What’s in the spending bill? We skim it so you don’t have to
By Ed O’Keefe December 10 at 10:30 AM
This item has been updated and revised.
The $1.01 trillion spending bill unveiled late Tuesday will keep most of the federal government funded through next September — and it’s packed with hundreds of policy instructions, known on Capitol Hill as “riders,” that will upset or excite Democrats, Republicans and various special interest groups.
So, what’s in the bill? We’ve sifted through the legislation, consulted supporting documents from Democratic and Republican aides, and called out some of the more notable and controversial elements below. (If you want to review detailed reports on all 12 parts of the spending bill, click here.)
Please note: This is a fluid report that will be updated to add more detail or correct errors. What notable changes did we miss? What notable changes did you spot? Contact us or share details in the comments section below:
The bill once again bans using federal funding to perform most abortions; blocks the use of local and federal funding for abortions in the District of Columbia; and blocks the use of federal dollars for abortions for federal prisoners. Republicans say that there’s also new language directing the secretary of health and human services to ensure that consumers shopping for health-care coverage on the federal exchange can tell whether a plan covers abortion services.
AFFORDABLE CARE ACT:
The law is still funded, but there’s no new money for it. There’s also no new ACA-related funding for the Internal Revenue Service and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the two agencies most responsible for implementing the law. The bill also would cut the budget of the Independent Payment Advisory Board — what Republicans have called “the death panel” — by $10 million.
Congress withholds funding for the Afghan government “until certain conditions are met,” including implementing the bilateral security agreement reached with the United States.
The nation’s rail passenger service earns $1.39 billion, the same amount it currently receives. The rail service carries passengers through 46 states and hit an all-time high of 31.6 million passengers during the last fiscal year, according to Democratic aides.
The bill would dramatically expand the amount of money that wealthy political donors could inject into the national parties, drastically undercutting the 2002 landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul. Bottom line: A donor who gave the maximum $32,400 this year to the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee would be able to donate another $291,600 on top of that to the party’s additional arms — a total of $324,000, ten times the current limit. Read more on this here.
CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL:
The agency would get more than $6.9 billion, an increase of about $42.7 million. The nation’s leading disease-fighters also get $30 million to help fight Ebola (see below).
CLEAN WATER ACT:
In a win for Republicans, the spending bill blocks the Environmental Protection Agency from applying the law to certain farm ponds and irrigation ditches — a move that GOP aides said would benefit farmers.
Democrats agreed to make some of the biggest changes yet to the 2010 financial regulatory reforms. In a deal sought by Republicans, the bill would reverse Dodd-Frank requirements that banks “push out” some of derivatives trading into separate entities not backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporations. Ever since being enacted, banks have been pushing to reverse the change. Now, the rules would go back to the way they used to be. But in exchange, Democrats say they secured more money for the enforcement budgets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Roughly $5.4 billion is provided across several agencies to combat the spread of the disease in the United States and around the world. The amount is less than the $6 billion Obama requested.
The beleaguered country gets $1.3 billion in military aid and $150 million in economic aid — but the money is subject to “democracy and human rights conditions,” while the secretary of state can make exceptions for counterterrorism and border security operations.
There’s $5.4 billion for security at U.S. embassies worldwide, $46 million more than Obama requested. The total includes new money to implement recommendations from the Benghazi Accountability Review Board. The bill also once again bans any embassy construction money to be spent on the lavish new U.S. embassy in London.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY:
The agency gets $8.1 billion, down $60 million from the last fiscal year. The agency’s budget has been slashed by $2.2 billion, or 21 percent, since fiscal 2010, according to GOP aides. The cuts mean that EPA will have to reduce its staffing to the lowest levels since 1989.
Well, kind of. The former House majority leader stunned the political world by losing in a GOP primary last summer. But Congress agreed to provide $12.6 million for his signature legislative achievement — the Gabriella Miller Kids First Act, which authorizes new federally-funded pediatric research. The bill was paid for by slashing federal funding for political conventions.
