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As the United States tries to grapple with the new realities of war and terrorism, questions for its intelligence community keep coming: How could something like September 11 occur without plans being detected? Who was tracking the activities of suspected terrorists inside the country? How were they even here in the first place? What happened to those high-tech, Big Brother-type surveillance tools like the notorious global-communications eavesdropping network Echelon, or Carnivore, the FBI’s Internet snoopware, that were supposed to sniff out criminal activity?

For several decades, electronic systems have been quietly put in place to intercept satellite communications, tap phone calls, monitor e-mail and Web traffic and then turn this massive flow of information into intelligence reports for U.S. leaders and investigative aids for law enforcement. Yet despite the $30 billion invested in them, and all the secrecy afforded them, government information technologies still could not connect the proverbial dots of the World Trade Center plot. “Obviously, there were intelligence failures on a number of levels,” says Barry Posen, a defense policy analyst with MIT’s Center for International Studies.

Now that it is apparent that these supposedly all-seeing government systems are not all-knowing, how can we ascertain that they work at all? While the technologies to intercept and capture any and every communication conjure images of an Orwellian omniscience (see “Big Brother Logs On,” TR September 2001), many experts say the ability to derive useful knowledge from all that data is still far from plausible. Even as the processing times get faster and the software  gets smarter, the process of turning raw data into assured intelligence is far from perfect. If the goal is capturing, listening to and then actually sussing every single electronic communication in the United States, “In practical terms, we’re not even close,” says Gary McGraw, CTO at Cigital, a Dulles, VA-based network security software vendor.

It doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying, however. Today, the U.S. intelligence community comprises more than a dozen major agencies, including the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency. Within these bodies, there are dozens more departments, such as the CIA’s directorate of science and technology, that specifically develop information technologies to aid in the practice of knowing what other people don’t want them to know.

While the agencies theoretically cooperate, especially since September 11, there is no centralized information system to compare and contrast data collected  among them. Critics claim that this bureaucratic and technical fragmentation is one reason terrorists were able to hatch their plan under the government’s radar.

It is far from the only one. Even if intelligence agencies seamlessly integrate their knowledge, the tools available to them now and for the foreseeable future do not appear up to the task of providing the early warning needed to thwart terrorist plots. “My first reaction is not necessarily a question of why didn’t these tools work, but how hard it would have been to discover this in the first place,” says Sayan Chakraborty, vice president of engineering at Sigaba, a San Mateo, CA-based company specializing in e-mail encryption.


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