Top-secret NSA hacking teams exposed

The National Security Agency employs teams of hackers tasked with missions ranging from cyberattacks to counterterrorism, according to a German magazine that has published documents stolen by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. 

The teams, attached to the agency's Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), handle the bulk of the organization's missions at the tactical and operational level, Der Spiegel reports.

The magazine reports the TAO teams have gained access to sensitive information encrypted within private, secure networks belonging to world leaders and multinational corporations. 

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TAO team members were reportedly responsible for hacking into German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal cellphone, among others, to monitor their communications. 

Established in 1997 within the NSA, the TAO teams specialize in breaking into highly secure computer networks, either to gather intelligence or manipulate those networks in offensive cyber warfare operations. 

Working out of secure locations in the continental United States and abroad, with monikers such as the NSA's "Dagger Complex" in Germany, these teams have expanded to locations in Hawaii, Georgia, Colorado and the agency's headquarters at Ft. Meade, Md., according to Der Spiegel.  

The office's branch in Texas, however, reportedly has spearheaded the agency's operations and has been the fastest-growing TAO team within the NSA.  Based in San Antonio, the Texas branch is responsible for NSA intelligence operations in the Mideast, South and Central America, and Mexico.  

With a team of 60 information technology specialists, the TAO Texas cell is expected to swell to upwards of 300 technicians by 2015, according to the magazine.  The growth of the Texas branch, as well as the TAO teams overall, represent the importance of the agency's espionage operations to the U.S. military and intelligence community. 

American regional and combat commands, from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region are "the biggest users and consumers" of the actionable intelligence produced by the NSA, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters earlier this month. 

But the revelations of the TAO teams, along with other sensitive details of NSA operations by Snowden, and the political blowback they have caused in Washington could end up doing more harm than good to U.S. military commanders. 

"What I do not want to see here is a gap" in the intelligence flow from the NSA down to American units on the ground, at sea and in the air, the defense chief told reporters at the Pentagon.

Administration and U.S. intelligence officials assert Snowden stole more than 1.5 million classified documents detailing specific NSA programs and operations, only a small portion of which have been made public. 

Snowden, who is currently receiving temporary asylum in Russia, is facing a slew of espionage charges should he return to the United States.

President Obama is weighing options to rein in the NSA, based on the recommendations of a White House panel, tasked with reviewing the agency's operations in the wake of the Snowden leaks. 

The recommendations came just two days after a federal district court judge ruled that the NSA's phone surveillance operation appeared to violate the constitutional rights of millions of Americans.

— This report was updated on Monday at 6:20 a.m.

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