Reuters published a bombshell story on Wednesday, January 30, based on interviews with participants and leaked documents, revealing how former National Security Agency contractors set up an offensive cyber-espionage unit in a converted mansion in the United Arab Emirates. The targets of this computer hacking unit included journalists, human rights activists, and a number of American citizens.
Previously, BuzzFeed broke a story about American special operations veterans contracting for the UAE in Yemen. NEWSREP followed up on this story with an exclusive interview with Dale Comstock, a former Delta Force operator who worked on that contract in a direct action capacity. The former Green Berets, SEALs, and Delta operators were assigned targets by a UAE intelligence officer. Those targets were ostensibly members of al-Qaeda, but the lines blurred as some of those targets appeared to be political rather than military in nature.
The Reuters story revealed how former NSA contractor Lori Stroud worked for an office in Booz Allen Hamilton, an American management and IT consulting firm, when their reputation was tarnished by Edward Snowden stealing classified material, leaking it to foreign adversaries, and then defecting to Russia. Stroud was later offered a job working in the UAE alongside other former U.S. intelligence officials in what was called Project Raven.
Upon arrival she was given an in-brief about how Project Raven’s mission was domestic cybersecurity—protecting the UAE from electronic intrusions. Immediately after the briefing she was told that this was a cover story and was then briefed on their real mission: offensive cyber operations, essentially the electronic equivalent of the direct-action missions the former SOF soldiers were participating in under the auspices of the same government in Yemen.
The American employees of Project Raven were apparently assured throughout the operations that their work was approved by the National Security Agency, a claim that appears to be a lie when subjected to even the most cursory scrutiny. Stroud told Reuters, “It was incredible because there weren’t these limitations like there were at the NSA. There wasn’t that bullshit red tape.” In several instances, she appears to make justifications and dissociation from the facts of what was happening at that time.
Stroud reached her breaking point when she realized that American citizens were being hidden in their target deck. She was fired for asking too many questions and sent home. The former NSA employee who tried to downplay the targeting of American citizens was the same who initially brought Stroud on with Project Raven and assured her it was approved by the NSA, according to Reuters. Marc Baier had worked for the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations office.
Not only does the Reuters story about Project Raven have echoes of the past one about SOF contractors working for the UAE, there are similar themes to be found in NEWSREP’s story about TigerSwan working at the Dakota Access Pipeline. In that case, young veteran soldiers and Marines found themselves working for a retired Delta Force sergeant major.
Because soldiers are institutionalized to accept a military hierarchy, they are liable to follow directions as though they were still working within a military framework even while, in reality, they are working for a commercial endeavor. These employees will often follow orders on the assumption that they are legitimate and vetted by some kind of legal review. The same was true of Stroud, who had been institutionalized within the intelligence community, and initially believed what Marc Baier had told her based on social trust.
The message to members of the special operations and intelligence community, the lesson learned from all of this, is that when they leave government service and go into the private sector, they need to realize they are no longer working under U.S. title codes, they need to have attorneys review contracts before they sign them, and they need to ask their employer difficult questions about dubious tasks.
When taken together, recent news about former SOF and NSA contractors working for the UAE can be seen as an obvious indication that the UAE is hunting for capabilities and wants to use American talent to punch far above their weight class as a tiny Gulf state. In a NEWSREP interview, a former U.S. intelligence official—who has requested to remain anonymous—described a large number of former CIA officers also working in the UAE.
“One NOC is in the UAE and is considered to be a snake and not to be trusted. These are guys who don’t have the understanding and are reckless,” he said, referring to a former CIA officer who worked under what is known as non-official cover. He went on to say that the UAE has very weak risk mitigation; they are too reckless to know how to use the advanced capabilities being taught to them by former JSOC, NSA, and CIA personnel. Meanwhile, a contingent of former Australian special operations soldiers, to include retired General Mike Hindmarsh, are also passing on their skills to the Emiratis.
“Without maturity and command authority you will just cause chaos over there. It is insanity,” the intelligence official told NEWSREP.
Regarding the former U.S. intelligence community personnel working in Yemen, he simply stated, “Their god is money.”