Special Collection Service: America’s Mission Impossible Force

1.0 Introduction

The United States Special Collection Service (SCS), codenamed F6, is a joint NSA-CIA program that is referred to as the “mission impossible force.” The SCS’s existence is denied by the U.S. government, but its activities and capabilities have been revealed over the years. Edward Snowden’s leaks and individuals with inside knowledge have shed some light on the highly secretive unit.

The mission of the SCS is in signals intelligence (SIGINT). More specifically, they focus on “placing super-high-tech bugs in unbelievably hard-to-reach places” [source].

2.0 History

The SCS was founded in 1978 as a way for the NSA and CIA to cooperate on highly sensitive and important intelligence collection operations.

The creation of the Special Collection Service allowed for a much more efficient and coordinated approach to targets. Prior to its creation, there was increased competition between the NSA’s eavesdropping specialists and the CIA’s bugging specialists [source]. Before the SCS, the CIA and NSA would duplicate efforts and not coordinate effectively. Cooperation between the two agencies allowed them to combine their areas of expertise into one highly capable unit. 

The SCS’ value in the Cold War was significant. In the Cold War, the SCS installed listening devices on pigeons perched atop of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Since the 1990s, the SCS has become increasingly daring and widespread. In the late 1990s, the SCS was one of the first units to set up operations in the Middle East. In 1999, the SCS was listening in on al-Qaeda training camps. Around the turn of the century, SCS operations were prevalent across Iraq and only increased with the U.S. invasion [source].

3.0 Organisation

The Special Collection Service is organised to maximise the cooperation between experts in the field and SIGINT experts. To maintain strong cooperation, the leadership of the SCS alternates between the Director of the CIA and NSA. In order to accomplish synergy between the agencies, four units comprise the organisation: the Field Operations Office, Field Engineering Office, Mission Support Office, and Installation and Logistics Office.

The Field Operations Office is primarily responsible for the installation of equipment and intelligence collection. Officers in this department “operate embassy-based equipment in addition to performing riskier ‘black-bag’ jobs, or break-ins, for purposes of bugging” [source].

The organisation’s structure allows them a complete suite of intelligence collection and analysis capabilities. The Field Operations Office personnel are able to gain critical access and deniability in the field by using cover identities as foreign service officers or diplomatic telecommunications specialists.

They are able to further expand their reach and advantage through strategic partnerships. The SCS maintains working relationships with a variety of agencies from the United States, including the DEA, DIA, FBI, Secret Service, and Law Enforcement, among many others. Information collected from around the world can then be securely transmitted to their headquarters outside of Beltsville, Maryland.

An overview of the organizations partnerships. The image details the various different agencies within the United States government that cooperate with the service.

3.1 Covert HQ

The headquarters of SCS is especially interesting too. The organisation operates in a facility next to a State Department Communications facility, known as the “Beltsville Annex.” The facility is one of many that are located on the 7,000-acre property run by the Department of Agriculture’s Research Center [source].

Mike Frost, a former employee of Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, described his experience working alongside the SCS in his 1994 memoir:

“‘It is not the usual sanitorium-clean atmosphere you would expect to find in a top-secret installation,’ writes Frost. ‘Wires everywhere, jerry-rigged gizmos everywhere, computers all over the place, some people buzzing around in three-piece suits, and others in jeans and t-shirts. [It was] the ultimate testing and engineering centre for any espionage equipment.’ Perhaps one of its most extraordinary areas was its ‘live room,’ a 30-foot-square area where NSA and CIA devices were put through dry runs, and where engineers simulated the electronic environment of cities where eavesdroppers are deployed” [source].

An aerial photo, via Google Earth, of the headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland.

3.2 Worldwide Operations

When Edward Snowden leaked classified U.S. intelligence documents in 2013, presentations internal to the SCS were included. One of the pages gives insight into the worldwide presence of the organisation.

This image details the location of Special Collection Service posts around the world. The legend classifies each post as active survey, unmanned remote, tech support activity, staffed location, or dormant.

