Is There a Mole at the NSA, or Is It Russian Disinformation?

Back in March, we speculated that the point behind the Russian hacks and Wikileaks document dumps during the 2016 election was to create a mole hunt in our intelligence agencies. There now are indications that our speculation was spot on.

The New York Times recently reported that, largely as a result of Wikileaks and the publication of other documents, the National Security Agency (NSA) is in the midst of a mole hunt.That report also tends to confirm speculation which we have privately heard from people in the intelligence community: that Russia may have multiple sources within the NSA that are supplying it with some of our most closely guarded secrets.

Multiple NSA & CIA Hacks

In the past few years, the NSA and CIA have been hit with multiple hacks and leaks, each of which targeted different sets of secret documents.

The most highly sensitive intelligence work product is carefully compartmentalized, which means that people who work on one “product” may not know what others are doing unless they have a need to know. To further protect our secrets, the “consumer” of the most secret “product” does not have access to other secrets outside of the are they work on. So, a policymaker working on counterterrorism wouldn’t have access to nuclear bomb designs. Unless, of course, they are at the upper levels of a spy agency or the government.

The fact that the NSA and CIA have been the target of a plethora of hacks greatly concerns the intelligence community because it implies that either multiple hackers have managed to breach NSA’s computer security there are multiple moles at the agency, or – the worst case scenario – someone with a very high security clearance is a spy.

What about the Shadow Brokers?

One of the most publicized hacks was by the Shadow Brokers, a group the intelligence community has associated with Russian intelligence. For example, the Times reported that the Shadow Brokers referred to NSA’s hacking tools with a name first used by Kaspersky Lab, which the U.S. suspects is tied to Russian intelligence.

But that assumption has been shaken by on-line posts that claim to be written by the Shadow Brokers. The posts show more than a passing knowledge of English, U.S. culture and politics – which includes, as the Times noted, references to President Trump’s base, details of Steve Bannon’s departure from the administration, the Freedom Caucus, the “deep state,” the Alien and Sedition Act and other items.

Even more frightening is that the Shadow Brokers appear to know the names of specific NSA employees and the projects on which they worked. You can learn English. You also can learn about American culture and politics in a few hours with Google searches. What you cannot easily find are the names of workers or contractors at our most secret agency and their work product. For that you need highly classified and restricted insider information.

Is It Disinformation?

For some time, we have heard rumors from the intelligence community of the possible existence if a super mole – someone embedded in the highest levels of the CIA or NSA who has been on the Russian payroll. And the Shadow Brokers posts hint at that.

On the other hand, the posts could be nothing more than a Russian disinformation campaign. The very word “disinformation” is a transliteration from Russian the Russian term dezinformatsiya, which refers to a Soviet-era Russian tactical intelligence weapon first deployed in 1923 when the country created a special disinformation office to conduct active measures intelligence operations.

As William Safire noted, Soviet disinformation included the “manipulation of a nation’s intelligence system through the injection of credible, but misleading data.” The Russian disinformation tradecraft has not changed much since the Soviet era.

The Great Mole Hunt

Whether there is a super mole or it is disinformation, the result is the same: both the CIA and NSA are in the midst of major mole hunts. Just as we predicted back in March would happen.

NSA employees, according to the Times, “have been subjected to polygraphs and suspended.” The agency has active investigations against at least three former employees or contractors.

It should go without saying that the mole hunts have sowed suspicion and demoralized employees. Our intelligence sources tell us that many current high-tech NSA and CIA workers are looking for private sector employment.

With just the implication of a spy or spies with access to multiple intel products the Russians may have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams — crippling the NSA from the inside.

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