Sunday, September 18, 2005


Chatter Inside the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping

Finished this audiobook after a number of weeks of listening to large parts of it while walking to the gym, walking the kids to school, and driving back and fort the cater to the whims of the Ham Radio Elite in San Diego County. More on that later.

The core communication of this book is the assertion, largely impossible to prove but intuitively believable, that the necessary condition for signal intelligence operations to be successful is the very thing that most directly contributes to its decay and situational and institutional failure.

This is different than saying signal intelligence is a victim of its own success. The condition of secrecy is a double-edged sword that magnifies rifts in individual and institutional personalities to the point of irreversible instability. It would seem to me that the only way to keep things working is high turnover. This limits temporal knowledge and tribal knowledge, and the wheel may have to be reinvented a few times, but any one person then has a temporally limited amount of knowledge to sell to the enemy or divulge to a journalist. We also get to take advantage of a burst of enthusiasm from signal intelligence staff as they come up to speed in their new culture. When the enthusiasm wears off, or when personal convictions or differences of opinion with goverment policy loom up, as happened with several individuals profiled in the book, either secrets are told or secrets are sold.

Compartmentalization, which was critiqued in the 9-11 Commission Report as part of the reason the plot wasn't discovered in time, is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of keeping the entire operation of the NSA, etc. secret. There is a necessary balance between communication between different types of intelligence and law enforcement, and keeping the wall intact. Information gathered for intelligence traditionally cannot be used for law enforcement. Modifying that "wall" was one of the reasons for the change to FISA, also known as the Patriot Act.

So, this book enjoyably profiled what's known about the institutions of signal intelligence, and discusses some of the more notable individual whistle-blowers and failures. The technology is not discussed in detail, although several interesting sites were visited. This is not an overwhelmingly political book, either. It's more of a story of the personality of signal intelligence from the outside looking to the facade of organizations that are vigilant about pretending not to exist.

A theme of the book is the examination of the US/UK club of countries that share intelligence and participate in the base building. These include Canada and New Zealand.

Parts of the book made me laugh out loud. The author is a well-grounded person, and his deft handling of Black-Helicopter-believing kooks that he encounters along the way is top notch. He also addresses the Privacy Lobby leaders, many of whom I've seen speak at DEFCON and other events, with pragmatic fairness.

Other books in the genre handle the history of the NSA and other agencies. Still other books cover the technology in at least a little bit more depth. This one attempts to define the personality of secrecy from individual and institional points of view. I enjoyed it very much.

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