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Sigint and the Fight Against International Terrorism

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Sigint and the Fight Against International Terrorism



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All Glory is Fleeting: Sigint and the Fight Against International Terrorism
M AT T H E W M . A I D
The impact of terrorism is currently far more limited by the failure or unwillingness of terrorists to exploit new technologies and complex vulnerabilities than by the inherent difficulty in conducting much more lethal attacks. The problem is not a lack of credible means to an end, but rather the lack of a real-world Doctor No or Professor Moriarty. Anthony Cordesman The surest guarantee of disappointment is an unrealistic expectation. Thomas Patrick Carroll
Despite the passage of time since the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it remains extremely difficult to objectively discuss the important role that Signals Intelligence (Sigint) has played, and must necessarily continue to play, in the war against terrorism. Naturally, the single largest impediment to an educated discussion of the subject is the secrecy that surrounds virtually all aspects of contemporary Sigint operations. The US government and its partners have released virtually no primary documentation about the role played by intelligence in the events leading up to the bombings in New York City and Washington, DC, and the congressional public hearings on the performance of the US intelligence community prior to September 11 left much unsaid because of security considerations. This essay seeks to set out what is known or can be reasonably established about the role that Sigint played in the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It focuses on the performance of America’s Sigint organization, the National Security Agency (NSA), and also discusses the potential future role of Sigint in the war on terrorism.
S I G I N T A N D T H E C H A N G I N G WA R O N T E R R O R I S M I N T H E 1 9 9 0 S In order to understand the role that Sigint played in the war against international terrorism in the 1990s, and more specifically NSA’s
Intelligence and National Security, Vol.18, No.4 (Winter 2003), pp.72–120 ISSN 0268-4527 print DOI: 10.1080/02684520310001688880 © 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd.
73 intelligence collection operations against Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda organization, it is essential to understand the global context within which Sigint had to operate in the early 1990s. The Cold War, which had shaped world politics for more than 40 years, came to an abrupt end with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989–90, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the end of the Cold War, virtually all Western intelligence services, including virtually every agency making up the US intelligence community, were pared down to ‘peacetime levels’. Between 1991 and 1998, congressionally-ordered budget cuts forced the US intelligence community to reduce its size by 22.5 per cent, meaning that more than 20,500 men and women lost their jobs; and the US intelligence budget was slashed from about $34bn to $27bn. NSA, the single largest and most expensive component of the US intelligence community, lost one third of its staff between 1991 and 1996, and its budget was slashed by 35 per cent from $5.2bn to less than $3.5bn.1We now know that these cuts, especially the loss of so many of the agency’s most talented managers, had a devastating impact on NSA’s ability to perform its mission. According to a declassified congressional study: ‘One of the side effects of NSA’s downsizing, outsourcing and transformation has been the loss of critical program management expertise, systems engineering, and requirements definition skills.’2 NSA was not the only Sigint service feeling the pinch. The British Sigint organization, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), was also forced to pare down its operations and reorganize itself in the early 1990s in order to deal with the new geostrategic threats and changes in global telecommunications technology.3In 1992, GCHQ Director Sir John Adye informed his staff that he had ordered a three-year study into a ‘redirection of effort’ for the agency, which led to the closure of several GCHQ stations; GCHQ’s civilian staff of 7,000 was cut by about ten per cent.4Another study completed in 1995 revealed that GCHQ was still overmanned, inefficient and cost more than it was producing in the way of hard intelligence.5This study resulted in further substantial cuts in the size and budget of GCHQ. Between 1995 and 2000, GCHQ’s staff was cut from 5,500 to only 4,600 civilian and military personnel.6 The intelligence struggle against international terrorism also changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War. In the fall of 1991, Yasser Arafat and the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to participate for the first time in political dialog with Israel. This dialog, which was brokered by the Norwegian government, led to the signing of the so-called Oslo Accord on the front lawn of the White House on 13 September 1993. With the creation in 1995 of an autonomous Palestinian governing entity, the Palestinian Authority (PA), on the West Bank and the
