[ISN] Coded warnings became clear only in light of Sept. 11 attacks

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Mon Jun 24 2002 - 02:32:21 PDT

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    By Scott Shane and Ariel Sabar
    Sun Staff
    Originally published June 21, 2002
    In an ideal intelligence world, two messages intercepted by the
    National Security Agency Sept. 10 would have permitted the analysts at
    Fort Meade to uncover plans for the attacks of Sept. 11.
    But experts say the likely truth is the opposite: Only the Sept. 11
    attacks allowed the analysts to find and make sense of the messages,
    which NSA translated Sept. 12.
    That's because the torrent of communications that pours into NSA's
    global eavesdropping network is far too great to translate and analyze
    - even if the agency were not suffering from a severe shortage of
    qualified linguists.
    "The Information Age has overwhelmed us," said former New Hampshire
    Sen. Warren B. Rudman, former chairman of the Senate intelligence
    committee and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. If
    NSA was unable to warn of the attacks, it's "not for lack of trying,"  
    Rudman said.
    Even when messages sent within the al-Qaida terrorist network are
    snagged and read in timely fashion, their deliberately ambiguous
    wording makes them tough to interpret, intelligence experts said. The
    Sept. 10 messages - "the match begins tomorrow" and "tomorrow is zero
    [hour]" - are typical of the sort that bedevil NSA analysts.
    "It puts the intelligence analyst in the impossible situation of
    telling a real threat from some guy talking nonsense in a cafe in
    Kandahar," said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian writing a
    book on NSA. Depending on the context, the messages might as easily
    have referred to a soccer match or a long-awaited birth as to an act
    of terror, he said.
    Citing security concerns, Vice President Dick Cheney complained
    yesterday to lawmakers about the leak of the intercepts, which were
    discussed in closed committee hearings on the intelligence agencies'
    conduct before Sept. 11.
    At President Bush's direction, Cheney called Sen. Bob Graham, chairman
    of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Porter J. Goss,
    chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, "to express the
    president's concerns about this inappropriate disclosure," said White
    House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
    Fleischer called the leak "alarmingly specific."
    "The information that is being provided to these committees is
    extraordinarily sensitive," Fleischer said. "Public disclosure of that
    information can damage our ability to protect the country. So the
    president does feel very strongly about it."
    In response, Graham and Goss asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to
    investigate the leak of classified information.
    "We are entrusted to keep secrets, so when I hear there is a leak that
    may have come from our committees, it's a matter of great concern,"  
    said Goss, a Florida Republican and former CIA officer.
    Fleischer said a 1998 leak revealing that U.S. intelligence agencies
    were intercepting Osama bin Laden's satellite phone conversations led
    the Saudi terrorist to stop using that phone. If terrorists learn of
    U.S. eavesdropping capabilities, "they're going to change their
    methods," he said.
    In recent years, however, the government has done little to hide the
    fact that it eavesdrops on known terrorists.
    Last year, federal prosecutors in the trial of four men charged in the
    bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa repeatedly cited NSA and FBI
    eavesdropping on the plotters. The intercepted messages were critical
    to convicting the men - but they had been too vague to stop the
    attacks in the first place.
    The intelligence committees' inquiry wrapped up the third week of
    closed-door hearings Wednesday. The appearance this week of NSA's
    director, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, led to the first official
    scrutiny of the eavesdropping agency's work prior to Sept. 11.
    With more than 20,000 people at the main campus off the
    Baltimore-Washington Parkway and several thousand more at listening
    posts around the world, NSA is the nation's largest spy agency. Graham
    said this week that it produces about 75 percent of all the
    intelligence collected by the government.
    But until now, the agency had escaped the kind of criticism prompted
    by the FBI's failure to act on agents' concerns about suspicious
    foreigners enrolled in flight schools and the CIA's failure to follow
    up on the arrival in the United States of two of the Sept. 11
    Yesterday, no experts were willing to conclude that NSA's Sept. 10
    intercepts represented the same degree of failure. Though the
    Arabic-language messages originated in Afghanistan, nothing is
    publicly known about who the speakers were.
    "It seems to me to be much ado about not very much," said Loch K.  
    Johnson, an intelligence expert at the University of Georgia.  
    "Translating this stuff in two days is really not too shabby."
    Jeffrey T. Richelson, an authority on U.S. intelligence and researcher
    at the National Security Archive in Washington, agreed.
    "From everything I've seen, it seems to me that far more of the
    problem lies with the FBI, where there was some kind of concrete
    information" about flight schools, he said.
    Steven Aftergood, intelligence policy analyst at the Federation of
    American Scientists, said the intercepts actually suggest NSA is
    managing to track terrorists despite the challenges posed by the
    global communications explosion.
    "To tell the truth, I was impressed that they were able to identify
    these particular messages out of the daily avalanche of traffic,"  
    Aftergood said. "What this tells me is that they still have something
    going for them. This is not a totally obsolescent agency."
    Former NSA employees said yesterday that the agency monitors a large
    and constantly changing list of telephone numbers and e-mail addresses
    used by al-Qaida operatives. Each item on the watch list is given a
    priority ranking, based on whether it has been used by leaders of the
    terror network or lesser figures.
    Conversations on the targeted telephones, picked up by NSA's fleet of
    eavesdropping satellites, are automatically recorded and sent to the
    computer terminals of relevant translators and analysts.
    But finding the right phone numbers and computers is a daunting task
    in an era of ballooning communications. There are about 800 million
    cell phones in use worldwide, and about 500 million people have e-mail
    access on the Internet, according to industry estimates.
    The NSA's charter "is to collect and cast the widest possible net on
    the widest variety of communications, and that can literally be
    millions of data points at any given time," said Anil Phull, a former
    NSA official now at the Yankee Group, a technology research firm in
    Boston. "And so to find that top 1 percent of 1 percent of relevant
    information that needs to be further analyzed and acted upon - that's
    a classic needle in the haystack problem."
    NSA's counter-terrorist efforts also are crippled by a severe shortage
    of linguists. The agency's Web site advertises openings for speakers
    of Dari, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili and Greek, among other languages.
    Near-native fluency is often required to understand the nuances of a
    fuzzy phone intercept, said Aid, the intelligence historian who is a
    former Defense Department linguist.
    "The quality of the recording can be very poor. There can be slang or
    code words used," Aid said. "It can take four hours to translate a
    five-minute conversation."
    For the government to take action on the basis of an intercept, the
    message and analysis must be passed on to NSA's "customers" at the
    Pentagon, the White House, the CIA and the FBI. But those recipients
    of NSA intelligence sometimes complain if they are given every
    intercept that could conceivably warn of an attack.
    "NSA has often been accused of crying wolf," Aid said.
    In 1999, for instance, NSA intercepts warned that bin Laden might be
    plotting an attack on U.S. targets in Europe, possibly Albania.  
    Planned trips there by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and
    Defense Secretary William S. Cohen were canceled, but no attacks
    Staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article
    "Communications without intelligence is noise;  Intelligence
    without communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
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