FEDERAL WORKER PAY (AND CONFERENCES):
The bill allows a 1 percent pay raise ordered by Obama to take effect in January. And the legacy of embarrassing spending scandals at federal agencies persist as Congress once again banned or put limits on certain conferences, official travel and some employee awards.
FOOD SAFETY (AND THE FDA)
There’s $2.589 billion for the Food and Drug Administration, a $37 million increase from last year. There’s $27 million in new funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Food Safety and Inspection Service would receive $1.016 billion, a $5 million increase.
Once again the Obama administration is banned from transferring terrorism detainees to the United States from the U.S. military facility in Cuba. There’s also a ban on building or buying any facility in the U.S. to house detainees. But the bill allows for the ongoing transfer of detainees to other countries.
In a modest attempt to address a growing crisis with the illicit drug, lawmakers are adding $7 million for a new anti-heroin task force run out of the Justice Department’s COPS Office. The money will be used as part of a competitive grant program for drug enforcement, including investigations and operations to stop the distribution or sale of the drug, according to Democrats.
The bill only funds the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees most immigration policy, until February. But negotiators gave new money for immigration programs at other federal agencies. There’s $948 million for the Department of Health and Human Service’s unaccompanied children program — an $80 million increase. The program provides health and education services to the young migrants. The department also gets $14 million to help school districts absorbing new immigrant students. And the State Department would get $260 million to assist Central American countries from where of the immigrant children are coming.
INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE:
One of the GOP’s favorite targets will see its budget slashed by $345.6 million. The nation’s tax agency also would be banned from targeting organizations seeking tax-exempt status based on their ideological beliefs.
There’s $3.1 billion in total aid for the country, including $175 million for successful “Iron Dome” missile defense system. Defense aid totals $619.8 million.
The legislation once again enacts a pay freeze for the vice president “and senior political appointees.”
The troubled country cannot receive any U.S. aid until the secretary of state confirms the country is cooperating with ongoing investigations into the September 2012 attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The Arab kingdom would receive $1 billion in economic and military aid, in addition to U.S. humanitarian aid for millions of Syrian refugees.
The bill once again prohibits new standards that would ban the use of cheaper, less energy efficient incandescent bulbs. The proposal was first introduced and set in motion by the Bush administration, but the Obama White House allowed the change to continue, despite sustained consumer demand for older bulbs.
The District of Columbia will be prohibited from legalizing marijuana for the much of the coming year. The development — upending a voter-approved initiative — shocked elected D.C. leaders, advocates for marijuana legalization and civil liberties groups. The bill also would block the Justice Department from interfering with state-level medical marijuana measures and prohibits the Drug Enforcement Agency from interfering with industrial hemp production.
The D.C. region’s subway and bus system would earn $150 million in federal dollars for continued improvements. That’s part of $10.9 billion set to be doled out for transit programs nationwide, including the construction of new rail and rapid bus projects in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas. But Republicans stress that the bill has no new federal funding for high-speed rail projects, especially the ambitious Los Angeles-to-San Francisco routes envisioned by California Democrats.
MILITARY PAY AND PERKS:
Military service members will receive a 1 percent pay increase next year. But there’s a pay freeze for generals and flag officers. The bill also ends a five percent discount on tobacco and tobacco-related products sold at military exchanges.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY:
The agreement includes $24 million to complete the federal government’s contribution to the new museum being built on the Mall. The rest of the money will be raised through private donations.
NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH:
The nation’s premier medical research agency would receive $30.3 billion, a $150 million overall increase. Democrats noted that the new funding helps especially for ongoing Alzheimer’s and brain research programs.
You’re a government official and want an official portrait? You’ll have to pay for it (or raise the funds). The bill bans taxpayer funding for official portraits of any Executive Branch employees, lawmakers and heads of legislative agencies.
OVERSEAS MILITARY OPERATIONS:
There’s $1.3 billion for a new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund; $5 billion for military operations to combat the Islamic State, including $1.6 billion to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces; $500 million for a Pentagon-led program to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition fighters; $810 million for ongoing military operations in Europe, including requirements that at least $175 million is spent in support of Ukraine and Baltic nations.
