More US Cyber-Spying?

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced at the National Security Agency headquarters last Friday that the Pentagon would triple its cyber security staff – to 6,000 - over the next few years to defend against computer-based attacks.

That's great. I wonder how Hagel is going to face the music when he visits China later this week where he expects to be grilled on the latest NSA revelations and aggressive US cyber spying. Just last month, it was revealed that the NSA has for years assessed the networks of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which the US House of Representatives has long advocated that US companies should avoid on the grounds of national security.

Hagel is expected to stress to his Chinese audience that the Pentagon sought to be "open and transparent" about its cyber capabilities and intentions with both allies and competitors of America.

“During the course of my remarks today, DOD's [Department of Defense] systems will have been scanned by adversaries around 50,000 times,” Hagel said at the retirement ceremony of NSA director General Keith Alexander. “Our nation confronts the proliferation of destructive malware and a new reality of steady, ongoing and aggressive efforts to probe, access or disrupt public and private networks, and the industrial control systems that manage our water and our energy and our food supplies.”

The United States, he continued, “does not seek to militarize cyberspace. Instead, our government is promoting the very qualities of the internet in integrity, reliability, and openness that have made it a catalyst for freedom and prosperity in the United States and around the world.”

It would be anyone's take on this reasoning but to be sure, the Pentagon is the Department of Defense headquarters located in Arlington County, Virginia while the NSA, operating under the jurisdictions of the Pentagon, is the largest of at least 17 US intelligence organizations.

Whilst the NSA headquarters is located at Forte Meade, Maryland, this agency for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence has a new spying facility in Utah that's seven times bigger than the Pentagon, which houses 30,000 military and civilian employees. How many employees are secreted away in Utah is unknown. Among the core assets in this new Utah facility, the largest DoD construction project on American soil, are what the NSA calls “high performance computers” that were put into play last October.

In the midst of the NSA revelations of aggressive US cyber spying, the NSA has repeatedly assured that a system was in place to provide a critical check against abuse.

“The DNI [Director of National Intelligence] has an inspector general and a general counsel that also oversees what we’re doing,” then NSA director Alexander said last October.

“The Department of Defense has a general counsel and an inspector general that oversees what we’re doing. And the Department of Justice, their national security division, oversees what we’re doing and works with us in the court and the White House.”

But according to a recent report by The Guardian, the Pentagon watchdog Anthony C Thomas, the deputy Defense Department inspector general for intelligence and special program assessments – who has oversight responsibilities on the NSA – claimed he was “not aware” of the NSA snooping and bulk domestic phone records collection programs prior to the global headlines last June on the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Washington Postalso reported last month that the NSA has a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of telephone calls in an unnamed foreign country and storing them for up to a month.

Now consider putting all these into perspective. According to media coverage on the still-missing Malaysian Airlines MH370, when the Australians first announced the discovery of satellite images of what they thought could be possible pieces of the airplane (but weren’t) off the western Australian coast, the images were from US satellites which the Australian authorities have repeatedly declined to disclose. Various conspiracies have been thrown forward on the missing plane, with some pondering how much more information the US might have gathered from their own resources but not disclosed.

Given the vast multiplicity of listening devices the Americans have in the air, on the ground and under the sea, Hagel will probably have a hard time explaining to China what it takes to be “open and transparent.”

Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: