September 29, 2014

NSA's Strategic Mission List

(Updated: February 9, 2016)

One of the most important documents that has been disclosed as part of the Snowden-leaks is also one of the least-known: the Strategic Mission List from January 2007, which provides a detailed list of the goals and priorities for the National Security Agency (NSA).

This Strategic Mission List was published by The New York Times on November 2, 2013, as one of three original NSA documents that accompanied a long report about the how NSA spies on both enemies and allies.



> The Strategic Mission List in .pdf-format

About the publication

On the website of The New York Times (NYT), the Strategic Mission List was published as a series of images in png-format, which made it impossible to copy or search the text. It was also difficult to print the document in a readable way. For reasons unknown, NYT is the only media-outlet that published Snowden-documents in this not very user-friendly way.

Hence I asked The New York Times whether they could provide the Strategic Mission List in the standard pdf-format, but the paper didn't reply. I also asked the author of the report, Scott Shane, but he answered that he had no access to the document anymore.

Eventually I used an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) tool to convert the images from the NYT website into a text document, conducted the necessary corrections by hand and then converted the result into the pdf-document, that is now published here and on the Cryptome website.


The Strategic Mission List

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald claim that NSA has just one single goal: collect all digital communications from all over the world: "Collect it All". But this is not mentioned in the Strategic Mission List, which instead lists a range of far more specific goals, many of which are of a military nature, which is also something that lacks in the media-coverage of the Snowden-leaks.

The document describes the priorities and risks for the United States SIGINT System (USSS) for a period of 12 to 18 months and is reviewed, and where necessary updated bi-annually. The topics are derived from a number of other strategic planning documents, including the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which sets the priorities for the US Intelligence Community as a whole.

Note that according to the classification marking, the Strategic Mission List is only authorized for release to the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, which leaves New Zealand excluded.


Structure

The Strategic Mission List is divided into two parts. The first part includes 16 Topical Missions, which represent missions discerned to be areas of highest priority for the USSS, where SIGINT can make key contributions. The second part includes 6 Enduring Targets, which are countries that need to be treated holistically because of their strategic importance.

For both of these sections, the Strategic Mission List includes Focus Areas, the most critical important targets which are a "must do", as well as Accepted Risks, which are significant targets for which SIGINT should not be relied upon as a primary source.


Enduring Targets

The 6 countries that are listed in the Strategic Mission List as being Enduring Targets for NSA and the tactical SIGINT collecting components of the US Armed Forces are:
- China
- North-Korea
- Iraq
- Iran
- Russia
- Venezuela



Map showing the 6 nations that are Enduring Targets, as well
as countries that are 2nd and 3rd Party partners of NSA
(click to enlarge)


Topical Missions

Besides the 6 countries listed as Enduring Targets, the Strategic Mission List also includes the following 16 Topical Missions:

- Winning the Global War on Terrorism
- Protecting the U.S. Homeland
- Combating Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction
- Protecting U.S. Military Forces Deployed Overseas
- Providing Warning of Impending State Instability
- Providing Warning of a Strategic Nuclear Missile Attack
- Monitoring Regional Tensions that Could Escalate
- Preventing an Attack on U.S. Critical Information Systems
- Early Detection of Critical Foreign Military Developments
- Preventing Technological Surprise
- Ensuring Diplomatic Advantage for the U.S.
- Ensuring a Steady and Reliable Energy Supply for the U.S.
- Countering Foreign Intelligence Threats
- Countering Narcotics and Transnational Criminal Networks
- Mapping Foreign Military and Civil Communications Infrastructure

We see that many of these topics are of a military nature and that also the more civilian areas of interest are quite common goals for a large (signal) intelligence agency. Although communications of ordinary civilians are accidently caught up in NSA's collection efforts, they are clearly not of interest let alone given priority.

Updates:

In January 2016, DNI James Clapper said that "in 2013, 'cyber' bumped 'terrorism' out of the top spot on our list of national threats".

Also early 2016, NSA started an internal reorganization whereby the four main goals for the organization were described as:
- Thwarting terrorists
- Enhancing cybersecurity
- Protecting the warfighter
- Containing, controlling, and protecting strategic weapons


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