“Chatter” seems too casual a word for what is arguably the most important single product of the mammoth American cyber-industrial establishment which gathers “communications intelligence,” commonly abbreviated as Comint. Intelligence professionals use “chatter” to describe the miscellany they acquire of the personal and operational communications of “persons of interest,” another term of art meaning people who may know or be planning something the United States wants or needs to know about. For the last three years the people at the top of the American list of persons of interest have included Osama bin Laden, his lieutenants, associates, and supporters in al-Qaeda, and the widening circles of Islamic fundamentalists who share or know or have heard rumors about Osama’s goals and plans. In the absence of agents reporting from al-Qaeda’s innermost sanctum, American intelligence professionals must depend on chatter to keep track of whatever devastating attacks al-Qaeda’s terrorist cells may be planning next.
Over the spring and summer of 2001 intercepts of terrorist chatter rose to dramatic levels but were shrugged off by the White House and the President’s then national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. The destruction of the World Trade Center ended that; now the nation’s electronic ears strain for every terrorist whisper. Periodic official warnings of new attacks on tunnels and bridges, on major sports events, on commercial airliners arriving from France, and on the New York City subway system have all been identified as prompted by chatter, often described as reaching levels not seen since just before September 11—shorthand for “listen up, this is serious.” In the case of New York’s subways some 16,000 law enforcement per-sonnel in and out of uniform were mobilized after Comint analysts lifted a single worrying word from the chatter—“underground.” What did it mean? No one knew, but responsible officials were not about to wait and see.
But what is chatter exactly? As an American graduate student in Britain in the late 1990s Patrick Keefe came to the subject through news stories about “Echelon”—the code name, first published in 1988, for a coordinated, decades-long global effort by English-speaking countries to intercept communications of intelligence interest. The reluctance of governments to explain what they were doing and why encouraged periodic waves of popular fear that around the corner loomed the omnipresent Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel 1984. These alarms were given semi-official voice in 1998 after a committee of the European Parliament, concerned that Echelon was aimed at them, commissioned a social scientist to write “An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control.” The report’s author stated flatly that the eavesdroppers did not just have the technology to listen in; they used it:
Within Europe, all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the Strategic hub of London then by Satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors of the UK.
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