Chatter : Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping
by PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE "YOU CANNOT HELP but note the juxtaposition..." (more)
The secret global information network that has come together under the umbrella name "Echelon" is detailed here by Yale Law student Keefe. While Great Britain led the way in the mid-'70s, Keefe marks the U.S., Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore and many others as current participants, taking satellite pictures from 10 miles up, sending submarines to hover silently and aiming portable laser devices to pick up conversations inside rooms. All the technologies are impressive, but the burgeoning mountain of data they produce, Keefe argues, does not always prove useful. Likewise, he illustrates how compact electronics can give the opposition a large ability to deceive the Echelon network, and/or to modify their behavior when they detect that they are under surveillance. Ultimately, Keefe makes a case that electronics have not solved the ancient dilemma of deciphering the enemy's intentions (what he is actually planning) from his capabilities (all the things he could choose to do). To prove his point, Keefe cites the mass of rumor and innuendo that failed to give specific warning of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole as well as Colin Powell's U.N. proclamation that Iraq possessed nerve gas. And, Keefe says, ordinary citizens pay a substantial cost in presumed privacy, as well as in potential for abuses of confidential data. Intelligent and polemical, Keefe's study is sure to spark some political chatter of its own. Agent, Tina Bennett at Janklow & Nesbitt. (On sale Feb. 15)
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From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Deep in a North Yorkshire moor, in a part of England where sheep and cows outnumber residents and crumbling stone walls snake through endless green pastures like stitches on a quilt, a secretive moon base comes suddenly into view. Low, moss-covered walls give way to tall, barb-crowned fences; weathered farmhouses are replaced by dozens of massive white spheres, pock-marked like giant golf balls shimmering in the sun; farmers on tractors disappear, and heavily armed guards in armor-plated vehicles take their place. Welcome to Menwith Hill, the largest eavesdropping base on Earth and America's ear on the world.
What goes in and out of those domes -- used to hide satellite dishes shaped like giant ice cream scoops -- is the subject of Patrick Radden Keefe's first book. At least, that was his hope. Unfortunately, he could find few who would cooperate with him, and the U.S. National Security Agency, which operates the base, refused to respond to his many queries. As the author of two books on the agency, I have found that silence is a reception common to most who dare knock on its door. After all, NSA's initials have long been said to stand for No Such Agency or Never Say Anything.
Nevertheless, Keefe, a third-year law student at Yale, does a wonderful job of exploring the surrounding territory: the role of SIGINT, or signals intelligence (NSA's $5 word for eavesdropping), in the post-Cold War world; the mysterious Echelon system that links the many listening posts belonging to America's English-speaking allies; the agency's obsession with secrecy; the age-old question of human versus technical intelligence collection; and even the people who have written about the agency, including me, who he generously refers to as "the uncontested civilian authority on the agency" and "the foremost chronicler of the NSA."
Keefe also notes, "When Bamford was writing his first book, The Puzzle Palace, in the early 1980s, the agency did everything it could to thwart his efforts along the way, denying him access and even threatening legal action. When he published a follow-up book, Body of Secrets, in 2001, it featured an extensive interview with [NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael V.] Hayden, and the book party was thrown at Hayden's invitation, at Fort Meade. . . . Bamford, meanwhile, has gone from being the scourge of the NSA to the agency's hagiographer."
But the difference between my two books on NSA was not in my approach to the agency. In the three years I worked on Body of Secrets, I made no deals with the agency, gave them no access to my manuscript, and it ended up winning a top investigative award, just like The Puzzle Palace. Instead, it was the NSA that had changed. As Keefe himself acknowledges, "Hayden presided over a period of openness like none the agency had ever seen."
Keefe's style alternates from breezy to academic. "I am not an investigative journalist, by training or inclination," he writes. He compares his quest to find the secrets of signals intelligence to the obsession of Marlow, Joseph Conrad's narrator in Heart of Darkness, to fill in the unknown "blank spaces on the earth." "In the twenty-first century, we are no longer afforded such alluring cartographic mysteries," Keefe writes, "but I found, as I started probing the world of signals intelligence, that it occupies a similarly uncharted shadow land in our contemporary consciousness."
Among the largest "blank spaces" he tried to fill in was the highly classified Echelon worldwide eavesdropping network. Another was the super-secret UKUSA agreement, which originally created the network and is signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. "The Anglophone network is said to hear absolutely everything," he writes, "yet its existence remains a secret -- unknown in some cases even to the legislative bodies of the countries that run it." At times his quixotic search seemed more like a hunt for the Loch Ness monster or the Abominable Snowman. In a local pub near the massive Menwith Hill listening post, he ran into someone who once worked in the base cafeteria. "From what I hear," the man told him, raising an eyebrow, "it's an alien-testing zone."
More seriously, Keefe raises a number of important issues that need to be addressed as America's spy world simultaneously expands in size and shrinks in visibility, like ripples from a stone tossed in a pond. First and foremost is the role of human intelligence in a time of terrorist threats from abroad and fear-mongering at home.
The most overused cliche in the spy business is that we have too much technical intelligence and not enough human intelligence. In fact, human intelligence has always been largely useless, or even less than useless. From 1985 until at least 1992, most of the dozen or so spies the CIA managed to recruit in Moscow had been compromised by turncoats Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI. Thus, rather than intelligence, it was more likely disinformation the Soviet agents may have, unwittingly, been passing on -- before the Soviets executed them. In the war on terrorism, human intelligence has thus far played an equally dismal role. Under CIA Director George Tenet, neither al Qaeda nor Iraq -- two of America's most important targets -- was ever truly penetrated. The same likely goes for Iran and North Korea.
In contrast, throughout the Cold War technical intelligence provided a constant keyhole through which to watch -- and listen to -- America's most important targets. Signals intelligence told national security policy makers every time a plane lifted into the air from the Soviet Union; the frequencies with which to jam Russian missiles; what pilots were saying to their ground controllers, ship captains to their ports, generals to their missileers and Politburo members to the Kremlin. At the same time, imagery satellites provided a up-close view of Soviet missile silos, shipbuilding, troop movement and other critical items. Following the Cold War, imagery provided the key tip-off that Iraq was about to attack Kuwait in August 1990. And during the war on terrorism, the most useful indications of possible attacks have come from SIGINT intercepts, known colloquially as "chatter." Such signals also led to the capture of key bin Laden deputy Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others.
But, as Keefe makes clear, SIGINT is a two-edged sword. Although it offers a unique opportunity to detect and deter acts of terrorism, it can also be a dangerous weapon against the privacy of innocent Americans if used against them as a result of weakened legal protections. Inter arma silent leges goes an old Latin expression: "During wartime, laws are silent."
Much to his credit, it is an issue about which Michael V. Hayden warned Congress. "What I really need you to do," he told members of the intelligence committees, "is to talk to your constituents and find out where the American people want the line between security and liberty to be."
In the end, Keefe argues that the vital debate over where to draw that line should not be left just to intelligence officials and Congress. The public, he insists, must educate itself as best it can and weigh in on the decision: "The one conviction I came away with is that if we ignore this issue, put off by the level of secrecy or the technical complexity involved, we do so at our own peril." His concern is reflected in another old Latin phrase, Quis custodiet ipsos custodies: Who is watching the watchers?
Reviewed by James Bamford
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.