Book Review: Chatter

You’re talking to your wife on the phone,” Gene Hackman tells Will Smith in the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State. “You used the word ‘bomb,’ ‘President,’ ‘Allah’…the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red flags it for analysis.”

With Patrick Radden Keefe’s Chatter, the results are in: no, voice recognition technology probably isn’t up to the level where it could recognize and filter speech to this degree. However, the UK/USA alliance—a joint intelligence operation including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, whose existence has yet to be confirmed or denied by member states—does indeed have the capacity to intercept phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and almost all imaginable forms of electronic communication. This interception is called “signals intelligence” or “sigint” for short, and as Keefe’s book reveals, the activities of the U.S. intelligence community make the machinations of the Masons or Bavarian Illuminati seem like small-town politics.

Along with this capacity for practically unlimited surveillance comes the equally unlimited capacity for abuse. And furthermore, the problem remains that if you have access to all of the world’s communication, how do you choose what to listen to? And if you have visual access to the entire globe, where do you look?

In comes Echelon, a bleeding-edge system theoretically capable of taking in all of this intercepted information, analyzing it through pattern-recognition resources, and distributing relevant information to human analysts for further scrutiny.

Keefe’s actual rock-solid information on Echelon is slim-to-none, due to the intense secrecy of the program—if the U.S. government blew off the European Union’s recent attempt to learn more about the system, a law school student from Yale can hardly expect to gain more privileged information. Combined with the intelligence maxim Keefe repeatedly cites throughout the book—that there is an inverse relationship between how much actual secret information someone knows and how much they are willing to talk—the possibilities for any substantial exposé of programs behind this impenetrable veil of secrecy seem grim.

Rather than be discouraged, Keefe uses what little knowledge he can gather on Echelon as a jumping off point to analyze and criticize the intelligence community’s growing reliance on signals intelligence—a tactic whose effectiveness is constantly dropping as technology becomes more sophisticated, and the sea of signals in the air gets incomprehensibly dense. Reading like a spy novel itself, revealing information at a guarded pace to maximize the reader’s paranoia, Keefe’s book explains how the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA’s reliance on signals intelligence is the result of the “diminished American tolerance for military casualties.” The government is much more willing to gather intelligence and fight wars “by remote control.”

Bad news for the actual spies. No more James Bond, no more Ethan Hunt, and certainly no more xXx. Using technology as an insulating barrier makes sense from a certain viewpoint, but Keefe argues that the government’s reliance on signals intelligence at the expense of human intelligence—“old fashioned, cloak and dagger, man-on-the-ground spying”—has ominous implications for national security in the present day.

While relying almost solely on “sigint” was an effective Cold War-era strategy designed to spy on a somewhat predictable, hierarchical center of power like the Soviet Union, this strategy is much less effective at fighting off a decentralized group of tech-savvy terrorists. While signals intelligence did help the U.S. find Qusay and Uday Hussein during the early days of the second Iraq war, the results have been less encouraging in the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders.

Early on, Osama bin Laden realized that he could evade eavesdroppers for a certain period of time simply by using an innocuous-looking unencrypted telephone line. Al Qaeda operatives have also adapted to U.S. surveillance by hanging up their cell phones, logging off email, and using physical couriers. Meanwhile, they disseminate disinformation through electronic means, since they know that the U.S. is probably listening in at any given time.

Keefe is right to point out that from a strategic standpoint, signals intelligence alone is insufficient, and that the U.S. needs more flesh-and-blood agents gathering and evaluating information out in the field. But what he neglects to fully address critically are the ramifications of programs like Echelon on individual privacy and civil liberties. Public oversight of intelligence organizations is poor to nonexistent; the answer to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodies—who watches the watchers?—is, effectively, no one.

In fact, while several Congressional committees are assigned to monitor spy agencies, the NSA told the House of Representatives that the “long-standing policy within in the United States Intelligence Community” is to “refrain from commenting on actual or alleged intelligence activities.” The most that the NSA was willing to do was pledge that the agency “operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations in protecting…privacy rights.”

But that pledge is less than reassuring. Keefe presents evidence suggesting that illegal surveillance happens all the time—in intercepting communications of U.S. citizens involved in anti-war and civil-rights activities, for example. Yet he purposefully reserves judgment on the frightening implications of his anecdotes, seeming to use these thrilling tidbits merely to keep his readers’ attention.

In his insistently neutral approach, Keefe ignores the police-state ramifications of these abuses and seems almost willing to abdicate the right of privacy, repeatedly asking: “Why should I worry about privacy if I have nothing to hide?” He suggests that privacy rights activists are perhaps “a little off themselves,” that they seem to “suffer from some millennial mix of narcissism and paranoia, and tremble in the camera’s gaze.”

Keefe, in addition, is surprisingly willing to take the Bush administration’s claims on face value. He frames the declaration of war on Iraq as an honest mistake resulting from over-reliance on signals intelligence—ignoring the many other factors that clearly influenced the current administration’s decision to go to war.

Towards the end of the book, Keefe describes how previous investigative journalists ran into trouble with the NSA trying to block the publication of their books. Keefe himself describes how he met with only smug disregard when he tried to leverage his own investigative work in order to get interviews with NSA officials. Which begs the question: if the NSA doesn’t care that we read this, how secret can the information in Chatter really be?

—Jim Fingal