USS Jimmy Carter
- Sunday 30th June, 2013
- Uphold human rights, diving for data
- The submarine USS Jimmy Carter is on a secret mission since 2005. It can tap fiber optic lines at the bottom of the oceans
- By Thomas Gutschker
- For Jimmy Carter August 12th 2005 was a special day. It was the day on which the former President of the United States adopted a new submarine in service. Not just any submarina, but a very special one. "This is the best ship of our Navy, any Navy," Carter enthused at the pier in front of hundreds of guests of honor. He was wearing a yellow windbreaker and a baseball cap. Everyone could feel how proud the man was who had been expelled as president after one term in office of the White House and who had to suffer so much ridicule. "USS Jimmy Carter" - the mighty submarine was now bearing his name.
- After the Second World War, Carter was a submarine sailor for a few years, which had earned him this special honor. In his speech he marveled at how big the whale shaped now ships are, even if it does not serve the comfort of the crew. About the special abilities of the USS Jimmy Carter, he said little. Only this: The submarine will play a role which "will benefit the security of the United States and the free world in a unique way." He didn't promise too much, at least with respect to his country.
- Because the USS Carter can do something no other ship can do: she can secretly tap fiber optic cables in the oceans and transmit data on to the NSA. Of course the Americans would never admit this openly. Why should they? The USS Jimmy Carter is the secret weapon of the United States for those cases in which network operators and friendly clandestine services don't allow the NSA technicians in their data centers.
- The plans for the ship to go back to the last years of the Cold War. At that time, the United States operated a global monitoring system for radio and satellite data. Through this system, named "Echelon", the NSA could intercept phone calls, faxes and Internet data; a huge monitoring station was located in the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling. Of course, the NSA was also able to tap into copper lines, even those in the oceans. There were special submarines. In 1971, one succeeded to tap into a submarine cable that connected the Soviet naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula with the Pacific Fleet Command in Novosibirsk. Another one tapped into a line of the Soviet Atlantic Fleet in the Barents Sea in 1979.
- These huge successes, however, were threatened because of the advent of a new technology in the late eighties, spread by the success of the Internet: fiber optic cable. You can transport larger amounts of data faster, split into data packets that are reassembled by the addressee only. This alone provided the NSA with great challenges. Above all, they had to explore how fiber connections could be tapped at all. Since 1989, a project team in the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade worked to accomplish this task.
- Tapping a copper cable is relatively simple. It transmits electrical impulses, which in turn generate electromagnetic fields, which can be recorded without interrupting the line. But fiber optic cables carry light waves. The light must be at amplified at least every three thousand kilometers. This was done initially with electric amplifiers, but later purely optical methods were used which left no externally measurable traces.
- The easiest way to siphon off a fiber optic cable is to splice it and to direct the light waves from one to two or more fibers. How it's done routinely in branches. However, while the data stream is interrupted - and the breaking point can be determined accurately in the shortest possible time. Not a good idea for someone who wants to remain undetected. However, light signals can not be read in another way. Therefore you have so far to expose and turn that a small part of the light waves emerging from the fiber, the individual glass fibers. If you immediately reinforce these waves again and transported via another cable, it has diverted the data.
- This sounds simple, but is infinitely complicated. An optical fiber is thinner than a hair; submarine cable bundle 8, 16 or even 192 fibers. They also carry a power cord with 10 000 volts. In laser are supplied amplify the light waves. No U-boat commander will voluntarily pick up a power line on board. Also can not park easily on the seabed a submarine. The solution: a mobile underwater vehicle. The USS Jimmy Carter has a special pressure equalization chamber for such vehicles. You can also dive about 300 meters deep. To this depth cables are plowed into the seabed or reinforced with steel to protect against trawling and anchoring. Beyond 300 meters the cables dangle freely in the ocean, however, where their only natural enemies are sharks.
- That the USS Carter was built for spying on fiber optic cables, first came out in 2001 by a report of the "Wall Street Journal". The reporter learned from previous NSA employees that the new technology was tested in the mid nineties. It should be able to tap into a fiber line unnoticed, but the technicians were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data. They understood that it would never be possible to store this data on board a submarine - as had been the custom in the tapped copper cables.
- Therefore decided NSA and Navy, to expand already-commissioned USS Jimmy Carter to a thirty meter long centerpiece that can also accommodate installation cable. At the Congress, additional funds were requested for "advanced technology for special naval warfare and tactical surveillance." In this context, deputies were privy to details. At the end they gave $ 3.2 billion for the largest free U-boat ever built by the United States.
- The reporter of the "Wall Street Journal" interviewed that time also the NSA Director Michael Hayden. As he read him his research, Hayden replied smiling, he would "not be deterred from his views," the journalists. He then observed that the storage of data is a bigger challenge than the access to them. This could be seen as indirect confirmation.
- The development of the USS Jimmy Carter proves that the NSA has a pretty good nose for technological trends. In 1988, the first fiber optic cable has been pulled through the Atlantic - from the East Coast to the UK. Today, hundreds of these cables are located in the world's oceans. This includes the Transatlantic cable TAT-14, about the German Telekom settles a third of their traffic with North America. This cable runs from New Jersey in about Bude South West England and other points in France and the Netherlands in the East Frisian coastal town north. About this data stream, the NSA should be pretty good in the picture - the British intelligence they can about its extension in Bude participate. At least, it has revealed the former NSA employee Edward Snowden.
- When Americans wiretap undersea cable directly, then the connections that they can not reach by land, approximately from Africa or Asia to Europe. Even Jimmy Carter had given the commander of "his" submarine 2005 global order. He knew, he said, to the "extraordinary ability" of the ship, many of which are "top secret". They would serve to "keep the peace, to protect our country and uphold the banner of human rights around the world."