planning, distributed by AK Press. Read other articles by Tom, or visit Tom's website.