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Security failures of Sept. 11
National Security Agency was asked to do more with less, says journalist, author

By Diane Ainsworth,Public Affairs

20 February 2002 | The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a more startling surprise to the United States than was Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, because the National Security Agency (NSA) had ceased to closely monitor Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, says investigative journalist James Bamford.

The bombing of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which drew the United States into World War II, was not a complete surprise, the author of the bestseller, "The Puzzle Palace," said in a Feb. 11 talk hosted by the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Having broken the Japanese code, a "monumental" feat, the U.S. knew that Japan was positioning its forces for an attack. By contrast, intelligence specialists were unaware of terrorist plans being laid by al-Qaeda terrorists in Laurel, Md., NSA's own home.

In 1941, "the U.S. did sound a warning, all over the world, that we were going to be attacked [by the Japanese]," Bamford says, "but because of atmospheric conditions, we couldn't send the message in the normal way. It had to be sent by Western Union."

But the agency did not have that kind of information leading up to Sept. 11, he told the audience. "We had no knowledge whatsoever of what was going on." In fact, the group involved in hijacking a plane taking off from Dulles Airport and crashing it into the Pentagon "was living and doing all its planning in Laurel, Md., all under the nose of NSA," Bamford contends.

Bamford is author of two books on the National Security Agency, "The Puzzle Palace" (1982) and its sequel, "Body of Secrets" (2001), and is a former Washington investigative producer for ABC's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings." As a guest instructor at Berkeley this semester, he is teaching a course on information technology, national security and public policy.

At work on his next book, "A Killing Sleep: Anatomy of America's Greatest Intelligence Failure," he believes there are several reasons that the security agency failed to detect that a major terrorist attack was in the works.

Surveillance failures
"The NSA went deaf in terms of Osama bin Laden in August 1998," he says. Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network had eluded the agency's giant listening antennas. For several years, all the intelligence community had to go on was human intelligence, which "wasn't very good," Bamford says. The problem with human surveillance, furnished by the Central Intelligence Agency, is that "it only tells you where he was and not where he is."

"The CIA really doesn't collect much intelligence; it's the principal agency for analysis," says Bamford, who, in "The Puzzle Palac, e" was the first to unveil the surreptitious world of America's national security surveillance operations.

The National Security Agency, nicknamed "Crypto City," is headquartered in a complex of 50 buildings hidden at the bottom of the Washington Parkway. It is "the size of a city, a lot like the Berkeley campus, except that it looks like it was built by Kafka," Bamford says.

His first book describes NSA's Headquarters-Operations Building as the "Taj Mahal of eavesdropping." Inside are 7.56 million feet of telephone wire, 70,000 square feet of permanently sealed windows, and a cooling tower that can handle up to 11 million gallons of water a day.

Its computing center, housing "the most powerful computers on earth," is a place where computer systems are measured by the acre and time is measured in one million-billionths of a second, he says.

Although computer power has increased 10,000-fold since the end of the Cold War, the agency must now keep tabs on myriad of electronic communications sent by fax, cellular phone, the Internet. And despite its listening posts around the world, Bamford said, it has had little more than CIA-supplied telephone conversations between bin Laden and his mother to work with in the last four years.

Language barrier
"Bin Laden doesn't use telephones; he gets people to make calls for him from other countries," Bamford says. But even if the agency were able to eavesdrop on al-Qaeda communications, it only has "one or two people who speak the language, and that's the way it's been since the Cold War."

An additional problem: never-ending improvements in communications technologies have virtually mothballed existing NSA satellites, in essence preventing them from eavesdropping. The Internet and fiber optic technology present a new set of challenges, Bamford says. Intercepting the faintest whispers of a message, transmitted over microwave or spat over a high-frequency channel, is no longer America's insurance against terrorism.

"On average, NSA's listening posts can pick up 2 million pieces of information an hour. That's e-mails, faxes, data transfers, telephone calls, whatever you can think of," Bamford says. "The problem is trying to filter out all of the garbage. The filters that are in place don't work that well."

The agency has been reduced by one-third, in size and budget, since the Cold War, but is now required to monitor three times the number of trouble spots around the world. Rather than concentrating its surveillance primarily on the Soviet Union, the NSA today monitors Haiti, Africa, Somalia, the Balkans, North Korea, the Middle East, China and other hot spots.

It's no wonder, says Bamford, that NSA staff "totally missed the nuclear test that had taken place in India, totally missed the bombing of the U.S.S Cole, and the same thing with the embassy bombings in East Africa. They were betting that they wouldn't miss the real big one, which was Sept. 11."

 


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