Last week, intelligence officials and congressional overseers were telling the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. government had been surprised by Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimea “because they hadn’t intercepted any telltale communications where Russian leaders, military commanders or soldiers discussed plans to invade.” Meanwhile, debates on intelligence within the government and the policy community were focusing on how to regulate the interception of ordinary Americans’ communications. Establishment Republicans were particularly keen on making sure the practice continued.
When you read that NSA’s capting and sorting most telephone and internet traffic is “America’s main remaining advantage over terror networks,” (the Wall Street Journal editorial, Dec. 17) or that “The effectiveness of data mining is proportionate to the size of the sample” (ibid, June 10), you should know that the writers are as ignorant of what technologies make signals intelligence effective as they are careless of our liberties. Ignorantly, they have swallowed the propaganda of co-dependent bureaucrats at NSA and in industry. Unwittingly, they are lending themselves to corruption, paid for by intrusion and inefficiency.
Technical prowess notwithstanding, US communications intelligence is dumb congenitally. In a previous column I explained that NSA’s use of sensitive antennas to capt the electronic spectrum, of supercomputers to record “the take,” and of sophisticated algorithms to search it suffer from the same deadly lack of quality control (counterintelligence) that afflicts human collection; moreover that elementary countermeasures reduce even the possibility of capting useful information. The latest revelations that the NSA has been listening to such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private conversations as well as to Cardinals at papal conclaves highlight a more fundamental flaw, namely US government officials’ misunderstanding of intelligence, of the very reason for spying.