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Edited by Noah Shachtman | Contact | RSS

NSA Sweep "Waste of Time," Analyst Says

It'd be one thing if the NSA's massive sweep of our phone records was actually helping catch terrorists. But what if it's not working at all? A leading practitioner of the kind of analysis the NSA is supposedly performing in this surveillance program says that "it's a waste of time, a waste of resources. And it lets the real terrorists run free."

Re-reading the USA Today piece, one paragraph jumped out:

This kind of data collection from phone companies is not uncommon; it's been done before, though never on this large a scale, the official said. The data are used for 'social network analysis,' the official said, meaning to study how terrorist networks contact each other and how they are tied together.

So I called Valdis Krebs, who's considered by many to be the leading authority on social network analysis -- the art and science of finding the important connections in a seemingly-impenetrable mass of data. His analysis of the social network surrounding the 9/11 hijackers is a classic in the field.

step_2.gifHere's what Krebs had to say about the newly-revealed NSA program that aims to track "every call ever made": "If you're looking for a needle, making the haystack bigger is counterintuitive. It just doesn't make sense."

"Certain people are more suspicious than others," he adds. They make frequent trips back-and-forth to Afghanistan, for instance. "So you start with them. And you work two steps out. If none of those people are connected, you don't have a cell. Because if one was there, you'd find some clustering. You don't have to collect all the data in the world to do that."

The right thing to do is to look for the best haystack, not the biggest haystack. We knew exactly which haystack to look at in the year 2000 [before the 9/11 attacks]. We just didn't do it...

The worst part -- the thing that's most disappointing to me -- is that this is not the right way to do this. It's a waste of time, a waste of resources. And it lets the real terrorists run free.

UPDATE 2:30 PM: Shane Harris broke this story, in broad strokes, back in March, Patrick reminds us. Harris also offers a possible explanation for some of the NSA program's massive size:

To find meaningful patterns in transactional data, analysts need a lot of it. They must set baselines about what constitutes "normal" behavior versus "suspicious" activity. Administration officials have said that the NSA doesn't intercept the contents of a communication unless officials have a "reasonable" basis to conclude that at least one party is linked to a terrorist organization.

To make any reasonable determination like that, the agency needs hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of call records, preferably as soon as they are created, said a senior person in the defense industry who is familiar with the NSA program and is an expert in the analytical tools used to find patterns and connections. Asked if this means that the NSA program is much broader and less targeted than administration officials have described, the expert replied, "I think that's correct."

Harris also fingers a likely program set of research efforts to help the NSA better comb through all this data: "Novel Intelligence from Massive Data," or NIMD. Its goal is to develop "techniques and tools that assist analysts not only in dealing with massive data, but also in interactively making explicit - and modifying and updating - their current analytic (cognitive) state, which includes not only their hypotheses, but also their knowledge, interests, and biases."

You'll be shocked to hear that NIMD's website has been taken offline. But you can find Goggle caches about the program here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE 5:19 PM: "To me, it's pretty clear that the people working on this program aren't as smart as they think they are," says former Air Force counter-terrorist specialist John Robb. "Some top level thinking indicates that this will quickly become a rat hole for federal funds (due to wasted effort) and a major source of infringement of personal freedom." John gives a bunch of reasons why. Here's just one:

It will generate oodles of false positives. Al Qaeda is now in a phase where most domestic attacks will be generated by people not currently connected to the movement (like we saw in the London bombings). This means that in many respects they will look like you and me until they act. The large volume of false positives generated will not be hugely inefficient, it will be a major infringement on US liberties. For example, a false positive will likely get you automatically added to a no-fly list, your boss may be visited (which will cause you to lose your job), etc.

UPDATE 6:23 PM: And now, the rebuttal. I just got off the phone with a source who has extensive experience in these matters. And he disagrees, strongly, with Krebs and Robb.

Really, the source said, there are two approaches to whittling down massive amounts of information: limiting what you search from the beginning -- or taking absolutely everything in, and sifting through it afterwards. In his experience, the source said, the approach of using "brute force... not optimally, not smartly" on the front end, and "cleaning [the data] up later" worked the best. Often times, other people don't know what you're searching for (or they don't have the same super-slick data-mining algorithms you've got). Better just to get it all.

In everything from speech analysis to sensor fusion, he argued, when you've got a weak signal masked by a lot of noise, "more data seems to be the answer... More data is what's going to allow you to get to ground truth."

Of course, there's a price to pay with this approach: a ton of false alarms. Several stages of filtering should fix that, he argued. Besides, "it's not like you call the FBI every time you get a hit."

