Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 2, 2006

WaPo editorial: does NSA need a new “Bletchley Park”?

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 2, 2006

Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh has a good opinion piece in the Outlook section of the Washington Post, discussing the NSA story. The key question in the piece:

As the controversy over the legality and propriety of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency rages on, one question has not been adequately addressed: Is the NSA’s approach really the best way of tracking terrorists? While there’s no question that the NSA’s covert move into domestic surveillance raises serious legal and ethical issues, the equally important and less examined question is whether — more than four years after 9/11 — the agency’s methods are suited to tracking the jihadists.

Hirsh discusses how NSA’s traditional sigint tools, developed for the Cold War world of nation-state threats, are now less useful in trying to fight shadowy, non-traditional adversaries. One solution:

Some intelligence experts who are critical of NSA’s efforts, like John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., a sometime Pentagon consultant, say the real problem is that the agency is still pursuing a Cold War-era strategy.

What the NSA really needs to do, say Arquilla and others, is to build a new Bletchley Park. Just as Bletchley attracted Alan Turing, inventor of the modern computer, the NSA needs to summon the Turings of our day — mainly computer hackers — to snare al Qaeda and other terrorists at the only place they still communicate electronically, on Web sites. An added benefit, Arquilla adds, is that “if we went the route of a much greater emphasis of intelligence collection on the Web and Net, we would learn a lot more and intrude less on civil liberties.”

Given the obvious absence of publicly-available performance metrics, I’m loathe to make a judgment on the effectiveness of sigint vs. internet monitoring, other than to say that we should be doing both, and need to make investments that can be easily modified to keep up with the introduction of new tactics and technologies.

For more on the issue of how terrorists use the Internet, see this article by Gabriel Weimann and this episode of Frontline.

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