Intelligence Gathering In the Digital Age

The United States faces new kinds of adversaries capable of communicating and coordinating attacks around the globe at the speed of light. The new security environment has sparked a debate on whether changes are needed in the way intelligence is gathered and the implications of those adjustments.

More than 220 years ago, George Washington dispatched the first American secret agents to gather intelligence about British activities during the American Revolution. One golden nugget of intelligence Washington received did not come from spies, but from an intercepted enemy communication that revealed that the British fleet planned to rescue General Charles Cornwallis and his troops who were blockaded by American and French forces at Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered and America won its independence.

America’s leading modern-day electronic intelligence organization is the National Security Agency, or NSA, which was formed in 1952.  Unlike the Central Intelligence Agency, which gathers and analyzes human intelligence, tens-of-thousands of NSA engineers, physicists, mathematicians, linguists, computer scientists and researchers listen in on the world's communications.  They analyze satellite eavesdropping data, and develop and break secret codes.  In addition to nearly five hectares of underground supercomputers, located between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, the NSA has listening posts spread around the world and satellites that orbit the globe. 

James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, two books about the NSA, says the organization’s original mission was to spy on the Soviet Union, which was a fairly straightforward task.

According to Bamford the NSA, “was set up to do one thing, to give early warning of a surprise nuclear attack by either missiles or bombers. The Soviet Union was always chattering.  The navy was talking to its ships out at sea, the air force to its pilots and the army to their units in the field.  NSA just sat there and picked it up, much of it was unencrypted, and reported it back to headquarters.  They also had the entire country surrounded by listening posts.”

New Elusive Foes

But many analysts note that America’s adversaries have dramatically changed.  Peter Earnest, Executive Director of the International Spy Museum in Washington and a 36-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, points out that enemies like al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations are more elusive than Cold War foes.

He says,” You may from time to time develop information about some pocket of the terrorist group, but it is a moving target.  It is people in different countries drawn to an idea, and you can fill in the blanks, whether it is al-Qaida, the Taliban or Sharia.  There’s just a sky’s worth of ideas out there that attract people, particularly those who are alienated from their own societies.”

Other analysts stress that in the digital age, in which information is exchanged at the speed of light, the battlefield is leveled for adversaries like terrorist leader Osama bin Laden who now have easy access to cutting edge technology: the Internet, cell phones, emails and encryption. 

Author James Bamford contends the NSA has lost its Cold War edge in electronic surveillance.  He also argues that the recently revealed NSA program of eavesdropping on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity is cumbersome. 

According to Bamford, “These people communicate very rarely and when they do, it’s over the same telecommunication system that everybody else uses.  An average NSA listening post picks up about 2-million communications an hour.  At the listening post, they probably filter it down to about 6,000 communications an hour.  They ship all that information to NSA headquarters and NSA people then begin analyzing the communications that are left and narrow them down to just a couple of actual intercepts an hour.”

Debate Over Technology

And other analysts, including retired senior CIA official Peter Earnest, caution gathering intelligence is a painstaking process.  “You have to remember that the spying business by its nature is inefficient.  If I could get the answer to my intelligence questions by picking up the phone and calling The Washington Post or calling a number you want to give me that would be wonderful.  Unfortunately, intelligence is going after information you can’t get any other way, which means it is extraordinarily inefficient.”

There is a fierce debate over what the White House calls the NSA’s “terrorist surveillance program” to find evidence of terrorist activities within the United States.  According to Erik Dahl, a retired Navy intelligence officer and scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, the question is how to regulate NSA’s work in the digital era.

Analyst Dahl says, “A big part of the whole debate that is going on nowadays about the NSA’s wiretapping issue and the Bush administration giving the authority to the NSA to listen to conversations when one side of the conversation is an American person and another is not, is really a debate over new technology.  How should the NSA handle it and what can it do with new technologies such as cell phones and the Internet and that sort of things?”

Many analysts point out that the September 11th terrorist acts have blurred the line between foreign intelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement agencies. Gregory Treverton, a senior terrorism analyst and Associate Dean of the RAND Pardee Graduate School in Santa Monica, California, argues “Part of the reason we were set up to fail was the set of arrangements we designed with civil liberties in mind.  We were particularly skeptical of concentrating intelligence and police power fearing that could infringe on people’s civil liberties.  But along comes the terrorist threat that respects none of those categories.”

Professor Treverton says the United States is in the process of amending its regulations of law enforcement and intelligence gathering to make efforts to combat terrorism fit within the law.  He adds that although the U.S.A. Patriot Act and other laws have loosened the standard for surveillance, the goal is to protect the balance between security and civil liberties.

The United States is still assessing the terrorist threat And most observers agree that part of that process is deciding how much the practice and the legal basis of intelligence gathering and law enforcement will have to change.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.


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