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Why the media failed to report on largest breach of US government data in history

Upon Harold Martin’s arrest in 2016, an Obama administration official said his case was being kept under wraps “to keep this guy from becoming another NSA martyr.” The tactic seems to be have paid dividends.

by Whitney Webb

Part 3 - The Shadow Brokers: love of money or country?

In August 2016, in the aftermath of the DNC leaks among others, the group known as Shadow Brokers made its debut, releasing computer exploits that the NSA had kept hidden from the public as well as auctioning off access to an encrypted file also containing NSA data to the highest bidder. More releases soon followed, including numerous tools developed by the NSA’s elite hacking group, Tailored Access Operations (TAO).

The fact that they apparently sought not to divulge the information from the public at large — instead choosing to auction it off — as well as the fact that some of the tools they have released were later used by others for nefarious purposes, initially suggested that the Shadow Brokers were essentially cyber-criminals seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the NSA and those who could be targeted by the content of their releases.

However, the Shadow Brokers have revealed themselves to be politically motivated, at least in part. For instance, some of their earlier manifestos condemn the “wealthy elites” and make other political references about the 2016 election and other related topics.

Yet, the strongest indication of the Shadow Brokers’ political motivations came in April last year. After President Trump ordered a unilateral strike against Syria, the Shadow Brokers wrote a message called “Don’t Forget Your Base,” where the Brokers attacked Trump for his “Goldman Sach [sic] (TheGlobalists) and Military Industrial Intelligence Complex (MIIC) cabinet” and “increased U.S. involvement in a foreign war (Syria Strike)” among other factors. They further expressed their displeasure by releasing new NSA documents that were by the far the most damaging.

Among the information exposed by the Shadow Brokers in this release, was the revelation that the NSA had developed code to hack into Palestinian banks specifically as well as the SWIFT banking system. “Potent exploits and hacking tools that target most versions of Microsoft Windows” were also made public. Currently, the group is still believed to be “holding plenty more incendiary material.

Though the Shadow Brokers have remained relatively silent for more than a year, the leaks continue to weigh heavily on the federal government, which has shown that it is still as desperate as ever to find out what information the Shadow Brokers may have. As the New York Times and the Intercept reported last month, U.S. intelligence officials paid a shady Russian national $100,000 in the hopes that he would “deliver stolen National Security Agency cyberweapons” that were in the Shadow Brokers possession in order to “get a full inventory” of what had been taken. Instead of that information, however, the Russian national “produced unverified and possibly fabricated information involving” President Trump and others, frustrating U.S. government efforts.

Yet, investigators have long been “frustrated” in their attempts to prove that Martin had “deliberately leaked or sold the hacking tools to the Shadow Brokers or, alternatively, that someone hacked into his computer or otherwise took them without his knowledge.” While “forensic clues” do exist linking him to the group, that evidence is inconclusive.

One of those clues is the fact that Martin had more than 75 percent of the TAO’s library of hacking tools in his possession at the time of his arrest. Many of those hacking tools are the very ones that have already been released by the Shadow Brokers, as well as those suspected to remain in their possession. In addition, the Shadow Brokers have also released NSA “code [that] was designed to break through network firewalls and get inside the computer systems of competitors like Russia, China and Iran” while federal authorities found “highly classified computer codes developed to hack into the networks of foreign governments like China, North Korea and Iran” in Martin’s house.

Martin’s excessive use of anonymizing software and encryption makes the possibility that the information was stolen without his knowledge unlikely. In addition, his encrypted communications in foreign languages, handwritten notes meant to explain complicated technical information to the average person, and his remote data storage online all suggest that Martin could well have been much more than a “hoarder.” Yet, from a legal standpoint, such evidence is circumstantial and fails to prove intent.

As Kiriakou explained to MintPress, intent is key in Martin’s case when it comes to proving whether he is a whistleblower, a hoarder or a disgruntled employee: “It really is all a matter of intent. If his intent was to expose waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threats to the public health or public safety, then absolutely by legal definition he is a whistleblower. Whether he got to the oversight committees or got to the inspector general is irrelevant at that point.

However, as Kiriakou noted, the dangerous climate for whistleblowers in the U.S. makes this a much less attractive legal defense than claiming that Martin is a “hoarder,” particularly given the inconclusive links between him and the Shadow Brokers.

If Martin were indeed the source of the Shadow Brokers, their auctioning off of the information could mean that, instead of a whistleblower, he could have been motivated by more nefarious factors. Some analysts, however, have suggested that the Shadow Brokers’ “auctions” of the stolen information were meant to generate publicity – not ransom money — and that the Shadow Brokers are politically motivated to release information to expose U.S. government wrongdoing, as was the case in their release of damaging information following Trump’s strike on Syria last April.

If Martin was, in fact, the source of the Shadow Brokers, it is possible that he could have been unaware of the Shadow Brokers’ plans to auction the information and may have thought they would release the information to the public. However, making the case that Martin could be a whistleblower who leaked to the Shadow Brokers is again a matter of intent. As Kiriakou noted: “If his intent was to stop something that NSA was doing as a matter of policy and he went to the Shadow Brokers to stop it, then an argument can be made for whistleblowing. But if he did it just to do it or if he did it because he was disgruntled, then no, he’s not a whistleblower.

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