James Bamford Interview on the NSA
Worth reading. One excerpt:
The problem is that NSA was never designed for what it’s doing. It was designed after World War II to prevent another surprise attack from another nation-state, particularly the Soviet Union. And from 1945 or ’46 until 1990 or ’91, that’s what its mission was. That’s what every piece of equipment, that’s what every person recruited to the agency, was supposed to do, practically—find out when and where and if the Russians were about to launch a nuclear attack. That’s what it spent 50 years being built for. And then all of a sudden the Soviet Union is not around anymore, and NSA’s got a new mission, and part of that is going after terrorists. And it’s just not a good fit. They missed the first World Trade Center bombing, they missed the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, they missed the attack on the U.S. embassies in Africa, they missed 9/11. There’s this string of failures because this agency was not really designed to do this. In the movies, they’d be catching terrorists all the time. But this isn’t the movies, this is reality.
The big difference here is that when they were focused on the Soviet Union, the Soviets communicated over dedicated lines. The army communicated over army channels, the navy communicated over navy channels, the diplomats communicated over foreign-office channels. These were all particular channels, particular frequencies, you knew where they were; the main problem was breaking encrypted communications. [The NSA] had listening posts ringing the Soviet Union, they had Russian linguists that were being pumped out from all these schools around the U.S.
Then the Cold War ends and everything changes. Now instead of a huge country that communicated all the time, you have individuals who hop from Kuala Lampur to Nairobi or whatever, from continent to continent, from day to day. They don’t communicate [electronically] all the time—they communicate by meetings. [The NSA was] tapping Bin Laden’s phone for three years and never picked up on any of these terrorist incidents. And the [electronic] communications you do have are not on dedicated channels, they’re mixed in with the world communication network. First you’ve got to find out how to extract that from it, then you’ve got to find people who can understand the language, and then you’ve got to figure out the word code. You can’t use a Cray supercomputer to figure out if somebody’s saying they’re going to have a wedding next week whether it’s really going to be a wedding or a bombing.
So that’s the challenge facing the people there. So even though I’m critical about them for missing these things, I also try in the book to give an explanation as to why this is. It’s certainly not because the people are incompetent. It’s because the world has changed.
I think the problem is more serious than people realize. I talked to the people at Fort Gordon [in Georgia], which is the main listening post for the Middle East and North Africa. What was shocking to me was the people who were there were saying they didn’t have anybody [at the time] who spoke Pashtun. We’re at war in Afghanistan and the main language of the Taliban is Pashtun.
The answer here is to change our foreign policy so that we don’t have to depend on agencies like NSA to try to protect the country. You try to protect the country by having reasonable policies so that we won’t have to worry about terrorism so much. It’s just getting harder and harder to find them.
Also worth reading is his new book.