The NSA’s Connection to Silk Road

“It seems unthinkable to me that there was not an intelligence angle internationally that was involved in that case.” – Edward Snowden on Silk Road, 2016

The government went to great lengths to cover up the National Security Agency’s involvement in the Silk Road investigation. However, over time, clues have surfaced, indicating that they were secretly and illegally using their capabilities to help domestic law enforcement with the case.

Bitcoin cyber targets

The Intercept article,
March 20, 2018

On March 2018, three years after Ross had been sentenced, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had “worked urgently to target Bitcoin users” in the months leading up to Ross’s arrest. They used a “program code-named OAKSTAR, a collection of covert corporate partnerships enabling the agency to monitor communications…along fiber optic cables that undergird the internet.”

A classified March 8, 2013 NSA memo stated they were using these capabilities in their mission of looking at “cyber targets that utilize online e-currency.” It is hard to imagine a higher priority government target using Bitcoin in 2013 than Silk Road and DPR.

“I’m trying to warn you. The DEA, ICE, POSTAL INSPECTOR, NSI, FBI, CIA, NSA are itching to get credit for your arrest.” – notwonderful, anonymous law enforcement insider to DPR (appeal appendix, page A861 [PDF])

Finding the servers

The government’s explanation for how they found the Silk Road servers was met with skepticism by experts worldwide.

“Many of us believe it wasn’t the FBI who discovered the hidden Silk Road server, but the NSA…We believe the FBI is using parallel construction…creating a plausible story of how they found the server to satisfy the courts, but a story that isn’t true.” – Robert Graham of Errata Security

According to Reuters, who first revealed the NSA’s practice of parallel construction just two months before Ross’s arrest, law enforcement agents receiving illegal information from the agency “have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin–not only from defense lawyers, but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.”

The government dismissed [PDF] this claim and stopped further questioning into the NSA’s involvement:

IB Times article, Sept 8, 2014

“Ulbricht offers no evidence of any governmental misconduct to support this sweeping claim. Instead, [he] conjures up a bogeyman – the National Security Agency (“NSA”) – which [he] suspects…was responsible for locating the Silk Road server” – AUSA Serrin Turner, lead prosecutor at trial.

They called [PDF] Ross’s search for how the servers were actually found “a pointless fishing expedition aimed at vindicating his misguided conjecture about the NSA being the shadowy hand behind the Government’s investigation.”

The cover-up

Forbes article, March 31, 2015

The government hid the existence of rogue, corrupt Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges from Ross, his judge, and the public until seven weeks after Ross had been convicted. It was revealed at that time that Bridges was on a “joint-duty assignment with the [NSA]” while investigating Silk Road.