How Bin Laden Emailed Without Internet: Sneakernet-To-The-Home

from the well,-that's-one-way-to-do-things dept

There have been plenty of reports about how the compound where Bin Laden apparently lived for the past few years had no phone or internet connections (and, in fact, that was part of what tipped US intelligence off to who was in there). However, at the same time, it was known that Al Qaeda regularly used email to communicate, leading some to assume that Bin Laden wasn't as involved. However, new reports from the technology seized at the compound apparently show that Bin Laden was a regular emailer, he just used a human courier to act as the "last mile" between his computer and the network in order to avoid detection:
Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan with no phone or Internet capabilities, bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe.

At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.
Of course, this also means that the emails were stored, meaning that US officials now have a bunch of email info. What's interesting is that the AP article suggests this means the feds will now issue a ton of National Security Letters to get info on those accounts. What I'm wondering is why use NSLs in this situation, when it shouldn't be difficult at all to get a full warrant from a court? It seems that they would have plenty of info to get a warrant. So why use NSLs?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:09pm

    Because the government never makes sense.

    Why don't they release the Bin-Laden's death photos? The world will come to an end? But then they released the death photos of Saddam Hussein. and guess what? The world didn't come to an end (on top of that a Hussein death video even leaked).

    Far be it for the government to make sense.

     

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      :Lobo Santo (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 3:12pm

      Re: Deadly Pictures

      Obviously the gov hasn't had time to produce some good fake photos yet.

      I heard a rumor Bin-Laden died in like 2004(?) and they tossed his body off the ship where they executed him... who'd they kill lately then?

      /super-sarc!

       

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      Chosen Reject (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 3:16pm

      Re:

      No, in this case I think they are making sense. Here's a situation where they can use NSLs knowing they'll retrieve valuable info. So they use it, get the good stuff, and use that knowledge to stop some terrorist threat. This way, the next time someone questions NSLs, they point to this situation and say that it was a good thing NSLs existed. It doesn't matter that in this case they didn't need NSLs (as that little bit of info will be easily overlooked or be a footnote that few will read). It only matters that they used it and the data they obtained is obviously good for us to have. This way they can show how valuable NSLs are. Makes a lot of sense.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:21pm

        Re: Re:

        While that's the most convoluted logic I've seen in about a week or so, I marked it as funny because it's probably true.

         

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      Yuliq Mahbaht, May 15th, 2011 @ 3:09pm

      Re: Anonymous Coward

      You just don't get it do you? America would be a much better place without rednecks and idiots running around thinking that a friggin' photo is going to make all the difference in the world.

      Get rid of the ignorant morons like yourself first.

       

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    A Dan (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 3:12pm

    Cooking the numbers

    Obviously it's so they can say the NSLs were crucial to catch whatever number of terrorists turn up from this, to use in their argument for why NSLs are necessary to fight terrorism.

     

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    umb231 (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 3:24pm

    Kinda hope I'm wrong, but the cynic in me is saying they're using NSLs so that if they find something they don't want the public to know, it stays under national security lock instead of possibly be open to public scrutiny through FOIA type requests? but I dunno how any of this stuff interacts, so I'm probably way off.

     

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      G Thompson (profile), May 13th, 2011 @ 2:11am

      Re:

      Exactly what I was thinking..


      In fact if a court is given the information about the email accounts a court then has a duty to keep that information on record, even if under seal it is still on file somewhere and might at some later date be either leaked, given out under FOIA or some other legal means. Especially since courts are by definition public entities, and supposedly are not beholden to the other two branches of government.

      So if for example, hypothetically of course ;) , one or more of those email accounts were either to ex CIA buddies of OBL or even the Bush family, well..... you get the idea.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:24pm

    Mike seriously, read over the last 3 sentences, and then ask yourself why the hell does it matter? You worry about the dumbest shit ever..

     

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      Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:31pm

      Re:

      So fourth amendment principles don't matter then?

       

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        Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:41pm

        Re: Re:

        (and BTW, I'm not saying that the requests violated any fourth amendment principles, that's part of the topic of this discussion. I'm merely saying that the discussion is related to the fourth amendment and it's not as unimportant as you may think).

