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[infowar.de] The NSA's Overt Problem
The NSA's Overt Problem
So Many Conversations, So Few Clues to the Terrorists' Chatter
By Michael Hirsh
Washington Post, Sunday, January 1, 2006; B01
In any war, surveillance of the enemy is critical. Today, in the eyes of
at least some Americans, surveillance itself has become the enemy.
It was not always so. As any intelligence maven knows, some of the heroes
of World War II were eavesdroppers, not soldiers. They were quiet, wonkish
men, like those who monitored and deciphered Nazi communications about
German battle plans at Bletchley Park, an estate 50 miles northwest of
London. Their super-secret operation employed thousands of people who
listened to 226 radio frequencies for dot-and-dash messages and passed
them to ingenious code-breakers. The results were kept on 5-by-7 inch
cards in shoe box-shaped containers.
Who are our masters of surveillance today? Most are located at the
National Security Agency, the giant "Crypto City" complex located off
Interstate 95 between Washington and Baltimore. The agency vacuums up 650
million intercepts a day -- called signals intelligence, or sigint -- from
satellites, ground stations, aircraft, ships and submarines around the
world. And it hunts for patterns that might lend seemingly ordinary words
significance in the war on terrorism.
But the agency and its experts are not being hailed as heroes right now.
The NSA, so secretive that its letters are commonly said to stand for "No
Such Agency," has been uncomfortably in the limelight in recent weeks
after the New York Times revealed that as the result of a presidential
order, the agency has been monitoring thousands of Americans over the
phone and by e-mail without court authorization.
As the controversy over the legality and propriety of domestic
surveillance by the National Security Agency rages on, one question has
not been adequately addressed: Is the NSA's approach really the best way
of tracking terrorists? While there's no question that the NSA's covert
move into domestic surveillance raises serious legal and ethical issues,
the equally important and less examined question is whether -- more than
four years after 9/11 -- the agency's methods are suited to tracking the
The difference between Bletchley Park and Crypto City has as much to do
with the very different nature of their tasks as with the way they are
viewed. By today's standards, the mission at Bletchley Park was
well-defined. The targets of the surveillance were clear: the German high
command and intelligence service. The signals collectors had a good fix on
what communications to monitor. The greatest challenge lay in breaking the
extremely complex Enigma code.
By contrast, the NSA conducts broad-based surveillance indiscriminately
over communications lines that few bad guys even use any longer. "Big
Noddy," as those in the know call the NSA's vast "Ear in the Sky," has
capabilities that dwarf the Bletchley Park World War II enterprise, but it
isn't picking up much because the smartest terrorist groups have long
since stopped talking about their plans over cell phones or land lines --
or to the extent they do, it's probably to plant disinformation. Today the
challenge isn't decoding an intercepted message from a known enemy;
instead it's figuring out what is and isn't a message and who the enemy is.
The NSA was designed to monitor a relatively contained number of official
communications pipelines in nation-states -- for example, microwave
transmissions from Moscow to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
base in Siberia. But as Michael Hayden, then NSA director, told me in an
interview in late 2002: "We've gone from chasing the telecommunications
structure of a slow-moving, technologically inferior, resource-poor
nation-state -- and we could do that pretty well -- to chasing a
communications structure in which an al Qaeda member can go into a
storefront in Istanbul and buy for $100 a communications device that is
absolutely cutting edge, and for which he has had to make no investment
The result is that the NSA is overwhelmed by millions of phone calls and
e-mail contacts that it simply can't digest. And it's not just a question
of finding the needle in the haystack; today's surveillance professionals
aren't sure what the needle looks like. The agency has adjusted, but it
continues to perform what some experts consider to be primitive,
broad-based techniques, like random keyword searches on the Web for
Islamist tag lines. As a December 2002 report by the Senate Select
Intelligence Committee noted, "Only a tiny fraction of the daily
intercepts are actually ever reviewed by humans, and much of what is
collected gets lost in the deluge of data."
Moreover, communications between terrorist groups today, says one
intelligence official, is either "air-gapped" -- in which a document or
computer disk is hand-delivered by messenger (as was seen in the letters
allegedly exchanged between al Qaeda chieftain Ayman Zawahiri and Iraqi
insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi) -- or it occurs through Web sites.
