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New York Times
September 20, 2001

Surge of New Technologies Erodes U.S. Edge in Spying


For decades, the United States used its technical expertise to gather electronic signals and eavesdrop on the intimate conversations of its adversaries, including Kremlin leaders in their limousines. Fleets of satellites blanketed the globe, overhearing all manner of signals, messages and conversations, day and night.

But the experts say the rapid growth of commercially available technologies is fast eroding the government's edge. New computer power gives wide access to unbreakable or virtually unbreakable codes. Fiber-optic lines give off no electronic emanations that can be gathered. Even radio waves, the spy's best friend, are evading capture as radios hop frequencies almost randomly to outwit eavesdroppers. The nation's declining ability to listen surreptitiously to global communications may turn out to have been a major reason there was little or no warning of hijackers intent on turning commercial jets into flying bombs, security experts say.

To be sure, they add, the communications revolution also offers new opportunities for spying, like snooping on cellphones. And Washington has embarked on an aggressive if quiet campaign to research, design and acquire equipment to sharpen its espionage edge.

But on balance, experts say, the intelligence losses outweigh the gains and will for some time.

"The government is trying to close the barn door," said Angelo M. Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University who was on the staff of the Senate intelligence committee for eight years. "The horse left a long time ago. And it's not coming back."

A longtime federal official whose work relies on the fruits of technical espionage agreed.

"It's getting harder each year to pick up what we need," the official said. "Our potential adversaries are on the verge of denying access."

Moreover, intelligence experts say, the government is short of seasoned analysts and new ones lack such essential skills as knowledge of foreign languages. Also, they say, while infiltration is theoretically the best approach to terrorist cells, in practice it is often impossible to achieve, especially among zealots intent on martyrdom.

In the last few years, federal officials have pleaded on Capitol Hill for legislative and financial aid to confront the new challenges.

For example, in testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, Louis J. Freeh, who was then the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, cited encryption technology used by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who was captured in 1995. Mr. Freeh said that when the authorities seized Mr. Yousef's laptop computer, they found that it held information on a terrorist plot to blow up 11 American-owned airliners and that some of the files were encrypted.

This year, the push for more money produced a surge in federal spending, especially for the National Security Agency, which runs Washington's efforts to gather and decrypt global signals, though no figures have been made public.

But some experts say money, even large amounts, will not be enough.

"It seems improbable that the N.S.A. would ever recover the full margin of technology advantage," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington.

There are also privacy and civil rights issues. Michael P. Harden, a security expert who teaches computer ethics at the University of Maryland, said that the horror of last week's attacks would fuel public support for more government intrusion but that that would be difficult.

Judy Emmel, director of public affairs for the National Security Agency, said the agency would not comment on its intelligence capabilities or their bearing on the terror attacks, beyond saying that Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden of the Air Force, the agency's director, has said it is as good as ever.

The United States military and national security agencies pioneered the fundamental computer science and electronic technology behind the government's cold war spy efforts. They made and lofted satellites that orbit 22,300 miles above the Equator, moving along with the rotating Earth to remain motionless relative to the ground. These "ears" scoop up electronic signals, including those from radar, radio, walkie-talkies and long-distance telephones.

But their targets are vanishing. Relay stations on the ground for commercial communication satellites and terrestrial microwave links have increasingly been replaced by fiber-optic lines, which are impossible to tap without a physical linkup.

Commercially available cryptography software often makes obtainable signals unreadable, or greatly increases the time it takes to decipher them. For a time, Washington fought the spread of such technology, refusing to grant export licenses. But in 1999, as companies abroad made cryptography strides and American industry pressured Washington, the Clinton administration announced plans to relax restrictions on exports of data-scrambling software.

A final barrier is the rising sophistication of radios. Those that hop frequencies,a technique known as spread spectrum developed by the military to dodge jamming, are nearly impossible to track and are now available in many models.

"You and I can buy the equipment very easily," said Steve F. Russell, an electrical engineer at Iowa State University who specializes in communications security. "Many companies market it around the world."

On Sept. 10, the day before the terror strikes, Federal Computer Week, an industry publication, reported that the National Security Agency was on a 15-year multibillion-dollar effort "to modernize the nation's cryptographic systems."

Now, though, some experts endorse old-fashioned methods. Robert Morris, a former chief scientist at the security agency, argues that intelligence agencies can make more use of of the three B's method: burglary, bribery and blackmail.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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