The bill stops assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it becomes a member of the United Nations or UN agencies without an agreement with Israel. It also prohibits funds for Hamas.
For the first time, the benefits of current retirees could be severely cut, part of an effort to save some of the nation’s most distressed pension plans. The change would alter 40 years of federal law and could affect millions of workers, many of them part of a shrinking corps of middle-income employees in businesses such as trucking, construction and supermarkets. Read more on this here.
U.S. POSTAL SERVICE:
You like your mail on Saturdays? You’ll keep your mail on Saturdays. The bill requires the mail service to continue six-day deliveries, despite a years-long attempt to cut back on service to save money.
White potatoes, to be exact. The Women, Infants and Children program that provides food aid to low-income families would receive $6.6 billion, a $93 million cut from the last fiscal year. But the program will be required to ensure that “all varieties of fresh vegetables, including white potatoes, are eligible for purchase” through the program, said Republicans. The change is a big victory for the potato lobby, which has long fought to be part of the food assistance program.
RACE TO THE TOP:
The bill cuts funding for Obama’s signature education initiative — a big blow to his education legacy, according to The Post’s Valerie Strauss. Overall, the Education Department would take a slight hit in funding; at $70.5 billion, down $133 million below the fiscal year 2014, but special education grants to states would get $25 million more than last year, up to $11.5 billion. There is also no funding for the controversial Common Core State Standards in this legislation.
Among other things, there’s $3 million to expand inspections along the roughly 14,000 miles of track used by trains hauling oil tankers.
In a victory for the GOP, the bill would ban the Fish and Wildlife Service from adding the rare bird found in several Western states to the Endangered Species List. Republicans argue that adding the bird to the list “would have severe economic consequences on Western states and the nation’s efforts to become energy independent.” But there’s also $15 million for the Bureau of Land Management to conserve sage-grouse habitats.
SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM:
The school lunch nutritional changes sought by First Lady Michelle Obama take a hit. The bill allows more flexibility to school districts to implement new whole grain nutrition standards “if the school can demonstrate a hardship” when buying whole grain products, according to Republicans. The bill also relaxes new sodium standards until they are “supported by additional scientific studies.”
SEXUAL ASSAULT IN THE MILITARY:
There’s $257 million for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs, including $25 million more to expand the Sexual Assault Victims’ Counsel program. But Democrats, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), are expected to make a final push to expand the program this week.
In a victory for the trucking industry, the bill blocks new Transportation Department regulations requiring truckers to get two nights of sleep before starting a new work week. The regulation slashed a typical trucker’s work week to 70 hours, down from 82 hours.
The perennial ban on providing money for the ongoing renovation of U.N. Headquarters in New York remains intact.
U.S. CAPITOL (AND RELATED AGENCIES):
There’s $21 million to continue restoring the cast-iron Capitol Dome. And $348 million for the U.S. Capitol Police (a force with 1,775 officers). Lawmakers also plan to save $10,000 by allowing the congressional Office of Compliance to email congressional staffers about their employment rights. Old rules required the office to send such notices by snail mail. Finally, for the first time the agency formerly known as the Government Printing Office is now officially known as the Government Publishing Office.
After a year of embarrassing scandals at the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs, lawmakers are making good on promises to provide more money and oversight. There’s a total of $159.1 billion in discretionary and mandatory spending. Of that, $209 million was added to address new costs related to the bipartisan veterans’ reform bill passed last summer. The legislation calls for adding medical staff and expanding dozens of facilities. In order to specifically addressing the “wait list” scandal, the VA’s inspector general is getting a $5 million budget increase to continue investigating lapses in patient care.
The bill includes language ensuring that government contractors are not barred from reporting allegations of waste, fraud or abuse if they sign a confidentiality agreement. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would receive a $500,000 increase for its enforcement of existing whistleblower laws.
WHITE HOUSE BUDGET:
There’s $222 million for executive mansion operations, a $10 million increase. The money pays for the National Security and Homeland Security councils, the Council of Economic Advisers, the vice president’s office and the executive residence. The bill doesn’t provide any new funding “to address security weaknesses at the White House complex,” according to Democrats. But the U.S. Secret Service would be allowed to use some of its funding “to prepare and train for the next presidential election campaign,” Democrats said.
