The NSA’s Connection to Silk Road

Nick Gillespie: “In the case of Ross Ulbricht…do you assume, or should we assume, that the NSA was involved in corroborating or gathering evidence which they might have denied in the actual trial?”
Edward Snowden: “Yes…It seems unthinkable to me that there was not an intelligence angle internationally that was involved in that case.”
– New Hampshire Liberty Forum, March 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 unparalleled surveillance powers to help domestic law enforcement with the case.

Targeting Bitcoin users

The Intercept article,
March 20, 2018

On March 20, 2018, three years after Ross was sentenced, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had “worked urgently to target Bitcoin users” in the months leading up to Ross’s arrest.[1] According to the report, the agency 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

Just two months before Ross’s arrest, Reuters first revealed the NSA’s practice of parallel construction to the public.[5] According to Reuters, 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’s lead prosecutor, Serrin Turner, denied this claim and stopped further questioning into the NSA’s illegal surveillance of American citizens. Turner dismissed Ross’s lawyer’s suggestion that the NSA was behind the Silk Road investigation:

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.[6]

Turner called 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.”[7]

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 then revealed that Bridges was on a “joint-duty assignment with the [NSA]” while investigating Silk Road.

“I’m authorized to share with the Court that as a member of the Secret Service Mr. Bridges served a joint-duty assignment with the National Security Agency…during the time frame of these events that led to this case.”
-AUSA Haun at Bridges’s sentencing hearing.[8]

With the help of AUSA Richard Kay, Bridges alerted the target of the investigation, Mark Karpeles, that the government was after him.[9] Later, Kay arranged a meeting with Karpeles in Guam, a well-known NSA stronghold,[10] to discuss targeting someone else in exchange for legal immunity.[11]

At trial, when Ross’s defense attorney brought up the Guam meeting, the government launched into a prolonged argument for why Karpeles should not be discussed.[12] Although the judge could find no justification for precluding it, by the next trial day, she had reversed her position and permitted no further mention of the meeting.[13]