The Wire


Recovering Luddites, paranoids, conspiracy theorists, and their worried ilk are all advised to steer wide of Chatter, Patrick Radden Keefe’s engrossing survey of American signals intelligence, or Sigint, the global effort to electronically monitor our telephone conversations, our e-mails, and even our street movements.

In Chatter, Keefe gives shape to Echelon, the shadowy worldwide surveillance network operated by the United States and the United Kingdom, with assistance from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Echelon is the hoary white whale of espionage lore, whose existence has never been publicly confirmed by its member governments.

“There is an inverse proportion,” Keefe writes, “between how much a person is willing to talk about signals intelligence and how much he or she actually knows.” Nevertheless, with the dogged attention of a spy, Keefe hunts for cryptic evidence of Echelon’s dark-alley activity in places like Menwith Hill, a former Royal Air Force base among England’s moors that now functions as the lead U.S. outpost for international eavesdropping.

Throughout, Keefe, a Yale law student and neophyte author, pledges his faith in our government not to abuse the Orwellian technology he describes, implying repeatedly that civil libertarians who fear being watched are usually hiding something. And although he strives for an ideological balance between privacy and national security, Keefe sides squarely with authority. Indeed, he ascribes the certainty of the Bush administration that WMDs would be found in Iraq to faulty Sigint, with no acknowledgment of evidence that the president and his chicken hawks willfully deceived the nation into supporting their specious quagmire on terror. As reported by Seymour Hersh, President Bush has just authorized Donald Rumsfeld to take CIA operations to the Pentagon, where they will be newly hidden from congressional and public scrutiny. Keefe’s unwavering belief in the benevolence of state surveillance remains unconvincing in this light.

Still, Chatter makes a solid case for responding to 21st-century security threats with a renewed commitment to human intelligence, or Humint. The gadgetry has become so sophisticated that professional listeners now collect vastly more suspicious chatter than they can usefully decode. The salient lesson of 9-11, Keefe writes, is that “we did not have enough linguists, and we did not have enough spies on the ground.” That lesson remains unheeded. As of last year, he notes, “the CIA had fewer than 1,100 case officers posted overseas—fewer than the number of FBI agents assigned to the New York City field office alone.” All of J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps wouldn’t solve this problem.