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When will this sub’s spy tactics finally get our attention?

An essay on Pastebin seeks to do what a decade of articles has failed trying.


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 5, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 12:04 pm CDT

Amid the continuing revelations of just how far-reaching the NSA’s info-gathering abilities are, an anonymous Pastebin exposé has made one big allegation that whistleblower Edward Snowden didn’t.

Posted a day ago under the Pastebin tag “Brainfuck,” the doc, called the “USS Jimmy Carter,” promptly went viral, garnering nearly 27,000 hits. The essay, allegedly written by what appears to be an alias named Thomas Gutschker, describes how a U.S. submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, is being used by the NSA to tap fiber-optic cable at the bottom of the ocean.

[T]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 essay goes on to describe what are generally believed to be the submarine’s activities in both tapping and laying fiber-optic cable along the ocean floor. The submarine intercepts fiber-optic light waves and allegedly stores data from the transmissions aboard its own craft. 

While the Pastebin doc seems to use Snowden’s whistleblowing as its context, it acknowledges that the submarine’s activities are fairly well known. The sub’s Wikipedia page notes that in 1999, before commissioning, the sub was outfitted for “highly classified missions,” and a 2001 ZDNet article as well as a 2005 New York Times article both report that the submarine is able to tap into oceanic cables for the NSA.

A 2006 article in The Atlantic titled “Big Brother is Listening” fully detailed the then-known scope of the NSA’s extensive wiretapping abilities. It speculated that the Carter’s underwater taps were shortlived.

The agency taps into the cables that don’t reach our shores by using specially designed submarines, such as the USS Jimmy Carter, to attach a complex “bug” to the cable itself. This is difficult, however, and undersea taps are short-lived because the batteries last only a limited time. The fiber-optic transmission cables that enter the United States from Europe and Asia can be tapped more easily at the landing stations where they come ashore. 

For a classified secret, the submarine’s work seems to be extremely well-known. But as is the case with Snowden, getting the public’s attention at the right moment seems to be crucial. 

The Pastebin essay appears to be either unedited or a translation, frequently lapsing into sentence fragments and broken phrases. Still, it’s getting the needed attention, and the ease of Pastebin’s sharing feature lends itself well to getting the word out about this particular NSA strategy. Given that a decade of previous articles failed to raise any alarm, it will be interesting to see if the USS Carter will gain wider attention from denizens of the Web.

In questioning the NSA’s lack of accountability, the Atlantic article posed Frank Miller’s famous question, “Who Watches the Watchmen?”

Increasingly these days, it would seem the answer is the Internet.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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*First Published: Jul 5, 2013, 7:54 am CDT