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San Diego’s Spook Shop

Along Interstate 5 in San Diego just south of the airport, lies a hulking building with blacked out windows and a roof that looks like a long silver saw blade. The site of a former B-24 factory during World War II, this giant piece of corrugated metal is the home of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command or SPAWAR.

I’ve long been interested in SPAWAR (pronounced spā-wôr) mostly because exactly what it does is a bit of a mystery. Its mission is “enabling information warfare superiority” for our Naval and military forces. Operating with a $2.5 billion budget, SPAWAR employs more than 2,000 scientists, specializing in areas such as cyberwarfare, information warfare and space systems. SPAWAR’s chief technology officer holds over 100 patents. I have no idea what that all means, but it sounds like they do some very interesting stuff.

About three years ago, in the midst of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency, I learned that the Defense Department’s Inspector General had conducted a Top Secret investigation into allegations involving SPAWAR’s “access to U.S. persons data.”

That phrase “U.S. persons data” caught my eye. Under federal law, our intelligence agencies cannot spy on U.S. persons, i.e. American citizens. The misuse of “U.S. persons data” is intelspeak for spying on Americans so I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the report.

The 37-page heavily redacted report I received began as a whistleblower complaint filed in December 2006 by an unnamed government employee. This employee claimed he was mistreated and ultimately reassigned after reporting that SPAWAR had misused classified information involving U.S. persons, which is forbidden under U.S. law.

Of the two main allegations cited in the report, one remains classified under a FOIA b(1) exemption, which involves matters of national security. The whistleblower’s second allegation was that SPAWAR personnel had been in the words of the report “photographing U.S. persons.”

There are several allegations involving misuse of imagery at SPAWAR in the report, most of which are completely or partially redacted.

The only one that is readable is a charge that SPAWAR had been collecting data without notice, warrant or authority “on U.S. persons in federal parks located at Point Loma,” a hilly peninsula in San Diego.

This allegation involved a camera is mounted on a tower at SPAWAR’s command HQ, located on the southern tip of Point Loma, adjacent to Cabrillo National Monument, which is operated by the National Parks Service. The camera, which can be rotated 360 degrees, is used for calibration purposes by pointing it at different government radars, the IG’s investigation found. The video feed from the camera goes to a laboratory and is not stored.

The IG also looked for inappropriate images on another imagery system, details of which remain classified on national security grounds. The system was tested at a site on Point Loma overlooking San Diego Harbor on the USS Dolphin, a research submarine, after it had been repaired for fire damage.

Other allegations involving satellite imagery or other technologies are heavily redacted.

The investigation by the DoD’s Inspector General did not substantiate the whistleblower’s complaints that SPAWAR was mishandling intelligence and possibly compromising U.S. persons information. The Inspector General did, however, partially substantiate the allegation that SPAWAR had failed to move quickly to correct deficiencies in its handling of intelligence information. The whistleblower had not been subject to reprisals, the IG’s investigation found.

What the report makes clear is that SPAWAR is a spook shop. It does R&D work for various components of the U.S. intelligence community. Some of the imagery allegations involved an R&D project for the Office of Naval Intelligence. Officials with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the National Reconnaissance Agency (NRO), which runs spy satellites, and one agency whose name was blacked out were interview for the IG’s report.