74 N T E L L I G E N C E I E N T U RY CT W E N T Y- F I R S T Gaza Strip, acts of international terrorism by Palestinian terrorists fell dramatically in the early 1990s. With the support of virtually all frontline Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the PLO ceased its sponsorship of terrorist activities and recognized the State of Israel. The Oslo Accord also effectively emasculated the more radical Palestinian organizations that opposed reconciliation with Israel, such as those led by George Habash and Abu Nidal, who fell into disfavor with the countries which had previously supported them. As a result, their terrorist activities came to an almost complete standstill. Given the dramatic decline in Middle Eastern terrorism, the scale of intelligence resources dedicated to monitoring worldwide terrorist activities by the US and other Western intelligence agencies, especially in the area of Sigint, fell precipitously in the first half of the 1990s as more pressing intelligence targets ate up a higher percentage of the available collection resources.7NSA and other Western Sigint services continued to monitor terrorist activities, albeit with significantly fewer resources than before.8 Western intelligence services had to adapt and readjust the nature and extent of their collection activities to deal with the changing and more diffuse global terrorist threat. For example, NSA’s counter-terrorist Sigint mission in the early to mid-1990s was complicated by the wide geographic dispersion and disparate nature of the new terrorist targets that it was being asked to cover. There was the continued threat posed by state-sponsored terrorism, especially from Iran. For instance, Sigint intercepts of Iranian government message traffic between Tehran and the Iranian embassies in Paris, France and Berne, Switzerland, confirmed that Iranian secret agents operating from the Iranian embassy in Berne had murdered former Iranian prime minister Shahpour Bakhtiar on 8 August 1991 in Paris.9According to press reports, NSA Sigint intercepts, together with Human Intelligence (Humint) provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station in Khartoum, led to the 14 August 1994 arrest in the Sudan of the Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as ‘Carlos’ or ‘The Jackal’, and his subsequent extradition to France to stand trial for murder. In 1997, ‘Carlos’ was sentenced to life imprisonment by a French court for the 1975 killing of two French security officers and a Lebanese national.10 Then NSA had to devote Sigint collection resources to monitoring the activities of the new generation of smaller but more violent terrorist organizations, including the Iranian-backed Shi’ite organization Hizballah (Party of God) based in Lebanon, the Egyptian group Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, the Shining Path in Peru, Abu Saayef in the Philippines, and the tiny 50-man ‘November 17’ organization
S I G I N T75 in Greece. Probably the most important terrorist target for the US intelligence community, including NSA, during the early and mid-1990s was Hizballah because of its previous attacks on American targets in Lebanon during the 1980s and its close ties to the Iranian government.11 NSA Sigint intercepts dating as far back as 1983 revealed that the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Muhammad Mohtashami-Pur, managed and financed a significant portion of the terrorist activities of Hizballah.12 On 17 June 1987, an American journalist with ABC News named Charles Glass, the son of the Lebanese Defense Minister, Ali Osserian, and their Lebanese driver, were kidnapped by members of Hizballah on the road between Sidon and Beirut in southern Lebanon. After pressure was brought to bear on the kidnappers by the Syrian government, the two Lebanese men were released, but Glass was not let go until two months later. According to press reports, GCHQ’s listening post at Ayios Nikolaos on Cyprus intercepted the communications traffic between the Iranian ambassador in Damascus and the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran as they debated what to do with Glass, strongly suggesting that the Iranian government was behind the kidnapping.13NSA and GCHQ were reportedly able to successfully listen to the tactical radio communications of Hizballah forces in Lebanon because they sometimes used insecure walkie-talkies to coordinate their operations against Israel from bases in southern Lebanon.14 Intercepts of diplomatic communications traffic in July 1991 revealed that some Arab states were pressuring Hizballah to release the remaining American and British hostages then being held by the organization in eastern Lebanon.15Sigint intercepts reportedly implicated Hizballah in the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 29 people. The intercepts reportedly showed that Iranian officials had acquired the plastic explosives used by Hizballah in the 16 attack. The new generation of Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, posed an entirely different set of problems for Sigint in the 1990s, especially for the Israeli intelligence services. Arguably, no country has more experience with Sigint monitoring of terrorist organizations than Israel. Over the past decade, Israel’s national Sigint organization, Unit 8200, has developed highly sophisticated techniques for monitoring Palestinian terrorist activities in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, using both conventional and unconventional Sigint collection systems fused together with Humint. At the same time that the Oslo Accord was being signed in Washington in September 1993, Unit 8200, then commanded by Brigadier General Hanan Gefen, began secretly constructing a network of intercept sites adjacent to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to spy on the soon-to-be-created Palestinian Authority.17