Intelligence Lapses: The Risks of Relying on 'Chatter'

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The National Security Agency logo appears on a computer screen inside the Threat Operations Center at the NSA in Fort Meade, Md.

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At the risk of seriously irritating NSA's sing-along choir, I'll take the definition of chatter one step further. Chatter can be something as simple as an overheard conversation next to you at a café. Not too many years ago, CIA analysts asked operatives overseas to make daily notes of what the locals were saying — random conversations at dinners, on trains, at the post office. It all amounted to little more than impressions, the locals' hopes and frustrations. Not exactly hard intelligence, but it put the analysts into the swim of a particular country, allowing them to put the phone chatter and hard intelligence into context.

It would be a mistake to think of chatter as being just an intelligent reading of the blogosphere. When the former CIA director George Tenet said in testimony the "system was blinking red" in the months leading up to 9/11, he in effect was referring to chatter — interceptions, rumors picked up by friendly governments, sorting through Osama bin Laden's propaganda. Look at the 9/11 Commission report, and although you won't see specifics as to how or when bin Laden intended to hit the U.S., it was clear he intended to. Even with a warning as vague as this, many argue, the FAA should have ordered the bolting of airline cockpit doors, among other precautions. (See pictures of the history of air communications.)

Still, as unreliable as it is, chatter is the future of intelligence. When agent reporting — clandestine human sources — is good, it is very good. But the vast majority of the people who volunteer to spy for the U.S. do so out of desperation or a grudge. From the start, the CIA presumes they are lying, distorting and fabricating information. It will take an intelligence officer years to sort out good from bad sources. And even then he will have to fall back on chatter for his vetting — though with chatter, there is a presumption of honesty and frankness when two people believe their conversation is private.

With more and more people communicating over cell phones and the Internet, chatter promises to remain the mainstay of spying. Wars are messier than ever, the world's ungoverned spaces are growing, and there are more and more nonstate actors, all of which makes the old-fashioned on-the-ground intelligence methods less and less relevant. The days of the CIA devoting 60% of its time trying to recruit a mole to steal the secret minutes from the Soviet Politburo are long gone.

The only question now is, How do we codify the collection of chatter? The NSA already has the legal authority to listen to chatter overseas — communications among foreigners. But what do you do when an American pops up calling a suspect telephone number or trying to e-mail al-Qaeda to volunteer his services? How long can the NSA sit on a line, figuring out whether it is of real interest, before applying for a warrant? I'll leave that one up to the constitutional lawyers, but I'll be eagerly listening for their answer.

Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know.

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