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An Even Deeper Bunker

Tom Vanderbilt

In James Bamford's first book on the National Security Agency, The Puzzle Palace, published soon after Reagan became President, Frank Raven, an NSA official, is asked what happens when someone on whom the NSA is spying enters the US. 'You have intelligence which is entirely foreign and you have intelligence which is entirely domestic,' Raven says. 'But then you have the third category which no one will recognise, which is intelligence which moves back and forth between them.' Twenty years later, another NSA official, quoted in Body of Secrets, explains what would happen if a member of al-Qaida crossed the American border. 'We wouldn't do the guy. It would be FBI who'd do him, because he's a terrorist in the United States.' On the one hand, the NSA, trained to pluck Soviet transmissions from the ether: on the other, the FBI, with its experience of domestic manhunts. Free to operate in the space left between the two are men who are neither official agents of a hostile foreign government nor homegrown criminals.

The men of 11 September stayed at Motel 6, shopped at WalMart, went to strip clubs. They moved quite comfortably in the mainstream of American life. They also conformed to the classic casting of mass murderers - 'quiet, kept to himself'. In places like Florida, which specialises in transient lives (divorcees, scandal-hounded celebrities, relocated workers), they lived low-budget, Raymond Carver lives. Still, there were moments when more attention might have been paid to them. The hijackers drove without proper licences, violated immigration rules, left a plane sitting on an active runway and developed the unmarketable skill of knowing only how to make turns with a jumbo jet, not how to land it. They were also, it turns out, captured many times on camera, and the sequence of images of Mohammed Atta passing through airport gates was an eerie counterpoint to the TV footage of the planes striking the World Trade Center. We now have photographs of the men taken from all angles by various closed-circuit TV systems; their car-renting histories have been tracked; we even know that one of them rented an adult film on motel pay-per-view. They were the victims of 'total surveillance', as John Parker calls it. Yet it mattered little - Atta's driver's licence may not have been in order but there were some 200,000 outstanding traffic warrants in Broward County.

The attacks of 11 September both reinforced and exploded the fashionable myth that the US has become a place where the Internet knows everyone's secrets and no one is out of view of a security camera for long. The information is out there, but very little of it is put to any purpose, nefarious or beneficial; there are simply too many facts and too few people to process them - Big Brother may be everywhere, but he's not watching (at best he's desperately channel surfing). And as 11 September showed, there is no Big Brother anyway, but rather an extended and often estranged family of little siblings, each of whom hoards scraps of information but is very bad at sharing it. So the visa violation never catches up with the highway patrolman's warrant which never catches up with a large cash payment for plane tickets.

America is of course a place where privacy and its violation hold equal power. We rail against workplace surveillance even as we give high ratings to TV programmes showing the outrageous behaviour captured by those cameras; we warn of creeping Internet 'dataveillance' even as individuals put webcams in their homes and willingly give out information in 'consumer surveys'; we cheer at the rising fortunes of pop stars whose songs are always on the radio, whose images are on every billboard - whose worth is measured by the extent of their intrusion into our lives - and then declare that their privacy needs to be protected from the flash of the paparazzo's camera. Christopher Lasch, writing well ahead of Big Brother and the tide of reality TV shows, noted in The Culture of Narcissism that 'modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions - and our own - were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time.'

The pendulum between pre-emptive security and unchecked liberty in the States has lurched towards the former after 11 September and the bioterrorism that followed it. A question asked by Parker now seems irrevocably academic. 'In the end, it comes down to a personal view: are politicians and agency chiefs right in reminding us that state interception is necessary to combat terrorists, paedophiles, the drug barons and others engaged in criminal enterprise?' We have seen the results of waiting until such acts happen. One of the presumed rights of the US citizen is, after all, the right not to be killed by malcontents at the helm of a Boeing 767. We know about the dangers of expanding the definition of 'security' at the Government's will, and there is no shortage of over-the-top denunciations of the new Orwellian state - relics perhaps of the brief era of post-Cold War domestic security and prosperity. Still, precautions such as criminal databases should not be regarded in the same light as sinister developments such as widespread private telephone-tapping.

As for the relentless quest for information on the part of Internet companies, what goes unmentioned amid the alarmism is the fact that this information is the necessary price we pay for Internet commerce. Society has become more anonymous, more fluid, more mobile, and it is information which makes much of modern civic life possible. Too much is made of technology: the all-seeing camera, the omnipotent Internet. Methods of surveillance have become more pervasive, but so have modes of communication: we chat away blithely on mobile phone channels capable of being picked up on AM radio. Why is a police surveillance camera on a public street any more intrusive than a patrolman stationed on the corner? Urban safety, as Jane Jacobs showed, is based in part on there being eyes on the street - the surveillance inherent in everyday life. The real question in all of this is motive, not means: who's doing the watching, and for what purpose?

