The Problem with (Spy) 'Chatter'

Human Rights

"'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" -- G.K. Chesterton.

Amid all the chatter over the New England Patriots' "spy gate" scandal, my question is: what do Bill Belichick's video man, Bush patriots and the USA Patriot Act have in common?

An obsession with Sigint -- the (hi-tech) interception of signals communication; as opposed to Humint -- human, on-the-field, intelligence. The answer came to me at half-time of the Pats spy-free butt-whoopin' against the Chargers yesterday. In football, not respecting the difference between Sigint and Humint will only cost you a first round pick. In the spy game, an overemphasis on Sigint (and militarism), as we've seen, especially since 9/11, makes America more vulnerable to attack, while sacrificing civil liberties in the name of "defense" -- a la the USA Patriot Act and other eavesdropping powers Congress has lavished on the president.

In football, it's perfectly fine to acquire Humint -- a former coach or player of an opposing team -- and interrogate him for enemy intel. But cheating with Sigint will only reap the wrath of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Too bad Goodell isn't running for president. Did you know Goodell is the son of the first Republican senator to file get-out-of-Vietnam legislation? The late Sen. Goodell's defeated bill is now framed and hanging on the office wall of the new NFL commander-in-chief.

While the Vietnam withdrawal legislation cost Goodell's father his political career, the Commish told Bob Costas recently that it reminds him to "always do the right thing," no matter the consequences. Save Ron Paul, they don't make Republicans like that anymore.

In Patrick Radden Keefe's book Chatter: Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and The Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, the problem with Sigint is made clear. You "cannot take for granted that people are always so straightforward. Henry Stimson, who said that gentlemen don't read one another's mail, also pointed out that reading someone's mail is not the same as reading his mind ..."

"Intercepts are anything but infallible divinations of what is happening in the world and what will happen in the future. Chatter is, as it turns out, a perfect word for the conversations culled from the airwaves: fickle, misleading, most often inconsequential."

Keefe acknowledges that Sigint has, at times, averted terrorist attacks. "But when I asked Britt Snider, the former inspector general of the CIA ..., whether the fact that there had not been another major attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11 could be attributed to the success of the American intelligence community or Al Qaeda biding its time, he echoed the answer I received from virtually every other person I interviewed for this book: 'I'd have to say it's more Al Qaeda biding its time.'"

Keefe goes on to note that since 9/11 "the new orthodoxy expressed by lawmakers and commentators ... that the United States needed more spies on the ground, was somehow absent in the massive piece of legislation that was promptly rushed through Congress: the USA Patriot Act."

Keefe quotes an intelligence analyst explaining his objection to the Patriot Act as being based on the fact that it's "long on eavesdropping provisions and short on actual spies (Humint)."

Sober up patriots. And here's the first step in the 12-step process: "Technology can help sort and rapidly move information, but finding the right piece of data, assimilating the information, and putting it in context is never going to be the job of a machine." That's how intelligence analyst Russ Travers put it in a 1997 article published in the CIA's journal, Studies in Intelligence.

The lure of hi-tech surveillance in war is understandable. But the supposed advantage it gives is overrated, and, at times, can cripple with TMI -- Too Much Information. Chesterton asks: where does a wise man hide a pebble? On the beach, of course.

Sigint gives you a view of the beach. Humint walks the beach in search of meaningful pebbles, which shouldn't be confused with patrolling the beach dressed in an occupying military uniform, searching for "terrorists."

I suppose Belichick feels kinda like Colin Powell must have felt when he realized his Sigint-sourced UN speech on Iraq's WMD was flat wrong, causing long-term damage to U.S. credibility in general and the CIA in particular.

Unfortunately, for us and the Iraqis, there was no Goodell to blow the whistle on Powell or anyone else in the Sigint-obsessed Bush administration. We need more whistleblowers in the spy game.

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