New investigation has revealed the role of US operatives in constructing a controversial spy Programme in the Gulf state.
In the years after 9/11, former United States counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke warned Congress the country needed more expansive spying powers to prevent another catastrophe.
Five years after leaving government, he shopped the same idea to an enthusiastic partner: an Arab monarchy with deep pockets.
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In 2008, Clarke went to work as a consultant guiding the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as it created a cyber-surveillance capability that would utilise top US intelligence contractors to help monitor threats against the tiny nation.
The secret unit Clarke helped create had an ominous acronym: DREAD, short for Development Research Exploitation and Analysis Department.
In the years that followed, the UAE unit expanded its hunt far beyond suspected extremists to include a Saudi women’s rights activist, diplomats at the United Nations and personnel at FIFA, the world soccer body.
By 2012, the programme would be known among its US operatives by a codename: Project Raven.
This year revealed how a group of former National Security Agency (NSA) operatives and other elite US intelligence veterans helped the UAE spy on a wide range of targets through the previously undisclosed programme from “terrorists” to human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.
Now, an examination of the origins of DREAD, reported by news agency for the first time, shows how a pair of former senior White House leaders, working with ex-NSA spies and Washington contractors, played pivotal roles in building a programme whose actions are now under scrutiny by federal authorities.
To chart the UAE spying mission’s evolution, news agency examined more than 10,000 DREAD programme documents and interviewed more than a dozen contractors, intelligence operatives and former government insiders with direct knowledge of the programme.
The documents news agency reviewed span nearly a decade of the DREAD programme, starting in 2008, and include internal memos describing the project’s logistics, operational plans and targets.
Clarke was the first in a string of former White House and US defence executives who arrived in the UAE after 9/11 to build the spying unit.
Utilising his close relationship to the country’s rulers, forged through decades of experience as a senior US decision-maker, Clarke won numerous security consulting contracts in the UAE.
One of them was to help build the secret spying unit in an unused airport facility in Abu Dhabi.
In an interview in Washington, Clarke said that after recommending that the UAE create a cyber-surveillance agency, his company, Good Harbor Consulting, was hired to help the country build it. The idea, Clarke said, was to create a unit capable of tracking “terrorists”. He said the plan was approved by the US State Department and the NSA, and that Good Harbor followed US law.
“The incentive was to help in the fight against al-Qaeda. The UAE is a very good counterterrorism partner. You need to remember the timing back then, post 9-11,” Clarke said. “The NSA wanted it to happen.”
The NSA did not answer written questions about its knowledge of DREAD or its relationship to any of the contractors.
The State Department said it carefully vets foreign defence service agreements for human rights issues.
UAE spokespeople at its Washington embassy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Clarke’s work in creating DREAD launched a decade of deepening involvement in the UAE hacking unit by Washington insiders and US intelligence veterans.
The US helped the UAE broaden the mission from a narrow focus on active extremist threats to a vast surveillance operation targeting thousands of people around the world perceived as foes by the Emirati government.
One of Clarke’s former Good Harbor partners, Paul Kurtz, said news agency’ earlier reports showed that the programme expanded into dangerous terrain and that the proliferation of cyber-skills merits greater US oversight.
“I have felt revulsion reading what ultimately happened,” said Kurtz, a former senior director for national security at the White House.