Think of it as the Google approach. Wouldn't you rather have everything available on the search engine, and then do queries yourself?

"Every Call Ever Made" in NSA Database

We've known for years that the NSA sits on Himayalan storehouses of information - untold millions of phone calls and e-mails, both inside the United States and out.

eavesdrop1.jpgBut, until recently, those databases didn't seem particularly intimidating, because NSA snoops were sworn to purge the identities of American citizens, as soon as they got caught in the surveillance net. As one former signal intelligence specialist told me a few months back:

"It's drilled into you from minute one that you should not ever, ever, ever, under any fucking circumstances turn this massive apparatus on an American citizen," one source says. "You do a lot of weird shit. But at least you don't fuck with your own people."

Now we know different. And that's one major reason why this USA Today revelation so unnerving.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY. [Qwest turned 'em down, Glenn Greenwald notes.]

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added...

In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case.

No wonder former NSA chief Bobby Ray Inman says the program was "not authorized."

Now, some people might find some small measure of comfort in the fact that this particular NSA effort is only looking at calling patterns -- not the contents of the calls themselves. Don't be. Back in January, we learned that this data-mining is directly leading to a "flood" of tips, given to the FBI, virtually all of which have led "to dead ends or innocent Americans."

UPDATE 11:08 AM: Slashdot has a great little primer on "trap and trace" systems, like the on the NSA is using here. The site also points out that the NSA has effectively squashed a Justice Department inquiry into its eavesdropping.

UPDATE 12:30 AM: Sen. Arlen Specter has a history of talking tough -- and then getting rolled by the White House. Let's see if this time is any different. "Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said today that he would call telephone executives to testify about a newspaper report describing a massive effort by the National Security Agency to compile records of phone calls." Other lawmakers are pissed, too.


More Body Armor. Ugh.

bodyarmor200a.jpgThe seemingly endless drive to encase soldiers and marines in more and more armor continues -- whether the troops want it or not. The lastest, Inside Defense tells us, is "QuadGuard," a full body suit that's been shipped out to about 5,000 marines in Iraq. There's no mention of how many of 'em are actually using the things.

QuadGuard is made out of "Dyneema," supposedly "15 times stronger than steel." Worn with the standard Interceptor body armor, it comes in two models: QuadGuard IV is a one-piece. QuadGuard V is more modular, "allowing marines to remove some parts of the equipment if they are not necessary." Total weight: about nine and a half pounds. That's on top of the approximately 42 pounds taken up by fully-loaded Interceptor gear, and the 5-6 pounds for the newly-required, side and shoulder guards. (Let's not even get into that crazy facial armor or the moon suit.)

Designed by researchers at Oklahoma State University, with some Naval Research Lab cash, QuadGuard has the potential to "reduce fatalities by 10% and serious injuries by 30-40%," its backers claim. Of course, there's mention of how many of those benefits will be given back, with the additional heat, weight, and loss of mobility that comes with all that extra gear. Could this help some ultra-exposed troops? Sure. Let's just hope the higher-ups don't start forcing everyone on patrol to stop wearing 'em. Especially not when the Iraqi summer is starting to kick in, and temperatures start climbing into the high 130's. As Sgt. Eric Daniel noted a few months back:

Something folks don't take into consideration is the tradeoffs associated with wearing additional armor. Just before I rotated out, we were getting issued the DAPS (deltoid auxiliary something-or-other...) and the "space marine" shoulder pads. While these offered additional protection to the side of the chest and shoulders (from small arms fire and small fragments) they were so cumbersome to wear that you were effectively immobile while wearing them. In fact, it was so bulky that I could not put it on and then climb through the turrets on the LMTVs and HUMVEES; I had to put the armor on top of the vehicle, get in the turret, and then suit up. Furthermore, while my small arms protection may have gone up, I was a dead man when it came to vehicle roll overs or surviving an IED/VBIED blast. This is just with the DAPS/ shoulder armor, mind you. Now they're talking about equipping gunners with entire ensembles of kevlar armor (complete with portable AC systems). That's just insane.

UPDATE 7:42 AM: Inside Defense also passes along another interesting tidbit. Just six weeks ago, the Army said that any soldier caught wearing Dragon Skin body armor "would have to turn it in and have it replaced with authorized gear." Now, service officials are going to put the ballyhooed protective equipment through a weeklong series of tests, "to help the Army determine if the body armor meets the Army’s standards."

UPDATE 9:36 AM: Murdoc has more on the moon suit.

Rapid Fire 05/10/06

* Border Patrol hiding virus attack

* Tentacle-bot reaches out

* Time out for "Strakes on a Plane"

* Private space race's final heat

* Stun-gun heels

* Big bucks for drone maker

* "Pentagon hacker" headed to States?