On another level, 11 September did justify some paranoia about total surveillance. In the hours after the 'events', it was reported that NSA had 'Sigint' ('signals intelligence') intercepts casting suspicion on al-Qaida. We do not know what these intercepts were or how they were obtained, but as with the NSA itself ('No Such Agency' has always been the joke), we were meant to believe they existed. Secrets have power precisely because they are secrets, but how can we determine who knows what, or who knows who knows, or if what they know is correct or needs to be secret? A Cold War creation, the NSA belongs to a world of surface stability but subterranean paranoia, where the visible has to be immediately called into question - 'trust, but verify.'

The NSA, as Body of Secrets makes clear, has had its own secrets. It denied, for example, that it was sending U-2 flights over the Soviet Union when it had been doing so for four years as part of Project Homerun. It denied that it was spying on its own citizens. All this is in line with a culture where the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a plan named Operation Northwoods to fake acts of Cuban terrorism in the hope of launching a 'pretext' war against Communism. The NSA's Maryland headquarters is predictably mirror-shaded, a perfect black box whose inner workings are lost behind its reflection of the outside world; and even this is not all it seems, for behind the mirrors are layers of copper and more glass to make sure signals stay put. The bringing to light of Cold War landmarks like the Presidential emergency relocation centre at Mount Weather, Virginia (first acknowledged to exist in 1974, ironically after a TWA plane crashed very close to it), or the NSA itself in Bamford's first book, simply reinforced the suspicion that elsewhere there must be an even deeper bunker, an even more covert agency. And reality often played along. The existence of the National Reconnaissance Office - the agency within the Department of Defense in charge of spy satellites - was until recently not known to Congress. Then a scandal erupted over its new $350 million headquarters, hidden in plain view in a Virginia office park. Bamford thanks the NSA for having the 'courage to open the Agency's door a crack', leaving one to wonder what secrets might be revealed were the door fully opened. Having been invited into its penumbra, Bamford seems ambivalent about the Agency, extolling with almost Clancyan wonder the savvy of its crisis-preventing intercepts and yet warning darkly about its ability to operate outside regulatory view. The key question is the extent to which one is possible without the other.

No one who has read Bamford's book can doubt that the Agency had the means to find out about the 11 September attacks before they happened. For the Agency, which, as Bamford reminds us, is larger than the FBI and CIA combined (and has office space equivalent to 11 World Trade Centers), has long been present at epochal events, a headphones-wearing Forrest Gump lurking at the margins of history, providing a running commentary to a very select group of subscribers. If newspapers are history's first draft, then NSA Sigint must be the transcripts, although not available until decades later (the Agency recently declassified documents from 1919). The first American casualty in Vietnam, Bamford points out, was a Sigint specialist in 1961, and as Saigon fell a decade later it was the NSA that detailed the dénouement in a series of terse despatches: 'lady ace' - the Ambassador's helicopter - 'is on the roof. he states that he will load 25 pax and that this will leave 45 remaining hence they need more choppers.' During the Cultural Revolution, the NSA listened in as Red Guards quoted Mao to one another 'as a kind of one-upmanship'. It was the Agency's monitoring of Libyan communications that launched Billygate after the NSA chief, Bobby Ray Inman, tipped off the Attorney General that Jimmy Carter's eccentric, bibulous brother was acting as a paid agent of the Libyan Government. And as the USS Liberty, a heaving old steamer bristling with retrofitted surveillance gear, sailed near the African coast, the NSA could hear Che Guevara and his guerrillas in the Congo receiving tactical orders from Havana.

The Liberty, due to return home, was instead summoned to the Sinai coast, near the Egyptian town of El Arish, as Israeli jets were striking positions from Damascus to Luxor. What eventually happened is discussed in Bamford's first book: Israeli forces, claiming to have mistaken the ship for a hostile Egyptian vessel (despite its captain's claim that it was flying an American flag), opened fire, killing 34 Americans and wounding more than a hundred ('Menachem, is he screwing her?' went one intercept). The full details have still not emerged; there are corroborated (and vigorously denied) charges of an Israeli massacre at El Arish. In the 'fog of war' (made thicker by the smoke machines of the NSA) a massacre and a misidentification are equally possible (after all, in 1998 the US thought it was bombing a Sudanese chemical weapons plant, an intelligence failure acknowledged even by the former American Ambassador). A striking new detail of Bamford's re-examination of the El Arish incident is that it has emerged that there was another NSA vessel in the region, an EC-121 'ferret' plane, circling far overhead. 'The NSA civilians took our tapes and began transcribing,' an operator on board later explained. 'It was pretty clear that Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats attacked a ship in the East Med. Although the attackers never gave a name or a hull number, the ship was identified as flying an American flag.'

