It has been a year since the first of many Edward Snowden's groundbreaking revelations (which promptly relegated yet another conspiracy theory into the compost heap of conspiracy facts) exposing not only the ubiquitous tentacles of the NSA, and its UK-equivalent, the GCHQ, but the incestuous relationships between the government's spy agencies, its pervasive snooping reaching as far as Angela Merkel's cell phone (which is finally the subject of a formal inquiry), and its (well-paid) contractors in the private sector: the bulk of the world's largest telecom and internet companies, not to mention the makers of your favorite handheld spy smartgizmo.
And yet until yesterday, a piece of the puzzle was missing: not because it did not exist, but because certain of Snowden's preferred outlets had refused to reveal it. That piece, as Duncan Campbell of The Register (incidentally Campbell has been breaking exclusives for more than three decades: he was the first journalist to reveal the existence of GCHQ in 1976) revealed yesterday, is the GCHQ's (and thus indirectly the NSA's) top secret middle eastern Internet spy base located in Seeb, Oman (officially known as Oman Comms Link Site 1), smack in the middle of the middle east, located southwest of the Straits of Hormuz, and in close proximity to America's closest petroleum-exporting "friends": Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
According to the Register, "the secret British spy base is part of a programme codenamed “CIRCUIT” and also referred to as Overseas Processing Centre 1 (OPC-1). It is located at Seeb, on the northern coast of Oman, where it taps in to various undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Seeb is one of a three site GCHQ network in Oman, at locations codenamed “TIMPANI”, “GUITAR” and “CLARINET”. TIMPANI, near the Strait of Hormuz, can monitor Iraqi communications. CLARINET, in the south of Oman, is strategically close to Yemen."
Wired further adds that the whole operation was referred to as Circuit and the Overseas Processing Centre 1 (OPC-1), and Seeb is just one of three bases extracting communications data from the cables going from the Strait of Hormuz (between the United Arab Emirates and Iran) into the Persian/Arabian Gulf in the heart of the Middle East. These access points, he says, are classified three levels above Top Secret and referred to as Strap 3. Campbell alleges the Timpani base is well-placed to monitor Iraqi communications, while Clarinet in the south is well positioned for Yemen. The location of the third base Guitar, was not given.
What was unsaid is that in addition to Iraq and Yemen, the bases most certainly are able to closely supervise America's petroleum exporting allies.
An aerial photo of the base is shown below:
And here is an interactive map via Google:
The reason why we learn about this base only now is that according to Campbell, as summarized by Wired, attempts to publish this type of material before, is something he says were met with "a wave of threats and intimidation; threats of injunctions", culminating -- in the case of the Guardian -- with the destruction of the Snowden hard drives, "when it was well understood it existed in at least three major cities around the world". After the Guardian withheld the additional details about the base, the pressure was off and there was no impending punishment for publishing "Strap 1" level security data.
Here is what Campbell had to reveal about Seeb?
The secret overseas internet monitoring centre, codenamed CIRCUIT, is at Seeb in the state of Oman. It is the latest of a series of secret collaborations with the autocratic Middle Eastern state, which has been ruled for 44 years by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, installed as head of state in a British-led and SAS-supported coup against his father. The Seeb centre was originally built in collaboration with the Omani government to monitor civil communications satellites orbiting above the Middle East. It has six large satellite dishes, forming part of the well-known and long running “ECHELON” intercept system run by the “Five Eyes” English-speaking (US/UK/Australia/Canada/New Zealand) intelligence agencies.
When GCHQ obtained government approval in 2009 to go ahead with its “Mastering the Internet” project, the Seeb base became the first of its global network of Internet tapping locations. Another centre, OPC-2, has been planned, according to documents leaked by Snowden.
The CIRCUIT installation at Seeb is regarded as particularly valuable by the British and Americans because it has direct access to nine submarine cables passing through the Gulf and entering the Red Sea. All of the messages and data passed back and forth on the cables is copied into giant computer storage “buffers”, and then sifted for data of special interest.
The reason we are learning about this just now:
Information about Project TEMPORA and the Seeb facility was contained in 58,000 GCHQ documents which Snowden downloaded during 2012. Many of them came from an internal Wikipedia style information site called GC-Wiki. GCHQ feared the political consequences of revelations about its spying partners other than the United States and English speaking nations, according to knowledgeable sources.
It was this which lay behind the British government’s successful-until-today efforts to silence the Guardian and the rest of the media on the ultra-classified, beyond Top Secret specifics of Project TEMPORA - the places and names behind the codewords CIRCUIT, TIMPANI, CLARINET, REMEDY and GERONTIC.
Well now we know. And now the Saudis and the Emirs know that we know. Will this change anything in the US relations with the friendly and not so friendly nations in the region. No.
But a bigger question is just how did Campbell get these files: if only Snowden had access to them originally, and he only provided his data dump to selected outlets, of which the Guardian was the primary when it came to UK-related matters (and which was subsequently and quite violently silenced), and then the data trove followed Glenn Greenwald who Snowden picked as his mouthpiece, at the new outlet, the Intercept, then why didn't someone post these previously? Or is there a new, even more secretive, leak within the NSA? Or, a third option: the usual suspects are no longer in control over when sensitive data gets to be disclosed and using what channels (such as the Register).
The last option is best: because these is nothing like a little competition between media outlets to get the NSA trove of data out into the public domain faster. As to whether the public will decide to do anything with said data is a different matter entirely.