        Also, Mike discusses what he finds interesting. He can wonder about things. Some people wonder why the sky is blue. "but it's dumb, why worry about it". What's even dumber is for you to worry about others who worry about things that you find no interest in (ie: because you think they don't matter). Some people may think art is dumb and that artists shouldn't worry about creating art.

        Mike posts what he finds interesting and many people come to his blog because they find what he posts to be interesting. If you don't like it, why not visit a blog that worries about things that matter to you. Or start your own blog.

         

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      Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:34pm

      Re:

      "You worry about the dumbest shit ever.."

      and your worrying about his worrying is any better?

       

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      G Thompson (profile), May 13th, 2011 @ 2:13am

      Re:

      For some uncanny reason I do not think Mike is worrying about you.

       

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    Mike42 (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 3:28pm

    Why?

     

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    Mike42 (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 3:29pm

    What I'm wondering is why use NSLs in this situation, when it shouldn't be difficult at all to get a full warrant from a court? It seems that they would have plenty of info to get a warrant. So why use NSLs?

    That's just what they'd be expecting us to do!

     

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    ike, May 12th, 2011 @ 3:51pm

    NSLs have a gag order built in

    I imagine NSLs were used for their builtin gag order. By using NSLs, the targets shouldn't get tipped off that the government is on to them, allowing the government to surveil them in order to identify other members of the terrorist group.

     

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      Christopher (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 7:14pm

      Re: NSLs have a gag order built in

      That might be part of the reason why they are being used. However, there is a civilian version of a warrant that serves the same purpose.... which makes me wonder by the civilian version is not being used.

       

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    aldestrawk (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 4:06pm

    treasure trove?

    I know the government is saying they have the biggest collection of terrorist intelligence ever, but I am wondering why Bin Laden wouldn't have encrypted everything with strong encryption. It's conceivable that he was too arrogant to think he would ever be captured or maybe he was too stupid to think of cryptography. However, Al Qaeda leaders did learn not to carry cell phones, so they can't be that stupid. Osama Bin Laden, in particular, knew the U.S. would never stop trying to find him. So, why wouldn't he assume that would happen eventually and prepare for it. I am wondering if the US isn't just claiming a treasure trove to help flush out any other leadership.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 4:57pm

      Re: treasure trove?

      That's exactly what I have been thinking. Especially after his laptop turned up in Afghanistan when he hastily left. He would have to be a real dumbass not to learn from that an start using any form of encryption. Unless he kept his passwords on post-it notes stuck to his monitor. Or unless the feds have a backdoor into most encryption or access to quantum computing to make cracking it a trivial process.

       

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        aldestrawk (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 9:04pm

        Re: Re: treasure trove?

        Most, if not all, cryptographers do not think that strong encryption algorithms, like AES, has a backdoor. There may be weaknesses known only to the NSA which gives them an advantage by doing slightly better than a brute force attack on the key. However, no one thinks the NSA can currently decrypt a message encrypted with AES-256, for example. You do have to be pretty careful about what you are doing however. The Verona decrypts of Russian communications from WWII, were made possible by repeating the use of a one-time pad. A one-time pad is unbreakable encryption, but you have to use it properly.
        I would expect the U.S. to "leak" some more "critical details" within the next two weeks. This should be true, whether or not they really have access to a load of unencrypted emails, as they just need to convince Al Qaeda that this is true.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, May 13th, 2011 @ 8:01am

          Re: Re: Re: treasure trove?

          Assuming AES-256 doesn't have a "backdoor," how trivial would it be for OBL to use a freely available program like TrueCrypt? I find it really hard to believe that OBL would have been that arrogant or stupid to not use a nominally secure encryption method on his communications. Maybe I give them too much credit but I find it hard to believe the "treasure trove" is as truly valuable as the feds would have the people believe.

           

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      Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 5:01pm

      Re: treasure trove?

      The U.S. government has been known not to encrypt much of its sensitive data either, they probably consider it an inconvenience. Bin Laden is probably no different.

       

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        Christopher (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 7:15pm

        Re: Re: treasure trove?