Given the NSA's usual ringside seat at major events, its failure to predict the attacks of 11 September prompted a sudden chorus of criticism that along with its sister agencies it had neglected 'human intelligence' in favour of long-range surveillance. There was indeed hubris within the NSA, generated by its massive arsenal of remote-sensing platforms and aerial drones, and its sophisticated computer programs capable of filtering keywords out of the bitstream like a massive global search engine. The CIA is 'good at stealing a memo off a prime minister's desk', one NSA director remarked, 'but they're not much good at anything else.' Still, no matter the source or its veracity, intelligence has to be analysed correctly. Bamford points to the Tet offensive in Vietnam, where the NSA's early warnings of massing Vietcong forces were initially downplayed by Army commanders. 'At 12 midnight, the enemy went on total radio silence,' an NSA operative recalled. 'It was just as if someone had switched off a light - "Nil More Heard" on any frequency. Now, that spooked the hell out of me.'

In rosier days the NSA would treat new recruits to intercepts of INMARSAT phone calls from Osama bin Laden to his mother. In October 2000, however, the NSA 'lost' bin Laden, when he stopped using his satellite phone. As Bamford makes clear, people like bin Laden have been the Agency's Achilles heel for some time. As a Cold War creation, the NSA was quite good at monitoring the Soviet Union and its relatively fixed ballistic missile systems; in 1990, 58 per cent of its budget was still dedicated to Russia. By 1993 that figure had fallen to 13 per cent, and the NSA was rushing to recruit Arabic speakers (in short supply ever since the Suez Crisis) as well as speakers of myriad 'exotic languages' corresponding to new global hot spots (when trouble started in Haiti the Agency had to recruit local service industry workers as Kreyol-speaking support). The NSA had mushroomed into an organisation as big as Hewlett-Packard, housed in a centralised and secure bunker, working according to the rigidly enforced hierarchical chains of command of a 1950s corporation. The world was changing, however, and just as top-heavy corporations with fixed assets were losing ground to more nimble and decentralised competitors with a better and faster take on evolving market conditions, the NSA's traditional targets, the equally bloated command-and-control systems of the Soviet Union and China, were being replaced by highly flexible, 'network'-based organisations which used rapid flows of capital and labour to carry out their 'mission statements'. The NSA is trying to join the New Economy, outsourcing work to subcontractors and bringing in white-shoe consultants like McKinsey. It's even relying on outside firms to overhaul its computers (this from an agency that likes to think in 'exaflop' speeds - a quintillion operations per second). But the Agency is hindered by its very nature: how can a modern corporate culture be fashioned when most employees don't know what the others are doing, and the Agency's past is itself largely off-limits?

In the 1974 film The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an ace wiretapper who eavesdrops on a murder. He is strictly private sector, a freewheeling film-noir loner - it wouldn't have made sense to portray him as an NSA operative since precious few people would have known what an NSA operative was. 'What is the NSA?' no less a surveillance aficionado than Nixon asked in 1973. 'What kind of action do they do?' By the time Hackman reprised his role for the 1998 techno-thriller Enemy of the State, more was known about the NSA (thanks largely to Bamford). In this later film, which is filled with references to terrorists and Afghanistan, Hackman is a renegade ex-NSA analyst sent into deep cover after a 'black bag' operation in pre-Revolutionary Iran, and the Agency is not only shown to have virtually unlimited powers to tap phones, but can seamlessly follow a suspect in real time from space to, as Hackman puts it, 'read the fucking time off of your wristwatch'. This is only a half-truth, but then so is the notion that the NSA has lost its tracking abilities in a world of encrypted e-mails and buried fibre optic cables. 'One criticism is that we're omniscient and reading everybody's e-mail,' an NSA official complained, 'the other is that we're going blind and deaf. It can't be both.' Chastened by the intelligence community's failure to read the signals of al-Qaida, there are Congressmen queuing up to expand the reach of the NSA and other agencies. They will no doubt take what they can get. 'Sometimes I think we just collect intelligence for the thrill of collecting it,' one NSA official said, 'to show how good we are at it.' To counter a threat that is ominously unknown by vesting more powers in an Agency that is itself largely unknown is politically expedient, but as the NSA's glacially slow declassification of its files shows, a monopoly on security only breeds further insecurity.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America. He lives in Brooklyn.

LRB cover artwork: Architecture montage

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