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How NSA Targets Italy: SCS/TAO Embassy Spying on Leaders and Bulk Phone Collection of Citizens

In Archive, Italy, NSA, NSA Files, SCS, Surveillance, TAO on December 7, 2013 at 3:15 AM


Glenn Greenwald/Stefania Maurizi/L’Espresso:

A special unit operating under cover and protected by diplomatic immunity, assigned to a very sensitive mission: to spy on the communication of the Italian leadership. That is what top secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published in Italy exclusively by l’Espresso in collaboration with “la Repubblica” reveal. A file mentions the “Special Collection Service ” (SCS) sites in Rome and in Milan, the very same service which, according to the German weekly “Der Spiegel “, spied on the mobile phone of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. “Special Collection Sites”, reads the file published today by l’Espresso, “provide considerable perishable intelligence on leadership communications largely facilitated by site presence within a national capital”.

These documents are very important because they contradict recent statements by the Italian Prime Minister reassuring the Italian Parliament. Speaking to the Chamber of Deputies four weeks ago, Enrico Letta said: “Based on the analysis conducted by our intelligence services and our international contacts, we are not aware that the security of the communications of the Italian government and embassies has been compromised, nor are we aware that the privacy of Italian citizens has been compromised”. These top secret documents tell a different story, however.

The Special Collection Service is likely one of the most sensitive units in U.S. intelligence. The service deploys teams under diplomatic cover, operating in US embassies around the world to control friendly and enemy governments. The top secret NSA document examined by l’Espresso reveals that “in 1988 [SCS] had 88 sites, our peak”. The SCS is assigned to a special mission: monitoring the communications of the political, and likely economical, leaders of host nations. For this reason, SCS teams operate within the heart of power: in embassies and consulates, working in close collaboration with the CIA. Also in Rome, in the US embassy located in via Veneto, from those very same roofs which witnessed the Dolce Vita.


Snowden’s files reveal that, at least until 2010, the Special Collection Service maintained two sites in Italy: one in Rome, a base staffed with agents, and one in Milan, the capital of the Italian economy where,  and originally published in Der Spiegel, the SCS would run an unmanned site. Two sites in a relatively small country like Italy is unusual: only in Germany — a prime target for NSA in Europe — does SCS maintain two bases.

In Berlin, the Special Collection Service antennas are very likely to be hidden on the roof of the US embassy. From there, the SCS equipment can pick up the mobile phone communication of the German government as well as radio links. What about Rome? L’Espresso requested a technical assessment from Duncan Campbell, the British journalist who, in 1988, revealed the existence of the “Echelon” project: the first global network for mass surveillance established by the so-called Five Eyes: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

By analyzing the roof of the US Embassy in via Veneto, Campbell concluded: “The location of the SCS ‘concealed collection system’ on the roof of the Rome US Embassy is obvious and is typical of many similar ‘roof maintenance sheds’ on US embassies around the world. I have no doubt that the cubic white tent like structure marked by the arrows is a SIGINT concealment, with multiple antennae behind listening to mobile phones on GSM, GPRS, 3G, and CDMA; and to government and police channels: and supporting special activities by the CIA, such as targeted bugging. The structure will involve a framework likely to be in plastic or wood, with dielectric panels fitted. The white satellite dish antenna at the other roof corner is not SIGINT or SCS but diplomatic communications probably over a US DSCS satellite”.


Snowden’s files entirely contradict our Prime Minister on another key issue: NSA espionage against our diplomacy. Although the British press had published some information on these activities, Enrico Letta declared to the Chamber of Deputies: “we are not aware that the security of the communications of the Italian government and embassies has been compromised”. However, the files obtained by l’Espresso clearly describe spying activities against our Embassy in Washington DC.A document dated September 2010 and classified as “top secret / noforn” – which means top secret and not releasable to foreign nationals – reveals that the Italian embassy in Washington was not targeted by a spy operation: it was targeted by two spy operations. The first, operating under the codename “Bruneau” refers to the top secret mission “Lifesaver”, which allowed the NSA to suck out all the information contained in the computers by imaging their hard disks. Whereas the second, codenamed “Hemlock “, refers to the mission “Highlands”, which gave access to embassy communications through “implants”. The file does not specify whether these “implants” are bugs placed inside the electronic devices or software infecting embassy equipment, stealing phone conversations and emails. The file is titled ” Close Access Sigads”, which suggests a very close range data gathering. The document also contains two obscure acronyms: the suffix “PD” and the code “COOP”; no explanations are available for these acronyms in the file.