Well, only if you’re attacked. There’s $1 million in the bill “to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves.”
There’s no new money for the site, but current money for it must be spent pursuant to a recent court decision. Republicans say that the bill continues to leave open the possibility that the site could be used someday to store nuclear waste — but that won’t happen as long as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is around.
Michael Fletcher, Matea Gold, Christopher Ingraham, Valerie Strauss and Eric Yoder contributed to this report.
Five years on from President Barack Obama scooping a Nobel Peace Prize, and the White House has taken anything but a Zen approach to foreign policy under his watch. Here are the top 5 not-so-peaceful moves the laureate has made in the past half-decade.
1. Afghan Surge
Obama didn’t start the war in Afghanistan, but he certainly took a page from his predecessors playbook in trying to finish it. He recognized his precarious position at prize time.
“But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars,” he said after accepting the Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway, on December 9, 2009.
While he said the war in Iraq was “winding down,” things in Afghanistan were just starting to heat up. A week before accepting the prize, Obama announced he was sending 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan as part of his “surge policy,” intended to beat back the Taliban and train Afghan security forces to take the country into their own hands. The following years would become the deadliest for both US troops and Afghan civilians. Again, it wasn’t Obama’s war. But then came…
2. Military strikes in Libya
Following UN Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011, which called for “an immediate ceasefire” in Libya and authorized the international community to set up a no-fly zone to protect civilians, Obama, along with his NATO allies, would soon launch military strikes to turn the tide of the 2011 Civil War in the North African state. NATO conducted 9,700 strike sorties and dropped over 7,700 precision bombs. A Human Rights Watch report would go on to detail eight incidents where at least 72 Libyan civilians died as a result of the aerial campaign.
But the real damage to overthrowing the Gaddafi regime came in the ensuing years, with the country descending into a civil war between Islamist forces and the weak post-revolutionary government. In August, Obama admitted his Libyan policy was a failure, but not because he chose to intervene militarily. Rather, he says the problem was that America and its European partners did not “come in full force” to take Gaddafi out. Although his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to rejoice in his death, wryly noting “We came, we saw, he died.”
3. Drone Wars in Yemen, Pakistan
Since the US first started targeting Yemeni militants in 2002, Obama has launched all but one of the 15 airstrikes and 101 drone strikes in the country. According to the web portal New America.net, which has meticulously complied data on the strikes, up to 1,073 people have been killed in the strikes. An estimated 81-87 of those killed were civilians, while the identity of another 31-50 remains unknown. But Yemen was just one prong in Obama’s so-called Drone War, though, as we shall see, it was the site of a game-changing incident.
Unlike in Yemen, drone strikes in Pakistan were in favor long before Obama came to power. A report conducted by Stanford and New York Universities’ Law schools found that between 2,562 and 3,325 people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between June 2004 and mid-September 2012. Anywhere between 474 and 881 of those were civilians, and 176 were children. While Obama didn’t start the Pakistani drone war, he aggressively expanded it.
Between 2004 and 2007, only 10 drone strikes were launched in Pakistan. The following year saw 36 such strikes, and 54 were launched in 2009.
But 2010 would be the deadliest year by far, with 122 strikes launched and 849 people killed. He would go on to authorize 73 and 46 strikes in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Following widespread opposition at home and abroad, in May 2013, Obama promised a new era of transparency to protect civilians, saying control of the program would be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon. But…
4. Obama has a secret kill list
In February 2013, the Obama administration’s internal legal justification for assassinating US citizens abroad came to light for the first time. According to the Justice Department document, the White House has the legal authority to kill Americans who are “senior operational leaders,” of Al-Qaeda or “an associated force” even if they are not actively engaged in any active plot to attack the US.
In September 2011, a US drone strike in Yemen killed two American citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. The following month, a drone strike killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was born in Colorado.
The concept of the US president exercising the right to kill US citizens without the benefit of a trial has resonated throughout American culture.