        True..... considering the government didn't encrypt a bunch of stuff and didn't limit a bunch of stuff so that a PRIVATE was able to leak a lot of Top Secret level stuff (though not as much as you would think or was claimed)... I can understand Bin Laden not using encryption.

         

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          aldestrawk (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 8:48pm

          Re: Re: Re: treasure trove?

          If you are referring to Private Manning, he did not have access to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) which carries top secret information. He had access only to SIPRNet.

           

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      G Thompson (profile), May 13th, 2011 @ 2:17am

      Re: treasure trove?

      Or OBL created Canary traps throughout the emails...

      I'm wondering though if there was a "In Case of Death" package placed somewhere that is about to see the light of day that could seriously embarrass, even more than it already has been, the USG and other 'allied' intelligent services and corporate interests.

       

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    hmm (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 4:09pm

    well

    in that case they probably got him because Nike has a secret-room where they turn over all sneaker-related information to the CIA/FBI/Foot police....and they have sensors+webcams in every pair "for the customers protection".....

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 4:14pm

    I have a few guesses:
    Can't you contest a warrant? A NSL isn't subject to an approval or appeal process.

    Guess #2: If you look for a warrant, you are treating the targets as criminals, not militants. That might mean shakey legal ground when they try to kill said militants. (Lookup what Osama's son said about the legality of the raid to see what I mean.)

    Guess #3: The information is classified and seeking a warrant would violate that security clearance.

    IANAL, though, so please folks, feel free to comment. (Who am I kidding, you would anyway.)

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 4:16pm

    What's interesting is that the AP article suggests this means the feds will now issue a ton of National Security Letters to get info on those accounts. What I'm wondering is why use NSLs in this situation, when it shouldn't be difficult at all to get a full warrant from a court? It seems that they would have plenty of info to get a warrant. So why use NSLs?

    Because the raid on UBL's compound was not legal?

     

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      Christopher (profile), May 12th, 2011 @ 7:20pm

      Re:

      Actually, considering that Pakistan (a supposed ally) didn't approve the raid, it probably wasn't legal on the face of it.

      Necessary, yes. Legal, no. The killing of Osama bin Laden was another thing altogether.... neither legal nor necessary to shoot an UNARMED man, except that some 'secrets' might have come to light that our government might not have liked... perhaps CIA involvement in Al-Qaeda.

      Yes, people... it is QUITE possible that the CIA have had people in Al-Qaeda for years.

       

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    johnnyC, May 12th, 2011 @ 5:40pm

    NSL or Warrant.

    Most likely they are using non-US based ISP's so can't the ISP just ignore the NSL or Warrant any way. I mean a US court order has no power outside the United States so why would a NSL be any different especially if it's a Pakistan based ISP.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2011 @ 7:30pm

    No one should ask why NSL's are used;
    there are several reasons for tracability

     

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    Anonymous, May 12th, 2011 @ 9:17pm

    You really believe the Main Stream Media?

    Do any of you people here actually believe these stories about Bin laden? (Nothing against you if you do!) Personally I find it so laughable that I can't even bother to read most of them anymore.

    They can't come up with a shred of proof to back up their claims about killing him. It's a huge information war going on. Governments and Corporations are desperate to influence what we think and believe.

     

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    mike allen (profile), May 13th, 2011 @ 12:00am

    OK being a Brit what the hell is a NSL in the uk it means
    NOTTINGHAMSHIRE SENIOR LEAGUE which is to do with soccer.

     

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    Stephen, May 13th, 2011 @ 8:36am

    like my old boss

    the sneakernet is alive in america too. my old boss used to have his secretary print his emails, he scrawled a response on them, then she typed up the response and replied to the email.

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), May 13th, 2011 @ 1:31pm

    Why NSLs?

    I don't know the answer, but I will point out two things I have learned over the last 80 years:

    1. Democracy=checks_and_balances; dictatorship=unilateral action. As George Bush said (and I am NOT sure he was joking!) "a dictatorship is a lot easier".

    2. While there is a place for security (and I would love to see a CIVILIAN panel passing on what should or should not be classified!), when secrecy has been in place for a long time, it degenerates into a means to protect the guilty; and eliminating democratic checks and balances is a first step.

     

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