FIVE STARS The People We Pay to Look Over Our Shoulders
By Shane Harris
At this very moment analysts at the National Security Agency some 30 miles north of the White House are monitoring countless flashpoints of data — cellphone calls to “hot” numbers, an e-mail message on a suspicious server, an oddly worded tweet — as they carom around the globe like pinballs in cyberspace.
The snippets of information could conceivably lead them to Anwar al-Awlaki, a fugitive cleric in Yemen whose fiery sermons have inspired violent jihadists. Or to the next would-be underwear bomber. Or, much more likely in the needle-in-a-haystack world of cyber detection, it might lead to nothing at all — at least nothing of any consequence in determining Al Qaeda’s next target.
This is the world of modern eavesdropping, or signals intelligence, as its adherents call it, and for many years it operated in the shadows. “The Puzzle Palace,” the 1983 best seller by James Bamford that remains the benchmark study of the N.S.A., first pulled back the curtain to provide a glint of unwanted sunlight on the place. And the years after the Sept. 11 attacks — a period in which the surveillance agencies’ muscular new role would lead to secret wiretapping programs inside the United States, expansive data-mining operations and more — gave rise to public scrutiny that made the place a veritable greenhouse of exposure.
As each operation has come to light, an anxious public has wanted to know whether this powerful new surveillance model was undermining traditional notions of privacy and civil liberties. Just whom is the government watching? And who is watching the watchers? Nominally, the answer is all three branches of government: a secret court that approves surveillance warrants, Congressional oversight committees and the intelligence agencies themselves are supposed to be policing the spy-catchers to guard against abuses.
But this rarely amounted to what lawmakers like to call “vigorous oversight”; in the Bush administration, in fact, the surveillance court and the oversight committees were intentionally bypassed on the most sensitive programs. More often, it has been left to outsiders — journalists, authors, civil rights advocates and privacy groups — to keep tabs on the watchers and to bring public scrutiny to once-secret programs. Indeed, it was outside scrutiny that brought attention to many of those at the heart of the debate, from Total Information Awareness, created after 9/11 to President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping.
For the spymasters, this spotlight was decidedly unwelcome. “The fact that we’re doing it this way,” Mike McConnell, a director of intelligence in the Bush administration, said a few years ago in the midst of the fierce public debate over government surveillance powers, “means that some Americans are going to die.” Mr. McConnell is one of the recurring characters in “The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State” by Shane Harris, but this is not a book that Mr. McConnell is likely to rush out to buy. Mr. Harris, with some success, does what Mr. McConnell and others in the intelligence world have found so objectionable: he watches the watchers.
While Mr. Harris’s examination covers a fair amount of ground that has already been well plowed, it uses smart technical analysis and crisp writing to put the reader inside the room with the watchers and to help better understand the mind-set that gave rise to the modern surveillance state. “We have never lived in a time,” Mr. Harris writes, “when the government has had such remarkable technological ability to watch its own citizens.”
The unlikely tour guide for this journey into the netherworld of surveillance operations is John M. Poindexter, the retired Navy admiral and former national security adviser who was the driving force behind the Total Information Awareness program, which would become a potent symbol of government overreach soon after 9/11. Mr. Harris, who writes about surveillance issues for National Journal, interviewed Admiral Poindexter 14 times in researching his book, and the insight into the intellectual framework that guided him provides one of the strengths of the book.
Following “15 years in the wilderness,” after Admiral Poindexter’s involvement in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration, Mr. Harris writes, he returned to government in 2002 as the point man in the effort to develop a data-mining program at the Pentagon that could put together all the disparate pieces of intelligence data — communications, travel, finances and more — to “connect the dots” and prevent another calamitous attack after 9/11. But soon enough a public outcry over the research program led Congress to cut off funding.
But the approach has outlived the controversy. As Mr. Harris first described in detail in National Journal in 2006, the remnants of that effort were simply repackaged and parceled out to other agencies, principally the N.S.A.
At its best “The Watchers” provides an insightful glimpse into how Washington works and how ideas are marketed and sold in the back rooms of power, whether the product being peddled is widgets or a radical model for intelligence gathering. Mr. Harris takes the reader along in 2002 as Admiral Poindexter goes from office to office at the Pentagon and the White House, seeking allies for his fledgling intelligence project, putting on PowerPoint presentations, finding agencies willing to link their data to Total Information Awareness, navigating potential legal pitfalls and hearing cautionary tales about previous ventures into data mining, like the F.B.I.’s Carnivore e-mail program a few years earlier.
“Learn from their example,” Fran Townsend, a senior intelligence official, tells Admiral Poindexter of the Carnivore debacle. “Don’t make the same mistakes.”
Unfortunately, the book suffers at times from the same Achilles’ heel that plagued Admiral Poindexter: in picking his targets, Mr. Harris — like the watchers themselves — sometimes veers off the mark in determining where to look and in separating the important from the trivial. He spends too much time and ink going down rabbit holes, examining in great detail operations like Able Danger, a data-mining program at the Pentagon that became briefly notorious because of the erroneous claim by a few military officials who worked on it that it had been able to identify Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, as a possible threat before the attacks.
Even the examination of the Total Information Awareness program, as richly detailed as it is, proves a bit of a red herring. Mr. Harris acknowledges that Admiral Poindexter was seeking to do the type of data mining that the N.S.A. had already been doing, and would continue to do, on a much broader scale. Yet information about how the N.S.A. has been using is new data-mining tools — a difficult target, to be sure — is in short supply.
Meanwhile, largely unanswered is a core question surrounding the new surveillance model and the fancy data-mining algorithms that come with it. Does this stuff really work? Can data-mining tools originally developed to find Las Vegas card counters and cheats actually identify would-be terrorists? When the question is addressed, the results are discouraging. Mr. Harris recounts one test run by the N.S.A. of the tools that Admiral Poindexter had developed: “The T.I.A. tools crashed. They were simply incapable of processing so much information in real time. Like balloons affixed to a fire hydrant, they burst.”
The watchers, it seems, have plenty to watch. The problem is that much of the time, they may not know what they’re looking at.
Phi Beta Iota: This review is not at Amazon. See Amazon reviews by clicking on the cover above. The author of the review is incorrect about ABLE DANGER, it worked as it was supposed to, and poor leadership combined with mediocre legal advice led to the military’s failure to inform the FBI. See other reviews on Intelligence (Government/Secret) (282). The antidote and anti-thesis to the expensive, ineffective, and unconstitutioinal “constant surveillance” is Human Intelligence (HUMINT). See 2010: Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Trilogy Updated.