* Tomorrow's wars, previewed today

(Big ups: MN)

Ray Gunners Make Deals

Things are looking up for real-life ray gun firm Ionatron, Gene Inger and Defense Industry Daily both say.

plasma_tank_cropped.jpgThe Tuscon company has linked up with DRS Technologies, which, among other things, is handling some of the big power and battle management systems on the Army's next generation of combat vehicles. Gene sees this as a "major door opener" to get Ionatron's man-made lightning bolts aboard the Army's tanks and fighting vehicles of the future.

But as is often the case with Ionatron, there's something not quite right here. The company has been attracting attention recently for its "Joint IED Neutralizer," a golf cart-type contraption which uses lasers and electrical bursts to blow up improvised bombs. Several JINs have been ordered up for Iraq.

But the DRS/Ionatron announcement makes no mention of this. Instead, it talks about using Ionatron's technology as a "directed-energy weapon" -- one that could be used in "defense applications relating to shipping ports and dockside protection." Similarly, the anti-bomb mission got a short shrift during a recent segment on Al Haig's infomercial program. All the talk by Ionatron execs and their cohorts was about how they could "taser people at a distance" and "disable terrorists" -- oh, and how Congress needed to cook up "legislation that authorizes" more funds for Ionatron-esque technologies.

UPDATE 12:15 PM: Gene writes in to remind us that "the JIN product (which may come along) is not [Ionatron's] core technology; as [CEO] Tom Dearmin has frequently stated... He has said JIN was a spin-off in no way contemplated by the company, but done at the behest of the" Pentagon.

Cargo Chaos: Key West's Revenge

The military is supposed to be one big, happy family these days. But in The Hill, Roxana Tiron reports on yet another episode of inter-service rivalry that's costing the Defense Department big bucks and compromising capabilities.

c-23_sherpa-s.jpgToday in Iraq, the military is minimizing its convoy presence by moving the materiel and people through the air instead. In many situations, such as flying mail between FOBs, it is not efficient to use Air Force's C-130. That's why the military is relying heavily on its fleet of intra-theater cargo airplanes, like the Army's C-23 Sherpa and C-12 Huron. [The Air Force left the intra-theater business when it retired the C-27 Spartans after Panama Canal handover.] However, the C-23s and C-12s are rapidly wearing out. So the Army went looking for the replacement Future Cargo Aircraft, to be fielded in 2008.

Because the Air Force had similar requirements, DoD merged the two into the now Joint Cargo Aircraft. However, there is a mismatch in institutional priorities. The Army needs the aircraft in 2008, but the Air Force, having C-130s, is waiting until 2010. So for the 2007 budget request, the Army requested $113m for the JCA, while the Air Force $15m. The Airland Subcommittee asked the Air Force about the status of the JCA program, and the Air Force responded that "it is nowhere near buying the aircraft." Thus the subcommittee cut $109m from the Army budget. (Huh? It doesn't make sense to me either.) Fortunately, the House did not make the same mistake. Hopefully they'll fix the problem in conference.

This entire screwup is another sad legacy of the Key West Agreement, which divided up the skies between the Army, Air Force, and Navy. It's time we scrap it, and start over again.

Continue reading "Cargo Chaos: Key West's Revenge"

Contact Bombs in Iraq

iraq_bomb.jpgIraqi insurgents are trying out a new tactic. "The newest method of triggering [an improvised explosive] is a contact strip laid across part of the pavement," says Fox News' Rick Leventhal, who's in Iraq.

"It can be inside plastic tubing. When a tire hits it and the wires inside make contact — boom. This method doesn't require the cowards to be on scene, but it's totally random. Any local on the road could be the next victim."

Ex-NSA Chief Blasts Taps, Calls for CIA Breakup

9707STSPI.gifFormer NSA director Admiral Bobby Ray Inman lashed out at the Bush administration Monday night over its continued use of warrantless domestic wiretaps – and called for the CIA to be broken up in two. It's one of the first times a former high-ranking intelligence official has criticized the program in public, analysts say.

"This activity is not authorized," Inman said, as part of a panel discussion on eavesdropping, sponsored by the New York Public Library. The Bush administration "need[s] to get away from the idea that they can continue doing it."

Since the NSA eavesdropping program was unveiled in December, Inman – like other senior members of the intelligence community – has been measured in the public statements he's made about the agency he headed under President Jimmy Carter. He maintained that his former analysts "only act in accordance with law." When asked whether the president had the legal authority to order the wiretaps, Inman replied, "someone else would have to give you the good answer."

