Spy-masters living in the past

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2002, 12:00am

'The match begins tomorrow', went the transmission in Arabic picked up by America's giant electronic eavesdropping operation, the National Security Agency, on September 10. 'Tomorrow is Zero Hour' was another message detected the same day.

Neither phrase was translated until September 12. If September 11 had not given all Arabic intercepts a sudden and extreme relevance, they might not have been translated for weeks. Even now, months later, America's spy-masters are unsure who was talking or quite what they may have been referring to.

The exchanges are some of the latest details to emerge from the secret congressional hearings now under way on Capitol Hill into why the world's biggest intelligence network failed to prevent the devastating attacks blamed on al-Qaeda.

So far there has been a lot of backroom scapegoating and claims and counter-claims about who knew what and when across an array of FBI and CIA investigations. The September 10 transmissions have dragged the NSA - an even more secretive body than the CIA - firmly into the fray.

The leaders of all three institutions testified in private this week, acknowledging that between them they did not have nearly enough to prevent the September 11 attacks.

Bureaucracy at FBI headquarters stifled a domestic investigation into arrested co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, despite French intelligence reports linking him to al-Qaeda. The CIA, meanwhile, sat on information that two men, later confirmed as being suicide hijackers, were linked to earlier bombings.

It showed little interest in penetrating al-Qaeda, an organisation now known to have recruited American nationals. The NSA, for all its vast electronic reach, was unable to process potentially vital intercepts.

Far more important than any single tantalising slip, intelligence experts believe, is the systemic failure of America's $30 billion (HK$233 billion) spying operation. It is a vast bureaucracy comprising 13 agencies and nearly 90,000 people, yet one still struggling to free itself from the Cold War and cope with the demands of a new century.

At its core sits the NSA. With a budget nearly double that of both the CIA and the FBI, it employs the most people and provides the electronic means for the entire system through global listening posts and satellites, digesting information and cracking codes.

'Whichever way you look at it, the bottom line is that September 11 got by us completely . . . we weren't even close to knowing what was going on,' one Congressional intelligence source said. 'We are talking about the most grotesque intelligence failure in US history and we must not lose sight of that amid the details.'

The September 10 transmissions offer a glimpse of the scale of the problem. They were just two of tens of millions of communications sucked up by the NSA every hour from an ever-growing international forest of phones, faxes and computers along a range of routes - fibre-optics, satellites and digital systems.

Even as it scrambles to update its super-computers - already the world's largest - to cope, it is barely able to sift through what it collects now. A week before the attacks, the Senate committee now examining the failure had approved a big spending package, amid warnings about the growing gap between intelligence collected and actually analysed.

Until about two years ago, the NSA listened to Osama bin Laden's satellite phone. He has since converted to other means - coded e-mails and couriers - that have left the NSA stumped.

James Bamford, America's leading private authority on the NSA and the author of the only two books written on the institution, is warning that the technology that was once its friend is now its enemy. Wholesale changes are needed, he says.

'For half a century, the NSA had fought a war against a giant nation with fixed military bases, a sophisticated communications network, a stable chain of command, and a long history from which future intentions could be anticipated,' he explains in a newly released update to his pioneering Body of Secrets.

'All that has changed . . . the only thing that is predictable is that they [the terrorists] will be unpredictable. To succeed against the targets of the 21st century, the agency will have to undergo a metamorphosis, changing both its culture and technology.'

Its impotence against a civilian terrorist cell network is illustrated by a chilling irony. The hijackers responsible for the attack on the Pentagon based themselves in the quiet Maryland town of Laurel, a dormitory suburb for the NSA's 30,000 workers. They would have driven to Dulles Airport on September 11 past lines of NSA workers driving to work to track down them and their sort.