This is a story about how intelligence agencies deploy private contractors for surveillance and repression. It’s about the globalization of intelligence.
Exhibit A: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which detained an innocent British graduate student as a spy and conferred with the chief of Israel’s Mossad. The UAE is an ally of the United States, so they turned to former U.S. intelligence employees for work they wanted to keep secret.
The story of Project Raven reveals how former U.S. government hackers have employed state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools on behalf of a foreign intelligence service that spies on human rights activists, journalists and political rivals. Interviews with nine former Raven operatives, along with a review of thousands of pages of project documents and emails, show that surveillance techniques taught by the NSA were central to the UAE’s efforts to monitor opponents.
It’s a question of morality, says one FBI man.
The Raven story also provides new insight into the role former American cyberspies play in foreign hacking operations. Within the U.S. intelligence community, leaving to work as an operative for another country is seen by some as a betrayal. “There’s a moral obligation if you’re a former intelligence officer from becoming effectively a mercenary for a foreign government,” said Bob Anderson, who served as executive assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 2015.
The job, it was clear to one participant was repression.
Under orders from the UAE government, former operatives said, Raven would monitor social media and target people who security forces felt had insulted the government.
“Some days it was hard to swallow, like [when you target] a 16-year-old kid on Twitter,” she said. “But it’s an intelligence mission, you are an intelligence operative. I never made it personal.”
Critics of the war in Yemen received special attention from the U.S hackers for hire.
Prominent Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor, given the code name Egret, was another target, former Raven operatives say. For years, Mansoor publicly criticized the country’s war in Yemen, treatment of migrant workers and detention of political opponents.