5. Redrawing red lines
President Barack Obama drew a red line around Syria’s use of chemical weapons, pushing the international community to punish Damascus with military strikes following the August 21 Ghouta Attack.
After the UK balked at airstrikes, Moscow and Washington took the diplomatic route, resulting in a historic deal that has seen Damascus abandon its chemical weapons stockpiles.
But US-led airstrikes on Syria were only postponed. On August 8, 2014, the United States started bombing so-called Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq to protect embattled Kurds. The following month, the US would launch airstrikes against IS militants in Syria as well. Of all the US military interventions in recent years, the battle against the IS has been met with widespread approval. Still, Syria was the seventh country Obama has bombed in six years.
Written by Allen West on December 8, 2014
Sure seems we’ve come to a point where the rule of law means little to the Obama administration — or the oath taken to faithfully execute our laws.
With that in mind, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution, at times referred to as the War Powers Clause, vests in the Congress the power to declare war, in the following wording: “[The Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
I searched Article II to see if there was anything to contradict these enumerated powers bestowed upon the U.S. Congress — and found nothing. Now, I can immediately draw your attention to President Obama’s ill-conceived venture into Libya — which we have addressed several times, most recently here discussing the involvement of ISIS there — and where was the “humanitarian crisis? I could also alert you to the fact that we are deploying troops back into Iraq, but there has been no declaration from Congress on war — and we are dropping bombs and folks are shooting — a basic definition of war, as far as I know.
But it is the last words that are the topic of this missive — and will continue to be: “make rules concerning captures on land and water” — that power is invested in the Congress. Currently, it appears everything this executive branch doesn’t care to abide by falls into the category of “prosecutorial discretion.” We shall see if the progressive socialists and media accomplices will agree with that when there’s a Republican in the White House…
And so while y’all were out Christmas shopping, we got yet another violation of the Constitution by President Obama. But here is the point: how can we have a focus on policies doing what is right per the rule of law, when one side refuses to respect and regard the rule of law? Case in point: rules concerning captures.
As Fox News reports, “The U.S. government said early Sunday that it had transferred six detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for over 12 years to Uruguay for resettlement as refugees” And when did Islamic terrorists who fought against our men and women become “refugees?”
All six men had been detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaida, but had never been charged – and therein lies the problem. This is not a law enforcement issue, they are unlawful enemy combatants captured during a combat operation.
Fox says, “a Pentagon statement on Sunday identified the men as four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian. They are the first Guantanamo Bay prisoners to be sent to South America. They had been cleared for release since at least 2010 but they could not be sent home — if they were so safe, then why would their own Countries not want them back — and languished as the U.S. struggled to find countries willing to take them. Among those transferred is 43-year-old Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who was on a long-term hunger strike at Guantanamo to protest his confinement. He was at the center of a legal battle in U.S. courts over the military’s force-feeding of prisoners who refuse to eat.”
What a catch-22 for our military. If the prisoners are allowed to starve, they are guilty of human rights violations. But if the prisoners are forcibly fed, they are subject to lawsuits from lawyers who share Hillary Clinton’s perspective on empathy.
Let me reiterate a simple point. The president of the United States does not have the power to release these “captures” and they are not entitled to any constitutional rights or legal proceedings – as a matter of fact, the Geneva convention states that non-uniformed, non-state belligerents are only entitled to food and shelter — so why a legal battle for feeding this guy?
Slowly but surely, Barack Obama is unconstitutionally shutting down GITMO — while we are distracted. And let us all remember that the rate of recidivism for these released “detainees” — unlawful enemy combatants is the correct definition – is around 30 percent.
Also, those five senior Taliban leaders who were exchanged for U.S. Army SGT Bowe Bergdahl (a deserter about whose location we know nothing or the status of the completed investigation) shall be free to return to Afghanistan from Qatar in 2015 — just a few weeks away!
And Uruguay? If you know your history, it was to Uruguay that many former Nazis fled post World War II.