This map demonstrates how the SCS operates internationally. Stations fall into one of five categories: active survey, unmanned remote, tech support activity, staffed location, and dormant. The map also demonstrates how widespread their operations are. Stations are available for missions requiring close surveillance of signals such as targeting of individuals or groups.

4.0 Equipment

The equipment used by the Special Collection Service is very different from what other specialised units in the military and intelligence communities use. Some personnel in the special operations division carry weapons, but the primary tools of the organisation are in SIGINT technology.

The tools they use have enabled them to perform “espionage miracles, delivering verbatim transcripts from high-level foreign-government meetings in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia” [source].

4.1 Innovative Technology

As early as the 1980s, the SCS used invisible lasers that could measure the vibrations in window panes caused by the conversation of an SCS target [source]. The journalist James Bamford describes one gadget used, an umbrella that turns into an antenna that collects conversations when specific keywords are used by targets.

What differentiates the organisation from others is its highly innovative signal collection equipment. According to classified documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden, the SCS explain some of their technical capabilities. These capabilities include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Cloud computing
  • Beyond Traditional Accesses
  • Empowered Automation
  • Rapid response SIGINT presence
  • Next-generation virtual infrastructure
This image shows examples of some of the technology used by the Special Collection Service.

Most of the technology used by the SCS is highly classified and at the cutting edge of science. They hold significant capabilities in short-range collection devices, such as bugs or other listening and collection devices. They also maintain a significant capability in long-range collection. To do this, they leverage high-tech satellites, remote listening posts, and an array of microwave, WiFi, WiMAX, GSM, and CDMA technology.

One example of the advanced technology used by SCS is their “Stingray” device. This device is able to operate as a cellphone tower, “tricking mobile phones into connecting to them instead of to legitimate towers. This allows the Stingrays to intercept calls and texts” [source].

4.2 Operations Enabled by Technology

According to a leaked presentation from the Snowden leaks, the opportunities provided to the SCS by their innovative technology are extensive and go well beyond terror groups. 

This image demonstrates how the Special Collection Service utilizes various resources in order to facilitate access and analysis of intelligence.

5.0 Notable Operations

Due to it being such a secretive and capable organisation, few details are known about Special Collection Service operations. Regardless, examples of their work have been revealed over time.

5.1 Berlin Station

In 2008, the United States finished construction on a new embassy building, located within view of the German Chancellor’s office. Snowden’s leak revealed an intelligence gathering operation out of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

In the embassy itself, a team of SCS operatives were running an active SIGINT collection operation. The operation infiltrated the personal cell phone of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others. This data collection allowed the SCS to closely monitor the goals and direction of German domestic and foreign policy.

Upon the disclosure of this program, Chancellor Merkel “placed a strongly worded phone call” to President Barack Obama. The German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also summoned the U.S. Ambassador [source].

The controversy revealed just one example of how widespread and deep the SCS intelligence collection operations go.

5.2 Operation Neptune Spear

Operation Neptune Spear was the 2011 U.S. operation to kill or capture  Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan. The Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and CIA Ground Branch received much of the attention, but the SCS played a critical role in the mission’s success.

The service’s signal interception capabilities allowed them to follow the trail of bin Laden’s courier to a compound outside of the city. They did this by closely monitoring his phone calls and listening for keywords while they tracked his location. [source].

As the intelligence community narrowed in on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, SCS operatives set up an operation in a safe house down the road from the target building. From this post, the operatives were able to measure vibrations and other signals to determine the number of individuals within the compound’s walls. This allowed them to determine there was one individual who never travelled outside of the home, a piece of evidence used to suggest it was in fact bin Laden’s compound [source].

6.0 Summary

The United States Special Collection Service is at the tip of the spear for U.S. intelligence collection. The organisation offers the U.S. significant insight into potential threats and allows them to respond to them.

The SCS has operated in a grey area, at times violating laws and agreements of countries around the world, even allies. Despite this, the value provided by the organisation to the U.S. national security apparatus is enormous.

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