The Snowden camp did itself no favors with its critics and skeptics by revealing information from a highly classified NSA document concerning the use of “Targeted Exploitation” a.k.a. TAREX against the People’s Republic of China in a story published by The Intercept. Basic story: undercover operatives penetrate PRC telecommunications companies to bug their products.
I’m a Snowden supporter, but I was also taken aback by exposure of a U.S. intelligence operation against a non-allied state. The existence of TAREX is not classified; but the "forward TAREX presence" in Beijing was supposed to remain classified SECRET/NOFORN for 25 years i.e. not even revealed to our Five Eyes buddies.
Add to that the fact that the two main Chinese telecom providers and presumed TAREX targets, Huawei and ZTE, are effectively banned from U.S. government and telecom networks, so the argument that there was a compelling public interest, at least in the U.S.A., in getting the skinny on this operation is somewhat farfetched.
I e-mailed one of the co-authors of the Intercept expose, Peter Maass, to ask if his story reflected a change in the Snowden ground rules precluding the release of operational details; if TAREX had been revealed elsewhere and therefore was fair game; or if it was related to Snowden’s early days of exile in Hong Kong when he went “off res” and appalled his US supporters by offering details on US spying against PRC and Hong Kong targets, presumably in order to ingratiate himself to the local authorities.
We give the NSA an opportunity to request redactions to documents we intend to publish. We consider those requests very seriously, and we balance them against the public’s right to know about the activities of their government.
So it appears that The Intercept gave the NSA the chance to argue against revealing TAREX. The fact that the NSA did not go apesh*t and insist that this revelation be spiked otherwise undercover operatives in the field risked exposure/capture/or worse implies to me that the TAREX program has already been blown and/or terminated.
It’s plausible. HUMINT operations are notoriously risky. Targets identify infiltration agents, turn them into double agents, roll up networks etc. etc. etc.
And if one wishes to play eleventy-level chess, the NSA decided it was OK to let the story out, so that global telecom customers would get the message that, even if they eschewed Western equipment in favor of Huawei & ZTE (Iran, for instance relies on Huawei equipment for its national Internet), America is still listening.
But on balance, I could have done without knowing about TAREX.