September 15, 2014

About STELLARWIND and other mysterious classification markings

(Updated: May 16, 2015)

Last week, on September 6, the US Justice Department released a declassified version of a 2004 memorandum about the STELLARWIND program.

The memorandum (pdf) is about the legality of STELLARWIND, which was a program under which NSA was authorized to collect content and metadata without the warrants that were needed previously.

Here we will not discuss the STELLARWIND program itself, but take a close look at the STELLARWIND classification marking, which causes some confusion. Also we learn about the existance of mysterious compartments that point to some highly sensitive but yet undisclosed interception programs.

Classification marking of the 2004 DoJ memorandum about STELLARWIND

The redacted markings

The first thing we see is that two portions of the classification marking have been blacked out:

1. The redacted space beween two double slashes

This is very strange, because according to the official classification manuals, there cannot be something between two double slashes in that position (see the chart below). The classification level (in this case: Top Secret) has to be followed by the Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) control system (here: COMINT).

But as the US classification system is very complex, there are often minor mistakes in such classification lines. If we assume there was a mistake made here too, then the first term that has been blacked out could be another SCI compartment, which had to be followed by just a single slash (for example HCS for HUMINT Control System would fit the redacted space, although that marking itself isn't classified).

If there was no mistake, however, and the double slash is actually correct, then it would be a complete new category which isn't in the (public) classification manuals. This reminds of the UMBRA marking, which also appeared unexpectedly between double slashes in a classification line.

Overview of the categories and formatting for the US classification and control markings
From the Intelligence Community Classification Manual 6.0 from December 2013
(click to enlarge)

2. The redacted space directly after STELLARWIND

The second redaction starts right after the last letter of "STELLARWIND", thereby carefully hiding the category of the redacted marking, which is determined by how it is separated from the previous term. This could be by a slash, a double slash, a hyphen or a space, each indicating a different level.

In this case, the most likely option is that "STELLARWIND" is followed by a hyphen, which indicates the next term is another compartment under the COMINT control system, equal to STELLARWIND.

Classification manuals say there are undisclosed COMINT compartments which have identifiers consisting of three alphabetical characters. This would fit the redacted space as it would read like: "COMINT-STELLARWIND-ABC".

This undisclosed compartment probably also figured in some other declassified documents, where it sometimes seems to be accompanied by a sub-compartment which is identified by three numeric characters, like for example in this and this declaration where the marking could read like "COMINT-ABC 678":

Classified declaration of NSA director Alexander, April 20, 2007.

Looking at what was redacted in portions of both documents which were marked with this mysterious compartment, it seems that it's about at least two highly sensitive intelligence sources and methods. For example, pages 31-32 of this declaration (pdf) suggest that this might be obtaining metadata from specific telecom companies and search them for members or agents of particular target groups.

Classified declaration of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, May 12, 2006
TSP = Terrorist Surveillance Program; HCS = HUMINT Control System
Note that TSP and HCS are also between double slashes
(click to open the full document in pdf)

Markings with the mysterious undisclosed COMINT compartments weren't found on any of the Snowden-documents, but only on those that were declassified by the government, so it seems that Snowden had no access to information protected by these particular compartments.

The marking TSP (for Terrorist Surveillance Program), which is in some of the examples shown above, was used instead of STELLARWIND in briefing materials and documents intended for external audiences, such as Congress and the courts.


So far, we looked at the two parts of the classification marking that were blacked out. But now we also have to look at the STELLARWIND marking itself, which wasn't redacted, but still causes confusion.

The classification marking of the 2004 memorandum of the Justice Department says "COMINT-STELLAR WIND" and according to the official formatting rules, this means that STELLARWIND would be part of the COMINT control system.

Note that the same memorandum had already been declassified upon a FOIA request by the ACLU in 2011, but in that version (pdf) the codeword STELLARWIND was still blacked out from the whole document. Both documents are compared here.

Classification marking of the 2004 DoJ memorandum about STELLARWIND

As COMINT is a control system for communications intercepts or Signals Intelligence, this seems to make sense. But what is confusing, is that the internal 2009 NSA classification guide (pdf) for the STELLARWIND program, which was disclosed by Edward Snowden, says something different.

