Saturday, October 15, 2005

Chatter, Patrick Radden Keefe

Title: Chatter
Author: Patrick Radden Keefe
Rating: Good

Chatter is both profoundly interesting and frustrating at the same time. It amounts to an overview of most of the Western world's signal intelligence interception (SIGINT) capabilities, without actually having any meat available on the topic. That's not really a surprise, and the author cannot be blamed for that, as the subject of the book doesn't really want to be talked about, or even known.

Chatter should make you think about several things. Most importantly, where should the line between security and liberty be drawn? For some, the answer is clearly one way or another. For others, it's more vague. There has been no real discussion of that issue in the US as yet, but we spend billions of dollars each year on SIGINT, and errors (or deliberate aggressive actions on the part of SIGINT agencies) always reduce liberty. Is that the right approach?

I dog-eared a page near the end of the book, as it has some startling statistics on it. Assuming you accept the premise that 9/11 was a wakeup call and our intelligence gathering needs to improve, things have not gotten better. (The premise may be arguable... more on that in a moment though.) According to Chatter, in the time since 9/11, the NSA fired some people and hired a bunch of others. In order, they've hired:
  • Security guards
  • Polygraph analysts
  • Linguists
  • Analysts
Remember that after 9/11 it was made very clear that we didn't have enough linguists and analysts in the US spy agencies, and the NSA is hiring more polygraph analysts than linguists? Excuse me? The polygraph is a notoriously unreliable instrument, and there has never been a suggestion that anyone on the inside hid or damaged information that would have prevented 9/11. Why do we need more polygraph analysts?

And this plays into the reason that the above 9/11 "wakeup" argument may be flawed. Perhaps SIGINT is simply not the place to spend money anymore. Or at least not the place increase budgets anymore. Our new foes (Al Qaeda and others) work the technical side well, or communicate in person. They have handbooks to tell them when our satellites will be overhead, and encryption to slow us down if they are on a monitored medium. Should we spend more money on the NSA in such a case? How would we know? Seriously... how would we know?

Before answering that, though, let's look at the other side of the 9/11 wakeup theory. We were also told we needed more human intelligence (HUMINT in the lingo) after 9/11, since clearly our SIGINT hadn't warned us in advance. OK. But according to Chatter, as of May 2004, the CIA had fewer than 1,100 case officers posted overseas. It says that is fewer than the number of FBI agents stations in the New York City field office. So perhaps we're not spending our intelligence money in the right places there either. Again though, how would we know?

And that is probably the most important point of this book. There is no way for anyone - even our elected officials - to judge the success or failure of our intelligence agencies. There are stories in here about congress members on the Intelligence Oversight Committee, and why they are there that clearly show that no one is watching the watchers. No one.

So are we getting our money's worth from the CIA, the NSA, and the related agencies? Is ECHELON worth the effort and money we (as a country) put into it?

There is no way of knowing. None at all.

Stop and think about that, fellow tax payer. I may be odd, but I am not averse to paying taxes for things that are actually valuable and provide some measure of public good. In the case of our intelligence operations, though, I honestly don't know if I am getting even $1 worth of anything from them or not. And they won't tell us. They won't even tell our congress people. We don't know what we're paying or what we're getting, or even who is being watched. I find that profoundly disturbing.

A bit more about the book itself:

To be honest I was hoping for more nuts and bolts about the capabilities of the NSA (or other agencies) from this book. There is some of that here, but not much. After reading the book, though, you know why that is the case, which is nearly as valuable as the data I'd wanted. The writing style is light and breezy, though there are end notes and a reasonably sized bibliography at the back. The claim is the book is all (or nearly all) based on publicly available information. Developing sources inside the SIGINT community is hard, I's sure, so again that is no slight against the author.

All in all, I recommend Chatter. If enough people read it, perhaps we'll get a movement together to get the intelligence agencies to open up to some degree, and at least learn if the billions we pay are doing us any good or not.