Spy vs. Spy, Internet-style

Earlier this week, Admiral Dennis C. Blair, the US's new so-called cyber-czar appointed by President Barack Obama, warned that an "increasingly sophisticated group of enemies has severely threatened the sometimes fragile systems undergirding America's information systems," according to the New York Times.

Over recent weeks, partly triggered over a controversial warning by Google that its systems had been hacked and that China was engaging in censorship of the Internet search giant, China in particular has come under fire for what critics say is a fast-growing capability to mine both commercial and military data across the planet.

After US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a major speech in late January condemned countries that censor the internet and engage in hacking, China, via a wide-ranging editorial in People's Daily fired back, accusing the United States of "doublespeak" and aiding the opposition through the Internet in Iran in the wake of Iran's contested national elections last June, which were widely believed to be rigged by the mullahs.

However, lost in the concern about China is that the Americans invented cyber warfare. They spend more money on it and they are probably by far the most sophisticated operators in the world. If the total United States defense budget is bigger than the combined military budgets of the next seven biggest countries in the world, it is probably a safe bet that its spending on cyber warfare is in equal proportion.

By most estimates, US defense spending accounts for 45 percent of the world total, followed in order by the United Kingdom, China, France and Japan – each officially at between 4 and 5 percent. China's defense spending accounts officially for about 5 percent of the world total, although it could be considerably larger due to hidden budgetary allocations. If hidden allocations were to double China's total spending, the US would still be spending four times as much.

"The National Security Agency, the world's most powerful signals intelligence organization, is in the business of breaking into and extracting data from offshore enemy computer systems and of engaging in computer attacks that, in the NSA's words, ‘disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy the information,' found in these systems," Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and member of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on National Security and Law, wrote recently in the Washington Post. "Simply put, the United States is in a big way doing the very things that Clinton criticized. We are not, like the Chinese, stealing intellectual property from US firms or breaking into the accounts of democracy advocates. But we are aggressively using similar computer techniques for ends we deem worthy. "

However, as long ago as 1995, France ordered five Americans, including four diplomats, out of the country "as rapidly as possible" on charges they had engaged in economic and political spying. The US denied the charges. And, in 2000, the European Parliament announced it would investigate allegations the US spymasters had trained their sights on EU companies through its vaunted Echelon system, originally set up during the Cold War of intercept private telephone conversations, faxes and e-mails worldwide. A European Parliament committee alleged that Echelon had been used to help American companies win contracts over their EU rivals.

A series of 24 documents under the title "The Secret Sentry" released last year by the National Security Agency, Washington's premier electronic spying agency, gives a startling picture of just how overpowering America's eavesdropping capability is, although it gives no indication whether American defense cyber warriors are hacking into foreign defense departments. It may well be that American technological prowess is such, and other countries' defense means are so primitive, that they are never detected.

According to the NSA documents and other information readily available on the Internet – ironically through Google -- the NSA, headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland, employs more than 60,000 people in intelligence, with an annual budget estimated at more than US$10 billion. As early as the 1950s, according to another of the documents -- DDE & NSA: An Introductory Survey, also by David A. Hatch for the cryptographic service, the Army Security Agency and the Air Force Security Service already had as many as 15,000 personnel each involved in electronic surveillance, the Naval Security Group another 3,300.

According to a history of the NSA by the National Cryptological School commissioned in 1984 by Lincoln D. Faurer, then the NSA head, titled "On Watch," intelligence efforts were well on their way in 1945 when intercepts indicated that the Japanese were seeking to surrender to the Russians.

The intercept, according to the history, "was to have a staggering effect on the speed and direction of the American prosecution of the war in the Pacific and the decision to drop two atomic bombs and the conduct of United States foreign policy towards the Russians for as far into the future as anyone could see."

Even before the Japanese had surrendered aboard the battleship USS Missouri in September of 1945, the US had transformed a former girl's college in Arlington, VA into the Signal Intelligence Service, known forever more as SIGINT, the heart of America's electronic spying capability, according to the document. From that point forward, the American electronic spying capability has never stopped growing. SIGINT, in 2001, was producing 60 percent of all of the material to be found in then-President Georg W. Bush's daily intelligence summary, the President's Daily Brief, according to Presidential Transition 2001: NSA Briefs a New President by Hatch, also written for the cryptological service.

In addition to the NSA budget, the Federal Bureau of Investigation budgeted US$3.13 for counterterrorism, some US$1.64 billion for "intelligence," according to a press release last year by US Sen. Barbara Mikulski,), Chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the FBI budget.

"Most increases in the FBI's budget request are for the FBI's counterterrorism and intelligence activities," according to Mikulski's release. "We all agree this is a top priority."

The US capability doesn't mean China isn't working feverishly to develop its cyber warfare capability. It is, and those developments have been given wide publicity, particularly through Clinton's speech and continuing expressions of alarm by Blair and others. But America's complaints resemble those of a madam in a bordello who discovers that other people are having sex.