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Oil Espionage: How the NSA and Britain's GCHQ Spied on OPEC

Oil Espionage: How the NSA and Britain's GCHQ Spied on OPEC
Tue, 11/12/2013 - by Spiegel Staff
This article originally appeared on Spiegel Online International

America's NSA and Britain's GCHQ are both spying on the OPEC oil cartel, documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal. The security of the global energy supply is one of the most important issues for the intelligence agencies.

Documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal that both America's National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have infiltrated the computer network of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

In January 2008, the NSA department in charge of energy issues reported it had accomplished its mission. Intelligence information about individual petroleum-exporting countries had existed before then, but now the NSA had managed, for the first time, to infiltrate OPEC in its entirety.

OPEC, founded in 1960, has its headquarters in a box-like building in Vienna. Its main objective is to control the global oil market, and to keep prices high. The 12 member states include Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq.

A Treasure Trove of Information

When the NSA used the Internet to infiltrate OPEC's computers, its analysts discovered an internal study in the OPEC Research Division. It stated that OPEC officials were trying to cast the blame for high oil prices on speculators.

A look at files in the OPEC legal department revealed how the organization was preparing itself for an antitrust suit in the United States. And a review of the section reserved for the OPEC secretary general documented that the Saudis were using underhanded tactics, even within the organization. According to the NSA analysts, Riyadh had tried to keep an increase in oil production a secret for as long as possible.

Saudi Arabia's OPEC governor is also on the list of individuals targeted for surveillance, for which the NSA had secured approval from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The documents show how careful the Americans were to suspend their surveillance when the Saudi visited the United States. But as soon as he had returned to Riyadh, the NSA analysts began infiltrating his communications once again.

Praise from Department of Energy

According to a 2010 report, one of the analysts' conclusions was that the Saudis had released incorrect oil production figures. The typical "customers" for such information were the CIA, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Energy, which promptly praised the NSA for confirming what it had suspected for years.

The British, who also targeted OPEC's Vienna headquarters, were at least as successful as the NSA. A secret GCHQ document dating from 2010 states that the agency had traditionally had "poor access" to OPEC. But that year, after a long period of meticulous work, it had managed to infiltrate the computers of nine OPEC employees by using the "Quantum Insert" method, which then creates a gateway to gain access into OPEC's computer system.

GCHQ analysts were even able to acquire administrator privileges for the OPEC network and gain access to two secret servers containing "many documents of interest."

OPEC appears in the "National Intelligence Priorities Framework," which the White House issues to the U.S. intelligence community. Although the organization is still listed as an intelligence target in the April 2013 list, it is no longer a high-priority target. Now that the United States is less dependent on Saudi petroleum, thanks to fracking and new oil discoveries, the fact that OPEC is not identified as a top priority anymore indicates that interest in the organization has declined.

Originally published by Spiegel Online

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