Initially this guide calls STELLARWIND a "special compartment", but from the marking rules it becomes clear that it is treated as an SCI control system. Accordingly, the prescribed abbreviated marking reads: "TOP SECRET // STLW / SI // ORCON / NOFORN". In this way we can see STELLARWIND in the classification line of the following document:

Classification marking of a 2013 classified declaration (pdf) of DNI James Clapper
which was declassified on May 6, 2014
(click to enlarge)

In this document and also in a similar declaration (pdf) from 2013, the reason for the STELLARWIND classification is explained as follows:
"This declaration also contains information related to or derived from the STELLARWIND program, a controlled access signals intelligence program under presidential authorization in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this declaration, information pertaining to the STELLARWIND program is denoted with the special marking "STLW" and requires more restrictive handling."

STELLARWIND is also being treated as a control system in the 2009 draft report about this program written by the NSA Inspector General, although its classification line is also somewhat sloppy: there are double slashes between STLW and COMINT (should just be a single one), and only a single one between COMINT and ORCON (where there should have been double slashes as both are from different categories):

Classification marking of the 2009 report about
STELLARWIND by the NSA Inspector General
(click to read the full document)

Throughout this document, the portion markings are also not always consistent. Most of them are "TS//SI//STLW//NF", but one or two times "TS//SI-STLW//NF". But as this report is a draft, it's possible that these things have been corrected in the final version, which hasn't been disclosed or declassified yet.

The 2009 Inspector General report about STELLARWIND was one of the first documents from the Snowden-leaks to be published, and it still is one of the most informative and detailed pieces about the development of NSA's interception efforts since 9/11.


In the end, it doesn't make much difference whether STELLARWIND is a control system on its own, or a sub-system of COMINT, but it is remarkable that for such an important program, the people involved apparently also weren't clear about it's exact status and how to put it in the right place of a classification line.

More important though is that the declassified documents show that besides the STELLARWIND program, there's at least one COMINT-compartment with at least one sub-compartment that protect similar or related NSA collection efforts which are considered even more sensitive, but about which we can only speculate.


On April 24, 2015, the US government declassified a 2009 report by five Inspectors General about the STELLARWIND program, after a FOIA request by The New York Times. This report, which is over 700 pages long, has the overall classification "TOP SECRET // STLW // HCS / COMINT // ORCON / NOFORN":

The overall classification marking of the 2009 Inspectors General report
about STELLARWIND, with underneath the classification line and the
header of the report of the NSA Inspector General

Included in this report is the final version of the report of the NSA Inspector General, the draft version of which we discussed above. We see that in this final version, the classification line has been corrected: there's now a double slash between COMINT and ORCON, just like it should be.

This also means that the double slash between STLW and COMINT, which initially looked like a mistake, must be correct. We also see this double slash in the overall classification marking for the entire report (which has the additional HCS (HUMINT Control System) for information from the CIA).

Apparently STELLARWIND (STLW) was not an ordinary SCI control system (then there would have been only a single slash between STLW and COMINT), but a category on its own, or belongs to a category not mentioned in the publicly available government classification marking guides.

Update #2:
In a speech on May 15, 2015, former NSA Inspector General Joel Brenner said that STELLAR WIND "was not SAP’ed, because the creation of a new special access program requires Congressional notification, but it was run directly by the Office of the Vice President and put under the direct personal control of the Vice President’s counsel, David Addington" - which could maybe an explanation for the fact the program was or became a classification category on its own.


rsesek said...

My hypothesis is that STELLARWIND started as an highly classified COMINT compartment, which is what the early documents show. The entire STLW system was set up under emergency legal powers after 9/11, so the legal framework for the collection was not long-lasting. But then the Executive Branch got FISA amended (a couple of times...) to grant power to collect in a STLW-like way. The FISA-based legal framework is somewhat different than what STLW was originally set up to do, and the IG report shows that STLW collected data in some legally questionable ways. I think that after FISA was updated, STELLARWIND was made a control system to protect and isolate the data collected under that temporary, emergency authority, which is why the classification guides are so explicit about not removing information from the control system. Data collected under the authority is collected in an SI compartment, just like STLW was originally.

Also, one note: HCS (and other control system markings) are sometimes redacted so that a document is not associated with an agency, not because the marking itself is classified.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my lack of knowledge on this site, but I don't know where to post updates. In your GCHQ list of abbreviations you have JARIC. This stands for Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Cell. This uses UK air assets to record imagery, analyse and disseminate product.

P/K said...

Thank you for mentioning this! You can post comments below every article on this website. I will update the GCHQ listing accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it isn't STELLARWIND, but STELLAR and WIND using a space to distinguish between two entities.