Fox says “the other Syrians sent to Uruguay on Saturday were identified by the Pentagon as Ali Husain Shaaban, 32; Ahmed Adnan Ajuri, 37; and Abdelahdi Faraj, 39. Also released were Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan, 35, and 49-year-old Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi of Tunisia. “We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action, and to President Mujica for his strong leadership in providing a home for individuals who cannot return to their own countries,” U.S. State Department envoy Clifford Sloan said.”
Mr. Sloan why are these cheeky fellas not allowed to return to their own countries? Could it be that their own countries recognize them as Islamic terrorists and would take the proper action against them – similar to the woman in Abu Dhabi who stabbed to death 47-year-old American Ibolya Ryan and is facing the death penalty in UAE? I’m quite perplexed about a “policy” that calls for releasing the enemy (while the enemy is still fighting us) to countries not of their origin where they are reclassified as “refugees.” Is this good policy or just dangerous politics affecting our long-term national security? You be the judge.
Fox writes, “Obama pledged to close the prison upon taking office but was blocked by Congress, which banned sending prisoners to the U.S. for any reason, including trial, and placed restrictions on sending them abroad.”
Let’s be clear here, Barack Obama simply does not possess the constitutional authority or power to shut down GITMO. Therefore he wasn’t blocked by Congress, it was Congress acting within its prescribed constitutional power.
You see, the problem in America is that we are becoming oblivious to the rule of law and totally devoid of any understanding regarding what it states. As a result, we have a demagogue who can use the bully pulpit — supported by a complicit media — to advance ideas antithetical to our Constitutional Republic, i.e. a “fundamental transformation.”
Don’t forget the admissions of one Jonathan Gruber regarding the American people and why that enabled the passing of Obamacare done in complete violation of standard legislative process and procedure — after all “we have to pass the bill in order to find out what’s in it.” Then again, there may be some folks reading this post who have no idea who Jonathan Gruber is — or have ever read the U.S. Constitution for that matter.
On September 17, 1787 after the Constitutional Convention, a Mrs. Powell asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government America now had. Franklin laid down a challenge, “a Republic if you can keep it.”
A Republic requires an informed electorate. So please wake up and realize that President Obama has no enumerated authority to continue to release unlawful enemy combatants detained at Guantanamo Bay. As a matter of fact, he has little power or authority to do much of what he has and continues to do.
NSA has spied on hundreds of companies and organizations internationally
BY RYAN GALLAGHER TODAY AT 6:06 AM
In March 2011, two weeks before the Western intervention in Libya, a secret message was delivered to the National Security Agency. An intelligence unit within the U.S. military’s Africa Command needed help to hack into Libya’s cellphone networks and monitor text messages.
For the NSA, the task was easy. The agency had already obtained technical information about the cellphone carriers’ internal systems by spying on documents sent among company employees, and these details would provide the perfect blueprint to help the military break into the networks.
The NSA’s assistance in the Libya operation, however, was not an isolated case. It was part of a much larger surveillance program—global in its scope and ramifications—targeted not just at hostile countries.
According to documents contained in the archive of material provided to The Intercept by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA has spied on hundreds of companies and organizations internationally, including in countries closely allied to the United States, in an effort to find security weaknesses in cellphone technology that it can exploit for surveillance.
The documents also reveal how the NSA plans to secretly introduce new flaws into communication systems so that they can be tapped into—a controversial tactic that security experts say could be exposing the general population to criminal hackers.
Codenamed AURORAGOLD, the covert operation has monitored the content of messages sent and received by more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cellphone network operators, intercepting confidential company planning papers that help the NSA hack into phone networks.
One high-profile surveillance target is the GSM Association, an influential U.K.-headquartered trade group that works closely with large U.S.-based firms including Microsoft, Facebook, AT&T, and Cisco, and is currently being funded by the U.S. government to develop privacy-enhancing technologies.
Karsten Nohl, a leading cellphone security expert and cryptographer who was consulted by The Intercept about details contained in the AURORAGOLD documents, said that the broad scope of information swept up in the operation appears aimed at ensuring virtually every cellphone network in the world is NSA accessible.