Some intelligence experts who are critical of NSA's efforts, like John
Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., a sometime
Pentagon consultant, say the real problem is that the agency is still
pursuing a Cold War-era strategy.
What the NSA really needs to do, say Arquilla and others, is to build a
new Bletchley Park. Just as Bletchley attracted Alan Turing, inventor of
the modern computer, the NSA needs to summon the Turings of our day --
mainly computer hackers -- to snare al Qaeda and other terrorists at the
only place they still communicate electronically, on Web sites. An added
benefit, Arquilla adds, is that "if we went the route of a much greater
emphasis of intelligence collection on the Web and Net, we would learn a
lot more and intrude less on civil liberties."
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., notes that most of
the major breakthroughs against al Qaeda-linked plots in recent years have
shown that the terrorists, wary of phone monitoring, are communicating
through couriers on the ground and coordinating plots on the Web. When
Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was
arrested in July 2004, his laptop contained plans for simultaneous attacks
on London and New York that were to have been transmitted electronically.
Today, adds Hoffman, the most sophisticated terrorists have learned to
evade the NSA altogether. "They keep their messages in a draft file on a
Web site, then give someone the password and user name to get in. The NSA
can't track that, because it's stationary."
Bush administration officials are now casting the war on terrorism as a
fight against al Qaeda's plans to reestablish a "caliphate" across the
Islamic world, referring to the Muslim empire of centuries past. Some
experts scoff at such Islamist ambitions. But to the extent the dreams of
a caliphate are being discussed by extremist Muslim groups, this is
occurring mainly on Internet Web sites, experts say. "The Internet is the
key issue," Gilles Kepel, a prominent Arabist and a professor at the
Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, told the New Yorker in 2004. "It
allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet sharia and
Even loyalists of the NSA concede that Crypto City is in some respects a
dinosaur -- and a very expensive one. While its budget numbers remain
"black," or classified, one Defense Department contractor who is privy to
the budget data says that traditional NSA tracking consumes much of the
intelligence community's budget of roughly $40 billion a year, while
Web-focused efforts consume only a small fraction of that. Finding and
getting into these sites is difficult, but efforts did uncover (and
ultimately destroyed) two terrorist groups in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ignoring Web sites can be costly. After the March 11, 2004 train bombings
in Madrid just before Spanish elections, a Norwegian think tank,
Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, discovered an Islamist strategy paper on
an obscure Web site that might have signaled the attacks ahead of time.
The document said, "It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming
general election in Spain in March next year. We think that the Spanish
government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after
which it will have to withdraw [troops from Iraq] as a result of popular
NSA and other intelligence officials say that they are doing their best to
cope and that the public misunderstands what the agency does. At a news
briefing in late December after the domestic surveillance story broke,
Hayden -- who is now deputy intelligence director but was head of the NSA
when Bush authorized it to perform domestic surveillance -- insisted that
his agency was carefully targeting certain conversations based on
intelligence. "What we are talking about here are communications we have
every reason to believe are al Qaeda communications, one end of which is
in the United States," he said. "We can't waste resources on targets that
simply don't provide valuable information."
Other NSA officials insist they are moving to reorient the whole agency.
According to an NSA spokeswoman, who in the secretive spirit of the agency
would speak only on condition that she not be identified, the agency began
a campaign in 2004 to recruit about 7,500 new employees over the next five
years. Among them will be close to 350 computer scientists, along with
engineers, language analysts and a slew of new signals analysts,
cryptologists and mathematicians. But, Arquilla says, many of the best
people, some of whom are illicit hackers, simply cannot be vetted through
today's security clearance process.
As America's intelligence network reorganizes -- Bush last year created a
new director of national intelligence -- some intelligence experts worry
that these efforts are still marginal. The kind of fundamental rethinking
that would rechannel some of those billions of dollars from the NSA's
global surveillance into more human intelligence and Internet surveillance
is not taking place.
It may be possible for the NSA to conduct its massive surveillance
legally, but solving the civil liberties issue is only half the agency's
problem. Robert Holliday, a U.S. Customs expert who developed
terrorist-identifying software that's now widely used, says the bad guys
still have the edge when it comes to communicating in anonymity and
secrecy. "I'm not going to worry about Big Brother," says Holliday.
"There's just too much data to track out there." And America needs to find
a better way to do it.
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