National security and intelligence collection

President Bush and many so-called conservative commentators are up in arms this weekend over the revelation Friday by the New York Times that he authorized the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance within the U.S. on terrorism suspects without requiring the usual rubber-stamp warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Having a slightly higher than average knowledge of what actually constitutes a national security threat, and apparently a much higher knowledge than most of the right-wing commentators on this issue, it’s time to take a good hard look at this.

The first thing I have to say is that there’s no way the terrorists could not have known that NSA was likely to be monitoring their communications. How’s that? I read it on their Web site!

NSA’s SIGINT mission provides our military leaders and policy makers with intelligence to ensure our national defense and to advance U.S. global interests. This information is specifically limited to that on foreign powers, organizations or persons and international terrorists. — National Security Agency

The Puzzle Palace: Inside America's Most Secret Intelligence OrganizationThe information on the NSA’s Web site constitutes, when used in this way, OSINT. In other words, it appeared on their Web site, so it’s public knowledge that the NSA spies on terrorists. A quick peek in the Google cache showed that the same information was there two weeks ago, long before the New York Times published its article. So terrorists should have been on notice that the U.S. was likely to put them under surveillance.

So the revelation of an intelligence collection program, by itself, does not threaten national security, for the existence of the program, or one like it, can be deduced from NSA’s public statement. If it were going to threaten national security, NSA would not have put it on their Web site!

What does constitute a threat to national security is the improper revelation of intelligence sources and methods, broadly defined as who it came from and how it was gotten out of them. (Yet much information in this category is publicly available due to either being declassified, published by foreign intelligence services, or developed independently by the private sector.)

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security AgencyFor instance, NSA cannot publish technical details of a voice recognition system which allows it to perform keyword searches on audio recordings, nor can it confirm that such a system exists. (It’s widely believed that NSA has had this technology since at least the 1970s.) However, it can confirm that it collects and analyzes audio communications.

While not as critical in SIGINT, NSA’s mission, the protection of intelligence sources is of prime importance in HUMINT collection, typically the role of the Central Intelligence Agency, and what most people think of if you say “spying.” If an intelligence source is improperly revealed, someone could die, and many have because of such information falling into the wrong hands.

Now I’ve been going over the Times article, and I can’t find anything in here that would be helpful to an adversary trying to evade NSA surveillance long enough to plan and carry out an attack.

Instead, Defense Tech smells a rat, and it’s the same one I mentioned yesterday: The presidential order simply allows the intelligence community to bypass the step of obtaining a warrant to conduct such surveillance.

While time is of the essence in many such investigations, often requiring surveillance to go into effect within hours or even minutes, it turns out that FISA allowed for warrants to be issued retroactively!

So what’s really going on here?

Not having seen the additional information the Times had access to and deleted from the final article for national security concerns, I can’t say anything about it. But I can say with reasonable certainty that I saw nothing in Friday’s “improper” revelation that could constitute a threat to national security.

Finally, we need this program, or one substantially similar to it, to help prevent terrorist activities from proceeding past the planning stages into acts which endanger us all. However, such a program must also have effective protocols, oversight and controls to ensure that the civil rights of all Americans are preserved.

One thought on “National security and intelligence collection

  • December 19, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    Skipjack, virtually all of what you’re asking for is classified, so I wouldn’t answer, even if I knew. 🙂

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