“Collecting an inventory [like this] on world networks has big ramifications,” Nohl said, because it allows the NSA to track and circumvent upgrades in encryption technology used by cellphone companies to shield calls and texts from eavesdropping. Evidence that the agency has deliberately plotted to weaken the security of communication infrastructure, he added, was particularly alarming.
“Even if you love the NSA and you say you have nothing to hide, you should be against a policy that introduces security vulnerabilities,” Nohl said, “because once NSA introduces a weakness, a vulnerability, it’s not only the NSA that can exploit it.”
NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines told The Intercept in a statement that the agency “works to identify and report on the communications of valid foreign targets” to anticipate threats to the United States and its allies.
Vines said: “NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect in response to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence requirements—regardless of the technical means used by foreign targets, or the means by which those targets attempt to hide their communications.”
The AURORAGOLD operation is carried out by specialist NSA surveillance units whose existence has not been publicly disclosed: the Wireless Portfolio Management Office, which defines and carries out the NSA’s strategy for exploiting wireless communications, and the Target Technology Trends Center, which monitors the development of new communication technology to ensure that the NSA isn’t blindsided by innovations that could evade its surveillance reach. The center’s logo is a picture of the Earth overshadowed by a large telescope; its motto is “Predict – Plan – Prevent.”
The NSA documents reveal that, as of May 2012, the agency had collected technical information on about 70 percent of cellphone networks worldwide—701 of an estimated 985—and was maintaining a list of 1,201 email “selectors” used to intercept internal company details from employees. (“Selector” is an agency term for a unique identifier like an email address or phone number.) From November 2011 to April 2012, between 363 and 1,354 selectors were “tasked” by the NSA for surveillance each month as part of AURORAGOLD, according to the documents. The secret operation appears to have been active since at least 2010.
The information collected from the companies is passed onto NSA “signals development” teams that focus on infiltrating communication networks. It is also shared with other U.S. Intelligence Community agencies and with the NSA’s counterparts in countries that are part of the so-called “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance—the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Aside from mentions of a handful of operators in Libya, China, and Iran, names of the targeted companies are not disclosed in the NSA’s documents. However, a top-secret world map featured in a June 2012 presentation on AURORAGOLD suggests that the NSA has some degree of “network coverage” in almost all countries on every continent, including in the United States and in closely allied countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and France.
One of the prime targets monitored under the AURORAGOLD program is the London-headquartered trade group, the GSM Association, or the GSMA, which represents the interests of more than 800 major cellphone, software, and internet companies from 220 countries.
The GSMA’s members include U.S.-based companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Microsoft, Facebook, Intel, Cisco, and Oracle, as well as large international firms including Sony, Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, and Vodafone.
The trade organization brings together its members for regular meetings at which new technologies and policies are discussed among various “working groups.” The Snowden files reveal that the NSA specifically targeted the GSMA’s working groups for surveillance.
Claire Cranton, a spokeswoman for the GSMA, said that the group would not respond to details uncovered by The Intercept until its lawyers had studied the documents related to the spying.
“If there is something there that is illegal then they will take it up with the police,” Cranton said.
By covertly monitoring GSMA working groups in a bid to identify and exploit security vulnerabilities, the NSA has placed itself into direct conflict with the mission of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, or NIST, the U.S. government agency responsible for recommending cybersecurity standards in the United States. NIST recently handed out a grant of more than $800,000 to GSMA so that the organization could research ways to address “security and privacy challenges” faced by users of mobile devices.
The revelation that the trade group has been targeted for surveillance may reignite deep-seated tensions between NIST and NSA that came to the fore following earlier Snowden disclosures. Last year, NIST was forced to urge people not to use an encryption standard it had previously approved after it emerged NSA had apparently covertly worked to deliberately weaken it.
Jennifer Huergo, a NIST spokewoman, told The Intercept that the agency was “not aware of any activities by NSA related to the GSMA.” Huergo said that NIST would continue to work towards “bringing industry together with privacy and consumer advocates to jointly create a robust marketplace of more secure, easy-to-use, privacy-enhancing solutions.”
The NSA focuses on intercepting obscure but important technical documents circulated among the GSMA’s members known as “IR.21s.”
