Tuesday, February 03, 2009
PBS Nova: "The Spy Factor": The NSA, and failing to connect the dots before 9/11
Tonight, PBS aired a one-hour documentary about the National Security Agency, “The Spy Factor.” The NSA (“No Such Agency” or “Never Say Anything”) lies on a large campus half way between Washington and DC, near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and near Fort Meade, MD. It employs a large number of computer professionals and mathematicians and linguists. It also employs people “listening in.” The link for the program is here.
The Agency developed its enormous resources during the Cold War. The Soviets were easy to find but hard to kill. Al Qaeda is the opposite.
And NSA has always had legal and bureaucratic impediments to sharing information with other agencies. This would be particularly and tragically crucial before 9/11. The 9/11 Commission would write a lot more about the FBI and CIA than NSA. The NSA actually had traced the phone bought by Osama bin Laden in 1996 and could trace him to a particular three-story house in Yemen, shown in the film. The phone calls were not encrypted, but the conversations may have been carried out with code words nevertheless. The NSA obtained some information related to the Tanazania attack in 1998 and then the USS Cole in 2000. But it and the CIA were not able to share information with the FBI legally as certain individuals met in Kuala Lumpur and then rented apartments in San Diego in early 2000. By early 2001, the NSA and CIA were expecting an attack somewhere, but they thought overseas. (At the time, the media was concerned about foot-and-mouth disease as I prepared to go to Europe in April.) As the hijackers assembled, they avoided chain motels with computerized records and ironically some lived in the Valencia Motel in Laurel, MD, near the NSA Campus, shortly before 9/11.
After 9/11, and some questionable actions of the Bush administration, the NSA’s warrant to eavesdrop, apparently with minimal supervision from the FISA courts, increased. A female employee (herself reserve military) talks about listening to “diaries” and there were many innocuous conversations between Americans and people overseas intercepted. The NSA has shifted emphasis from following satellites to tracing fiber-optic communications over trans-oceanic cables. Much Asian communication comes in to San Luis Obispo, but is routed up to a switching center run by AT&T in San Francisco. As reported in 2007 by a PBS documentary, engineers have noticed changes to the equipment in San Francisco that would appear to enable domestic surveillance.
The film showed the red Cray Computer boxes, and discussed the idea of shifting or screening the chatter with robots, similar in concept to those used to discern spam.
So there is a great deal of paradox: NSA seems to have unlimited powers to snoop, but is compromised, possibly still, in communicating with other agencies.
A lot has been made of an NSA message that was not interpreted until Sept 12, 2001 but that had been received Sept 10, 2001.
In the world of the modern Internet with so many different kinds of websites and P2P arrangements and wireless and bizarre social connections, it is possible for ordinary citizens to attract information that could have intelligence value, and that might be lost in the bureaucracy if detected by government intelligence channels. This may, in fact, have happened in the two weeks before 9/11 and in a few instances in the previous two years.