“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.
That word “all” was intended to attract attention and it did. The cold war had been over for a decade, and terrorism had not yet replaced the Red Army as a threat; what were the listeners listening to?
Keefe began his investigation in the pre–September 11 days, before al-Qaeda proved that mega-terrorism was not an idle threat. Things look very differently now when it is widely believed that a few more listeners, quicker off the mark, might have prevented the catastrophic attack that brought down the World Trade Center. Just how close American intelligence came to acting in time, and the deeply rooted reasons it did not, can be found in Blind Spot, Timothy Naftali’s useful new history of the American education in counterterrorism since the Second World War.
That education began with overexcited (and unfounded) fears of a die-hard Nazi terror campaign in the last days of the war, then adapted to the back-alley violence of the early days of the cold war, when the United States and its allies supported resistance groups in the Ukraine and the Baltic countries, and the KGB’s Department 13 responded with attempts, some successful, to assassinate anti-Communist activists plotting against the Soviets.
But it was not until the Six-Day War in 1967 that Americans really began to grasp the challenge of terrorism. In the wake of Israel’s whirlwind victory, Palestinians fought back with terror, the traditional weapon of the weak, and the early cross-border attacks on Israel, rarely successful, were soon followed by attacks in a larger arena harder to defend—pretty much the whole of Europe. Bloody assaults of the sort that targeted travelers lined up at ticket counters never achieved much, but some governments, like the mullahs’ Iran and Qaddhafi’s Libya, grew confident over time that they could attack America and its allies at will with little fear of retaliation.
Naftali is a scholar of national security issues who has specialized in secret intelligence, and Blind Spot is built on long familiarity with the secret organizations responsible for the “counter” in counterterrorism. Few Americans will recall much beyond the names of once-feared terrorists like Abu Nidal and Carlos (“the Jackal”) for the good reason that both were driven from the field by an aggressive CIA-supported campaign to cut off their funds, arrest or kill their operatives, and warn their government sponsors to stand down or accept the consequences. But paradoxically, Naftali argues, those successes did not take. Vigorous counterterror efforts were followed by growing White House timidity, which contributed to the now much-discussed risk-averse culture of the CIA.
The ordeal of the Iran-contra scandal was partly to blame for driving counterterror efforts into reverse, and the rest, Naftali writes, can be blamed on “bureaucratic languor”—his phrase for the go-slow, think-twice institutional caution which follows when presidents lose their stomach for the hard decisions required to fight dirty wars. Naftali does not make the argument that getting tough is all it will take to win the war on terror, but he points firmly to a fatal White House omission during the two or three years before September 11—recognition that al-Qaeda was capable, determined, and dangerous.
But the new American determination in the war on terror does not provide a kind of blank-check justification of whatever it is that intelligence organizations might like to do. The Echelon which caught Patrick Keefe’s interest in the late 1990s may have added some Arabic-language speakers to its staff, and the mood at various communications intelligence (Comint) headquarters may have a new urgency, but Echelon itself remains the same. Official explanations of what that urgency may involve do not proceed from the general to the specific. The phrase “matters of intelligence interest” is about as concrete as any announcement gets. Wanting more, Keefe set out to answer this question for himself, and his book, Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, recounts his travels and conversations with many people worried about government intrusion and a few people with actual experience of the Comint world.
The result is a kind of naturalist’s ramble around the fenced perimeter of the whole vast establishment of technical gear used for intercepting communications. Some things become abundantly clear. For example, it’s called “global eavesdropping” because listening posts circle the globe. The big Echelon stations, Keefe tells us, are Morwenstow in Britain, Sugar Grove in West Virginia, and the Yakima Training Center in Washington State. Secondary stations come and go with changing politics and borders; once-important listening posts in northern Iran, Hong Kong, and southern Germany have been abandoned, while others have been cranked up to take their place.
Some of these date back to the earliest days of British-American cooperation in collecting Comint, like the nine-hundred-person Composite Signals Organization based on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, where green sea turtles are welcomed on their annual migration from the coast of Brazil but no one else may step ashore without official clearance. The rules are the same on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, retained as a territory by Britain when it granted independence to the Seychelles and Mauritius in the 1960s. To simplify the secret-keeping, the British simply removed Diego Garcia’s two thousand people to Mauritius, where they soon began to pine for home. After decades of supplication a visit was planned for November 2001, but the war on terror intervened. The island is now too busy as a listening post and air force base to tolerate visitors who were, in point of fact, born there.
Chatter contains a lot of information of this sort—names of bases and organizations, descriptions of technologies used for collecting information, a sketchy outline history of the Anglophone alliance beginning in 1946 with the original British and American agreement. Over time Canada, New Zealand, and Australia joined the club but the Americans remain dominant, putting up the money and doling out the take. Other countries maintain listening programs of their own but none can match the American reach, a fact that worries Europeans. In the course of his travels Keefe met just about everybody trying to penetrate the secrets of Echelon and gradually he learned what it is—up to a point.
His education began with the remark of a former British intelligence officer, Alistair Harley, who told him that “if it uses radio waves then [it can] be intercepted, monitored, stored.” The “it” here means people trying to communicate, and radio waves are used to convey just about everything that isn’t written down on hand-delivered paper or transmitted over secure landlines. The most important single fact about Comint is that there is a lot of it, roughly all the daily communications of the politically or commercially active part of the human race, both written and spoken. How much talk are we talking about? Well, it certainly exceeds the conversations (if we could overhear and record them) of everybody in a baseball stadium during a World Series game, plus the conversations of everybody watching it on television, plus the remarks that all the watchers combined have made or heard over the last…week? year? decade? There is a lot of talk going on, and all the talkers are talking at once. The problem is to separate the words of urgent interest from the roar of background chatter. This is where Echelon comes in.
“Echelon,” Keefe learned, “is nothing more than a secret code name for a specific computer program used to sort through intercepted satellite communications.” Lest reference to satellite communications be interpreted as bringing the problem down to size, Keefe reminds us that over the course of the 1990s the number of cell phones in use increased from 16 million to 741 million, the number of Internet users increased from 4 million to 361 million, and the annual number of minutes devoted to international telephone conversations increased from 38 billion to 100 billion. At one point or another almost all of that talk passes from the surface of the earth to a satellite and back again—the moment when the eavesdroppers pick it up. But the sorting job is beyond human eavesdroppers; half the population would be required to listen to the other half. “Echelon,” Keefe writes in a second pass at definition, “refers to a particular type of computer that is used to sort through large amounts of data for items on a given watch list.” Keefe has not learned much about exactly how this is done, but even that little is helpful in providing a sense of the magnitude of the challenge.