Most cellphone network operators share IR.21 documents among each other as part of agreements that allow their customers to connect to foreign networks when they are “roaming” overseas on a vacation or a business trip. An IR.21, according to the NSA documents, contains information “necessary for targeting and exploitation.”
The details in the IR.21s serve as a “warning mechanism” that flag new technology used by network operators, the NSA’s documents state. This allows the agency to identify security vulnerabilities in the latest communication systems that can be exploited, and helps efforts to introduce new vulnerabilities “where they do not yet exist.”
The IR.21s also contain details about the encryption used by cellphone companies to protect the privacy of their customers’ communications as they are transmitted across networks. These details are highly sought after by the NSA, as they can aid its efforts to crack the encryption and eavesdrop on conversations.
Last year, the Washington Post reported that the NSA had already managed to break the most commonly used cellphone encryption algorithm in the world, known as A5/1. But the information collected under AURORAGOLD allows the agency to focus on circumventing newer and stronger versions of A5 cellphone encryption, such as A5/3.
The documents note that the agency intercepts information from cellphone operators about “the type of A5 cipher algorithm version” they use, and monitors the development of new algorithms in order to find ways to bypass the encryption.
In 2009, the British surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters conducted a similar effort to subvert phone encryption under a project called OPULANT PUP, using powerful computers to perform a “crypt attack” to penetrate the A5/3 algorithm, secret memos reveal. By 2011, GCHQ was collaborating with the NSA on another operation, called WOLFRAMITE, to attack A5/3 encryption. (GCHQ declined to comment for this story, other than to say that it operates within legal parameters.)
The extensive attempts to attack cellphone encryption have been replicated across the Five Eyes surveillance alliance. Australia’s top spy agency, for instance, infiltrated an Indonesian cellphone company and stole nearly 1.8 million encryption keys used to protect communications, the New York Times reported in February.
The NSA’s documents show that it focuses on collecting details about virtually all technical standards used by cellphone operators, and the agency’s efforts to stay ahead of the technology curve occasionally yield significant results. In early 2010, for instance, its operatives had already found ways to penetrate a variant of the newest “fourth generation” smartphone-era technology for surveillance, years before it became widely adopted by millions of people in dozens of countries.
The NSA says that its efforts are targeted at terrorists, weapons proliferators, and other foreign targets, not “ordinary people.” But the methods used by the agency and its partners to gain access to cellphone communications risk significant blowback.
According to Mikko Hypponen, a security expert at Finland-based F-Secure, criminal hackers and foreign government adversaries could be among the inadvertent beneficiaries of any security vulnerabilities or encryption weaknesses inserted by the NSA into communication systems using data collected by the AURORAGOLD project.
“If there are vulnerabilities on those systems known to the NSA that are not being patched on purpose, it’s quite likely they are being misused by completely other kinds of attackers,” said Hypponen. “When they start to introduce new vulnerabilities, it affects everybody who uses that technology; it makes all of us less secure.”
“IT AFFECTS EVERYBODY WHO USES THAT TECHNOLOGY; IT MAKES ALL OF US LESS SECURE.”
In December, a surveillance review panel convened by President Obama concluded that the NSA should not “in any way subvert, undermine, weaken, or make vulnerable generally available commercial software.” The panel also recommended that the NSA should notify companies if it discovers previously unknown security vulnerabilities in their software or systems—known as “zero days” because developers have been given zero days to fix them—except in rare cases involving “high priority intelligence collection.”
In April, White House officials confirmed that Obama had ordered NSA to disclose vulnerabilities it finds, though qualified that with a loophole allowing the flaws to be secretly exploited so long as there is deemed to be “a clear national security or law enforcement” use.
Vines, the NSA spokeswoman, told The Intercept that the agency was committed to ensuring an “open, interoperable, and secure global internet.”
“NSA deeply values these principles and takes great care to honor them in the performance of its lawful foreign-intelligence mission,” Vines said.
She declined to discuss the tactics used as part of AURORAGOLD, or comment on whether the operation remains active.