Friday, October 10, 2008

Are You There, NSA? It's Me, Art

Just a brief biographical note:

When I received my intelligence training in the United States Army, the instructors were pretty clear about one thing in particular.

In the first week of classes, the Marine Gunnery Sergeant, who would serve as our lead instructor, gave us the laws and codes for intelligence collection. He stated, in no uncertain terms: "If you ever, EVER, listen to a United States citizen's private communications, you will be thrown UNDER the jail."

Hyperbole? Maybe. Simplification? Perhaps. But the message was clear, and the laws we had to read and learn supported his statements.

Now, I read stuff like this, and I just shake my head:

Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

Faulk said he joined in to listen, and talk about it during breaks in Back Hall's "smoke pit," but ended up feeling badly about his actions.

Now, as a soldier serving overseas, I did understand that my calls and contacts might be monitored from time to time. However, this type of juvenile and immature behavior by intelligence professionals wasn't what I imagined. Although, it does make perfect sense, and doesn't shock me at all. Unless you have done the job, it is hard to convey how mind-numbing it can be to listen to static for 8 hours. I heard stories from old-timers about how they would listen to juicy calls that CO's would make to their mistresses while serving in Germany during the 80's. (Possibly those stories are the Army equivalent of urban legends.)

I never personally witnessed the type of things described in the ABC story, and I think that most people will write these episodes off to the very dangerous FEW BAD APPLES theory that ended up giving much needed cover to systemic practices of torture.

The listening in on Humanitarian groups is an issue of more concern, but the overall atmosphere suggested by the story is what haunts me. The looseness that seems to come from a lawless environment.

And, from a purely operational point of view, one of the former soldiers in the article states it best, when she talks about how intelligence collection really did provide some good data that helped save lives:

Kinne says the success stories underscored for her the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack.

"By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it's almost like they're making the haystack bigger and it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody," she said. "You're actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security."

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