Reuters Investigation Finds UAE Employed Former NSA Hackers As Spies
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The name of the spy team was Project Raven. It was run by the United Arab Emirates but staffed with freelance American cybersecurity experts. Many of them had honed their spycraft working at U.S. intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency. The contractors were initially hired to spy on enemy governments and violent extremist groups, including ISIS. They would also end up spying on government critics, human rights activists, teenagers on Twitter and three American journalists.
JOEL SCHECTMAN: It's just so crazy. You kind of like almost couldn't make it up. Or if you did make it up, it would just be like some kind of late-night straight-to-video spy movie or something.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Joel Schectman, a reporter with Reuters who, along with Christopher Bing, investigated Project Raven. The UAE is an American ally, so it wasn't a big leap for American contractors to go work in Abu Dhabi. There was good money to be made working abroad. And they wanted an adventure. And Joel Schectman says there's nothing illegal about working for other governments.
SCHECTMAN: I think when they were recruiting a lot of these people, the pitch to them would be, you know, you're going to be in this counterterrorism unit. They wouldn't really necessarily get all the details until they're there. Don't worry. The U.S. government kind of knows about it. And, you know, you're just going to be fighting terrorists like you were doing before. And then they get there, and they find that the culture of the UAE is that if you speak poorly of the monarchy, then you're somebody who they really want to look at. And, essentially, it was people associated with Human Rights Watch. It was people associated with any...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: People who could embarrass the government, essentially.
SCHECTMAN: People - yeah, people who could embarrass the government. And the evidence of that really didn't require very much. There was this one guy we talked about in the story. This guy Rori Donaghy, who, essentially - like, when he graduated college, he decided he wanted to get into human rights issues. And he basically created a WordPress blog. I mean, he called it like some kind of - Emirati Human Rights Center or something. But it was based out of London. He created a WordPress blog. And I guess he probably got to the top of the Google rankings when it came to people searching for UAE. And that made him a target. And that made him, like, a chief target for, like, five or six years.
And, you know, the Americans on this program, they might have had some discomfort with targeting people like Rori. But, more or less, they kind of went along with it. They kind of got into it. It was sort of an exciting place for them to be. It was kind of a cool adventure. They were making a lot of money.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's talk a little bit about who these people are. You had one person go on the record and several others who did not. But what were the backgrounds of these people?
SCHECTMAN: Lori Stroud, who is the only person who'd go on the record on this story - she went straight from high school into U.S. Army Signals Intelligence Unit and very quickly into the NSA. And after their - several career setbacks at the NSA, you know, a former manager of hers from the NSA said, hey. You know, I have a very cool project that you might be interested in. And she jumped at it. I think that she really believed that this whole situation had been signed off on by the U.S. government and by the NSA.
But then once she arrived there, you know, I think it became clear very quickly that she was going to be working, really, for a foreign spy service quite directly. I think that she adapted to that situation. She adapted to those expectations. I think that she felt, you know, hey, this is not for me to decide why this person is of the priority they are. There might be things about that person that I don't know. And it's for this country to set its own kind of agenda in terms of who they see as being security threats.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lori Stroud worked for a few years as a contractor in Abu Dhabi, rising to become a lead analyst. This gave her more access to whom the Emiratis were targeting. She was becoming uncomfortable, though, with the work. I asked Joel Schectman, what was the breaking point?
SCHECTMAN: There was one line that she felt she couldn't cross and that she had always told she wasn't going to have to cross, which was spying on Americans. And it was made very clear. Yeah, you're not going to be targeting Americans. You don't have to worry about that. As time went on, she started to see that there was collection being done on Americans. This is something that kind of flipped the switch for her, I think, and realized how shady the whole situation was, how untenable it was to be this American NSA operative who's, like, working, essentially, as a mercenary for a foreign country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's the U.S. government done with this knowledge that they have former NSA workers targeting Americans? Have you asked for a reaction...
SCHECTMAN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I have. There's kind of two pieces to it, right? Like, the first piece is, what's their reaction, in general, to the idea that they have people from the NSA going and spying on all kinds of people - on human rights people, on journalists in general, like, Americans aside, right? Their reaction to that I really believe is that they don't care. And this is something the State Department has signed off on. This is something the NSA did sign off on. It's called a license. They granted a license for them to go and conduct contract spy operations for this foreign government. And so, you know, I've gone to them for reaction. They've said, well, you know, it's not - you know, this doesn't give you permission to violate human rights. But to me, the Emirati stance towards human rights is not, like, a secret, right?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the takeaway from this? I mean, do you think that that program is going to continue in its current form?
SCHECTMAN: I think, for me, like, if they allow the people that they're highly training to do these, you know, very, like, elite spying operations - if they're allowing those people to then go and become, like, mercenaries for countries that violate human rights, I think it's, like, pretty clear to me that they're not really taking, like, proper oversight over that component. And the NSA I think would take exception to the spying on Americans part, but I think that's kind of it, right? Like, the spying on the Americans part is, like, sort of the exception that proves the rule. I think that was probably a very small part of Project Raven. But, you know, what about all this other stuff? What about just allowing your agents to go and use that training that we gave them as a society to go and help this other government, like, hunt down people because of the stuff that they say on the Internet?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joel Schectman is an investigative reporter with Reuters. Thank you very much.
SCHECTMAN: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We asked the State Department for their take on this. In a statement, a spokesperson tells NPR, violations of human rights are not authorized by Department of State export licenses.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLACK KEYS' "SO HE WON'T BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.