The spying operations against our embassy may have been suspended after 2010: in the Snowden file, the Italian embassy in Washington DC is marked with an asterisk which, according to the file, means that targets “have either been dropped or are slated to be dropped in the near future”. The text mentions, among other things, a special NSA division: “TAO”, an acronym that stands for “Tailored Access Operations”. According to the German weekly Spiegel, the TAO division “devises special methods for special targets”, such as the email of the former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon. At the bottom of the document, one can read that this file is derived from a NSA report dated 2004: has our embassy been spied on since 2004?


NSA’s mass spying activities did not target our leadership and diplomacy alone, but it possibly also targeted millions of Italian citizens. A file on the top secret programme “Boundless Informant” that is labeled “Italy” reveals that between December 10, 2012 and January 9, 2013, the NSA collected the metadata for 45.893.570 telephone calls. Estimates close to this figure had already circulated, but now the actual document indicates the penetration of this monitoring.

All of the metadata gathered in our country between December 10^th and January 9^th 2013 as reflected on this slide relate to phone communication, unlike the slides published in Germany and France, where internet communication metadata were targeted as well.


The NSA has denied this interpretation of the Boundless Informant slides when they have been reported in some (though not all) countries, claiming that the slide only shows collection from the named country, not against. But the NSA’s own documents describing Boundless Informant and its function repeatedly state that the program is designed to show collection against the specific named country. It is unclear how and why Italy would be collecting and then turning over to the NSA more than 45 million telephone call data each month, and is equally unclear whether the Italian intelligence service has cooperated in the gathering of this data that ends up in the NSA’s repositories. But what is clear is that a program which the NSA itself describes as counting “collections capabilities against” the named country has produced a document showing the collection of a huge amount of communications pertaining to Italy.

  1. Before the SCS

    A 2011 obituary noted that a veteran had retired from an element of the U.S. Army Security Agency (ASA), referred to as “Unit 10,” at Arlington Hall Station, Virginia.

    For possibly thirty years before the establishment of the Special Collection Service (SCS), the ASA, the Army’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) branch from 1945 to 1976 – and predecessor of the National Security Agency – operated SIGINT collection sites in U.S. embassies around the world. The ASA embassy sites, staffed by Morse intercept operators (Army military occupational specialty 058, later re-designated 05H), who were authorized to wear civilian clothes, performed collection of Morse code communications.

    In the 1950‘s and 1960‘s knowledge of “embassy duty“ was widespread within the ASA. ASA recruiters mentioned the possibility of civilian clothes embassy duty to promising young men to induce them to enlist in the ASA for four years instead of being drafted into the combat arms for two years. In 1959 an ASA senior noncommissioned officer wrote “History of Project 78.” Project 78 may not have been related to the ASA embassy sites, however, the author of its history was, or had been, a member of Unit 10, which controlled the embassy sites, and subsequently was a member of a Unit 10 veterans’ reunion organization called the “Super Group.”

    Unit 10 operated embassy sites in La Paz, Bolivia; Quito, Ecuador; Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; Paris, France; Copenhagen, Denmark; Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm, Sweden; Vienna, Austria; Bern, Switzerland; Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; Ankara, Turkey; Beirut, Lebanon; Cairo, Egypt; Baghdad, Iraq; Tehran, Iran; Kabul, Afghanistan; New Delhi, India; Rangoon, Burma; Bangkok, Thailand; and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam.

    Obviously the Saigon site closed with the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. The SCS, formed between 1978 and 1982, likely inherited the remainder of the Unit 10 sites as a result of the SIGINT reorganization that led to the deactivation of the ASA. The Tehran and Kabul sites were likely evacuated due to political turmoil in Iran and Afghanistan in 1978-1979.


  2. […] websites and services that are not available in Italy. With this said, it should be noted that the NSA has spied on Italian communications for many years, and that it may be wise to use external servers, versus Italian ones, for when privacy is of […]


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