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The NSA's Overt Problem
Bush administration officials are now casting the war on terrorism as a fight against al Qaeda's plans to reestablish a "caliphate" across the Islamic world, referring to the Muslim empire of centuries past. Some experts scoff at such Islamist ambitions. But to the extent the dreams of a caliphate are being discussed by extremist Muslim groups, this is occurring mainly on Internet Web sites, experts say. "The Internet is the key issue," Gilles Kepel, a prominent Arabist and a professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, told the New Yorker in 2004. "It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet sharia and fatwa system."
Even loyalists of the NSA concede that Crypto City is in some respects a dinosaur -- and a very expensive one. While its budget numbers remain "black," or classified, one Defense Department contractor who is privy to the budget data says that traditional NSA tracking consumes much of the intelligence community's budget of roughly $40 billion a year, while Web-focused efforts consume only a small fraction of that. Finding and getting into these sites is difficult, but efforts did uncover (and ultimately destroyed) two terrorist groups in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ignoring Web sites can be costly. After the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid just before Spanish elections, a Norwegian think tank, Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, discovered an Islamist strategy paper on an obscure Web site that might have signaled the attacks ahead of time. The document said, "It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year. We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw [troops from Iraq] as a result of popular pressure."
NSA and other intelligence officials say that they are doing their best to cope and that the public misunderstands what the agency does. At a news briefing in late December after the domestic surveillance story broke, Hayden -- who is now deputy intelligence director but was head of the NSA when Bush authorized it to perform domestic surveillance -- insisted that his agency was carefully targeting certain conversations based on intelligence. "What we are talking about here are communications we have every reason to believe are al Qaeda communications, one end of which is in the United States," he said. "We can't waste resources on targets that simply don't provide valuable information."
Other NSA officials insist they are moving to reorient the whole agency. According to an NSA spokeswoman, who in the secretive spirit of the agency would speak only on condition that she not be identified, the agency began a campaign in 2004 to recruit about 7,500 new employees over the next five years. Among them will be close to 350 computer scientists, along with engineers, language analysts and a slew of new signals analysts, cryptologists and mathematicians. But, Arquilla says, many of the best people, some of whom are illicit hackers, simply cannot be vetted through today's security clearance process.
As America's intelligence network reorganizes -- Bush last year created a new director of national intelligence -- some intelligence experts worry that these efforts are still marginal. The kind of fundamental rethinking that would rechannel some of those billions of dollars from the NSA's global surveillance into more human intelligence and Internet surveillance is not taking place.
It may be possible for the NSA to conduct its massive surveillance legally, but solving the civil liberties issue is only half the agency's problem. Robert Holliday, a U.S. Customs expert who developed terrorist-identifying software that's now widely used, says the bad guys still have the edge when it comes to communicating in anonymity and secrecy. "I'm not going to worry about Big Brother," says Holliday. "There's just too much data to track out there." And America needs to find a better way to do it.
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Michael Hirsh covers foreign affairs for Newsweek and is the author of "At War With Ourselves" (Oxford University).