But sitting in a brightly-lit, basement auditorium at the Library, next to James Risen, the New York Times reporter who broke the surveillance story, Inman's tone changed. He called on the President to "walk into the modern world" and change the law governing the wiretaps – or abandon the program altogether.

"The program has drawn a lot of criticism, but thus far former military and intelligence officials have not spoken up. To have Admiral Inman – the former head of the NSA -- come forward with this critique is significant," said Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, who sat on the panel with Inman and Risen. "Because of the secrecy surrounding this type of activity, much of the criticism has come from outsiders who don't have a firm grasp of the mechanics and the utility of electronic intelligence. Inman knows whereof he speaks."

My Wired News article has details.

UPDATE 5:02 PM: While Inman was generally supportive of General Michael Hayden, George Bush's pick for CIA director, and Inman's NSA successor -- despite the fact that the Hayden was the guy running the questionable domestic surveillance project. Even his critics, Inman said, have given Hayden "high marks" for refocusing the agency on terrorism.

Most of 'em, anyway. NSA whistleblower Russ Tice, to put it mildly, hates Hayden's guts. Echoing TPM Muckraker allegations that "between 1999 and 2005, the NSA bungled two key technology programs and... has been burning through billions -- billions -- of dollars," Tice tells Defense Tech:

Through his mismanagement, many critical SIGINT missions were not funded and the intelligence needed and depended on was not collected. Perhaps 911 could have been avoided if NSA had those assets in place and did not waste all that money...

He lied about the NSA being involved in domestic spying and continues to lie about the enormous scope of those programs. He stated NSAer know about the Forth Amendment to the Constitution and in the same breath proved that he did not have a clue about it hinging on "probable cause" not reasonableness. He forgot to mention that he also violated the FISA Act and NSA's own policy on domestic Spying (USSID-18).

To be frank, he is a self promoter, an ass-kisser, an accomplished liar, an oath breaker, an extremely poor manager, a sadist, a criminal, and a proven domestic enemy of the Constitution of the United States. Oh, and a piss-poor all-source intelligence officer to boot. He should have remained an air opps officer restricted to the flight ready-room.

To sum Hayden up in a few words, he is dishonorable and without integrity.

In would appear that the president will not tolerate a lap-dog like Porter Goss that barks now and again. Hayden will lift his leg and squat all over the constitutional carpet, but while in the lap of the man who sits the newly erected thrown, Hayden will wag his tail and only open his mouth to lick his master's face.

Lord help us!

UPDATE 6:35 PM: Inman also emphasized something Defense Tech has been saying since the start of this scandal: that your average spook finds the idea of spying on Americans downright revolting.

One of Inman's "proudest moments" as NSA director was when senior employees told him not to pursue a legally fishy operation, he noted. "It's deeply ingrained in you that you operate within the law."

UPDATE 6:40 PM: In addition, Inman put to bed the notion that the NSA's domestic eavesdropping program only examined the links between terror suspects -- not the contents of the conversations themselves. Is this all about who-called-who? "No, it isn't," he answered, on his way out the door (he had to leave quick, because of a bout of food poisoning). For voice communications, which are tough to search, that might be the case, he added. But with e-mail? No way.

Rapid Fire 05/09/06

* New armor "too goofy" for troops

* Buh-bye, Larry

* You too, Dusty!

* Military made San Fran gay

* "Kosher Cures for the CIA"

* "Cloaking device," for real?

* Thank God for Playstation

* Bots clone themselves

* Globak Hawks soaring, in every way

* Autistic recruit OK

(Big ups: GeekPress, Drudge, Nick)

TSA Wants to Pump (Clap) You Up

The Transportation Security Administration is looking for managers to supervise the fitness center in its Pentagon City headuqarters. The request notes that the fitness center currently has only 220 dues-paying members; the annual membership fee is $312/year, which implies that total annual revenue is $68,640. Nevertheless, the request notes that TSA's goal is for the fitness center "to be self-sustaining"...something that won't be easy at that revenue level.

arn_hanz_franz.jpg According to this DHS Inspector General report, the initial cost of this fitness center was $650,000. At least that expense was fully vetted by DHS -- as opposed to the contrast with the gym at the Transportation Security Operations Center (TSOC) in Herndon, which, the Washington Post notes, was chastised in the same IG report.

I don't have any objection in principle to government offices having their own fitness centers; it's a good investment to the extent that it increases employee productivity and allows them to utilize their time effectively. But with only 220 dues-paying members at the TSA gym, it needs to be asked: might couldn't they use the Bally's Total Fitness, a block-and-a-half from TSA headquarters, instead?

- Christian Beckner