'The bad kind of spy': US counterterrorism agents for hire in UAE

'The bad kind of spy': US counterterrorism agents for hire in UAE
Comment: Across the world, we're seeing the marriage of technology and autocracy, writes James Snell.
5 min read
23 Dec, 2019
Americans were inevitably among the targets of UAE's surveillance operation [Getty]
Most people - even those with power - tend to consider themselves good, even when their work is used for nefarious ends.

This problem afflicts politicians most obviously, but it affects public servants just as much, especially when they begin offering their services on a freelance basis.

The defences offered by officials against charges of doing evil are less well established than their political masters. And things get trickier when we come to espionage, counterterrorism and matters of national security.

Richard A. Clarke is an American member of the national security establishment. His career is accompanied by all the right organisations and names. He worked in the White House and the State Department. His ultimate superiors included both presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan. He led America's counter-terrorism efforts under George W. Bush and roundly criticised the president after Clarke left his position.

After leaving the US government, Reuters notes, Clarke continued in the same line of work. He took his vision for counterterrorism to the United Arab Emirates as a consultant in 2008, forming an organisation first known as DREAD (Development Research Exploitation and Analysis Department), and later, though only a little less sinisterly, as Project Raven.

Under both names, these efforts were staffed largely by Americans who had experience in dealing with their own country's counterterrorism infrastructure and its surveillance operations. Reuters interviewed Lori Stroud, who left the National Security Agency in 2014 and later found herself working the UAE with the Raven Project.

They found their work assisting in the collection of information on domestic political opponents, activists and critics of the government

DREAD and Raven assisted the UAE in putting together a suite of tools and operations to bolster its cyber counterterrorism. Those who work on the project claim success in disrupting the operations of Islamic State (IS) within the Emirates, and substantial improvements in aspects of counterterrorism which led to the broadening of the UAE's defences.

But as the Americans found, what their own government considers a threat to national security differs from foreign clients. They found their work assisting in the collection of information on domestic political opponents, activists and critics of the government.

Read more: Pegasus: The Israeli spyware that helped Saudi Arabia spy on Khashoggi

And national loyalty began to feature, with Americans inevitably among the targets of the operation. "I am working for a foreign intelligence agency who is targeting US persons," Stroud said to Reuters. "I am officially the bad kind of spy."

Project Raven got at Americans not through American servers, which it was prohibited from doing, but rather by gaining entry to accounts used to access Google, Hotmail and Yahoo services.

Loopholes such as these allowed American officials to continue to work for the project, and for their efforts to remain on the side of various artificial lines between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. The FBI is
now investigating which lines may have been crossed.

One of the tools they used was called Karma. It gained access to the iPhones of suspects and people of interest between 2016 and 2017, along with much of their contents - and their passwords. According to claims of some of the Americans involved in Project Raven, people of interest included Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, Turkish and Omani officials, and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman.

One of the people whose accounts and computers were accessed is Rori Donaghy, an activist. The project managed this by posing as a fellow traveller and suggesting, ironically, that he download software to make his communications more secure. Naturally, this particular download did the opposite of that.

Another activist, Ahmed Mansoor, was also a target. He was convicted in 2017 of "offenses against national unity" due to his activity on social media and sentenced to a decade in prison, where he remains. Later, his wife's phone was tapped by authorities.

To surveil activists and opposition figures so widely and so invasively is not only contrary to the supposed values of the Americans running this unit, but also contrary to best practice in preventing the work of the terrorists.

More tools were used, more people overseen, but little good done. The Americans involved justified their tactics as the requirements for doing a job, one which was "blessed by the US government". But pitching new tools and new targets, which the Reuters reporting suggests they did to gain the favour of their employers, was entirely their own idea.

Yet even the Americans who spoke to Reuters, and admitted not only their involvement but also the morally questionable nature of their activities, seemed not to mind what they were being asked to do.

"We're working on behalf of this country's government, and they have specific intelligence objectives which differ from the US, and understandably so," Stroud said. 

It is not about the security of the nation, but rather the security of the state and its leaders

"Some days it was hard to swallow, like [when you target] a 16-year-old kid on Twitter," she told her interviewers. "But it's an intelligence mission, you are an intelligence operative. I never made it personal."

Above all else, Stroud said, "You live with it."

As the technology to conduct elaborate surveillance becomes more common, and as the wages and consultancy fees of those with the expertise to mount these programmes come more and more within the price range of most authoritarian states, "living with it" ought to be re-examined.

Across the world, notably in China, we see the marriage of technology and autocracy. It is not about the security of the nation, but rather the security of the state and its leaders. Foreign contractors engaged in this kind of work no doubt come to appreciate the distinction. So should we all.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The TelegraphProspectNational ReviewNOW NewsMiddle East Eye and History Today.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.