Posted on March 4, 2009. Filed under: News And Politics... |

Nowadays, we’re all being listened to, except when we complain about the direction our country is heading…
Wednesday, Mar. 04, 2009

Intelligence Lapses: The Risks of Relying on ‘Chatter’

By Robert Baer

If early last September you’d parked outside Lehman Brothers’ Manhattan headquarters with a cell-phone scanner and listened only to some of the "chatter" coming out of Lehman’s front office, you almost certainly would have realized that Lehman was going under. But to understand the wider consequences, how capitalism was about to do a somersault into the watery abyss, you would have needed to understand how Lehman fit into the global financial system. (Of course, listening to cell-phone conversations with a scanner in this country is flatly illegal. And you need a sophisticated decrypting device to listen to most cell-phone calls.)

But that’s the thing about chatter: it usually makes sense only in context, when you have a lot of other information at your fingertips. (Watch TIME’s video on the risks of chatter.)

Chatter is one of those floating espionage terms that can mean anything from secretly intercepted telephone calls and e-mails to the volume of communications traffic at a particular time over a particular line. A more technical definition of chatter might be the interception of any unguarded electronic communication between two people who expect privacy — people more likely to speak frankly and convey information they wouldn’t in a public forum.

America’s 16 intelligence agencies by and large consider chatter the most reliable intelligence there is. But they also need to constantly remind themselves that it is a blunt tool, often as confusing as it is illuminating. The day of the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, there was initially a sharp spike in Soviet message traffic. The intelligence community knew something bad had just happened. But what? The immediate speculation was a change of Soviet leadership or even a plane crash. It wasn’t until more reporting emerged, including that by the media, that it was understood it was a nuclear accident.

The National Security Agency (NSA), which collects the vast bulk of chatter for this country, has no shortage of sophisticated equipment and no legal obstacles when it listens to chatter abroad. What it does have a problem with is making sense of the sea of chatter it sucks out of the air and the world’s fiber-optic cables. The risk of misinterpretation or missing a vital piece of information is enormous. (See the top 10 Secret Service code names.)

There’s also the problem that almost anyone who reads the news today knows that any phone conversation can be monitored, by the U.S. or another competent intelligence service. An operative recently back from Iraq tells me that Kurdish political leaders systematically script telephone conversations among themselves in order to mislead the Americans, Iranians and Turks, who the Kurds know are listening to their phone calls. Since transcripts of these calls carry the weight of scripture in Washington, we risk being led into another intelligence failure in Iraq. For that matter, how do we know that al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas is not transmitting spoofed messages as disinformation, causing our Predators to strike innocent targets with the purpose of turning the locals against us? (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

The operative back from Iraq says the room for exploiting our gullibility when it comes to chatter is wide. "There is little understanding of deception in the agency anymore. As a service, it doesn’t do deception operations and therefore doesn’t believe they are run against us."

To understand just how misleading chatter can be, you have only to go back to Colin Powell’s presentation at the United Nations in 2003, the one in which he incorrectly — if plausibly — claimed Saddam Hussein had held on to his weapons of mass destruction. Among other pieces of intelligence, Powell’s case turned on an intercepted voice communication between two Iraqi officials. But as we now know, the two were only speculating — in complete ignorance.

Too bad Powell hadn’t spent time working in intelligence. The first lesson any good intelligence officer will learn in the field is that chatter is a trap easily fallen into. When I was in the Middle East I’d sit down every so often with a commercially available Bearcat scanner and listen to random conversations. It was mostly people griping about the shortage of bread or the price of gasoline. I improved my Arabic but little more. Once, however, something very intriguing came up on the air: the movement of tanks out of barracks. I was elated, jumping to the conclusion that a coup d’état was in the offing — and I’d be the one to break the news to Washington. As it turned out, the tanks were getting ready for a military parade.

See pictures of the U.S. Army Reserve.

See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

At the risk of seriously irritating NSA’s sing-along choir, I’ll take the definition of chatter one step further. Chatter can be something as simple as an overheard conversation next to you at a café. Not too many years ago, CIA analysts asked operatives overseas to make daily notes of what the locals were saying — random conversations at dinners, on trains, at the post office. It all amounted to little more than impressions, the locals’ hopes and frustrations. Not exactly hard intelligence, but it put the analysts into the swim of a particular country, allowing them to put the phone chatter and hard intelligence into context.

It would be a mistake to think of chatter as being just an intelligent reading of the blogosphere. When the former CIA director George Tenet said in testimony the "system was blinking red" in the months leading up to 9/11, he in effect was referring to chatter — interceptions, rumors picked up by friendly governments, sorting through Osama bin Laden’s propaganda. Look at the 9/11 Commission report, and although you won’t see specifics as to how or when bin Laden intended to hit the U.S., it was clear he intended to. Even with a warning as vague as this, many argue, the FAA should have ordered the bolting of airline cockpit doors, among other precautions. (See pictures of the history of air communications.)

Still, as unreliable as it is, chatter is the future of intelligence. When agent reporting — clandestine human sources — is good, it is very good. But the vast majority of the people who volunteer to spy for the U.S. do so out of desperation or a grudge. From the start, the CIA presumes they are lying, distorting and fabricating information. It will take an intelligence officer years to sort out good from bad sources. And even then he will have to fall back on chatter for his vetting — though with chatter, there is a presumption of honesty and frankness when two people believe their conversation is private.

With more and more people communicating over cell phones and the Internet, chatter promises to remain the mainstay of spying. Wars are messier than ever, the world’s ungoverned spaces are growing, and there are more and more nonstate actors, all of which makes the old-fashioned on-the-ground intelligence methods less and less relevant. The days of the CIA devoting 60% of its time trying to recruit a mole to steal the secret minutes from the Soviet Politburo are long gone.

The only question now is, How do we codify the collection of chatter? The NSA already has the legal authority to listen to chatter overseas — communications among foreigners. But what do you do when an American pops up calling a suspect telephone number or trying to e-mail al-Qaeda to volunteer his services? How long can the NSA sit on a line, figuring out whether it is of real interest, before applying for a warrant? I’ll leave that one up to the constitutional lawyers, but I’ll be eagerly listening for their answer.

Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know.




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