Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Intelligence gathering infrastructure too large and unfocused

It’s hard to know where to start a response to the June 4 column by Robert Ehlert on NSA surveillance.

The column speaks volumes of how little about Bulk Data Collection (BDC) is understood and/or those who intentionally or unintentionally help misdirect the discussion. Subtleties of Communication and Signals Intelligence (COMINT/SIGINT) analysis, and how they work together with other forms, seem lost on them.

Most outside the national security/intelligence community are easily misled on such issues. Google works as well as it always has, for those who really want to know.

Parroting the argument that this is about “public safety” to prevent “the next attack” is, in fact, making precisely the wrong argument. Sen. Frank Church issued the first real warning 40 years ago; this debate has gone nowhere and is long overdue.

Our intelligence infrastructure remains far too large, diffuse and unfocused to be of the maximum value it should be. We are not well served for our $80 billion-plus a year Intel budget. While the agencies and political infrastructure prioritize and misdirect things like BDC, 4 million federal personnel records are hacked. It should be more obvious each day that government records collection of all types by all agencies is becoming the problem.

The public has been comprehensively misled since the 1970s on BDC and similar programs capabilities — capabilities routinely provided within government at the expense of privacy, civil liberties and freedom, and doing little to protect our citizens or national security.

That’s not just my conclusion. Just look to the track record. The White House’s own review panel and multiple independent studies have issued the same conclusion in reports released since December 2013. The real terrorists long ago adapted their methods and “tradecraft” around BDC.

Why are such programs so heavily defended? Likely because their real value is something other than the continuing weak rationales put up for public consumption. We’re expending enormous resources including political capital, misdirected and obscured to its actual value with little real return.

I developed an extensive background while designing and building such COMINT/SIGINT systems. Later on I was designing and building Call Detail Records (CDR) or Station Management Detail Records (SMDR) metadata collection and analysis systems. I worked dozens of large-scale intelligence, defense and commercial networked systems from 1976 to 2005, both in and out of the military.

The CDR/SMDR data consists of electronic records of varying length (70 to 140 bytes). Those records are output by every voice switch in the global phone system. They contain source and destination call numbers and switch ports, time and call duration, user class types, specific billing info and other technical switch data. Just one byte of the record can indicate multiple conditions or status information.

Capturing mass records allows for a system ripe for abuse without requiring warrants in advance. Sorting masses of CDR/SMDR records can, in fact, provide more “intelligence” to analysts on “fishing expeditions” than having the actual specific voice conversation between the parties. Metadata can provide a very invasive picture of the unaware target without ever recording any actual conversation. That is the nature of COMINT/SIGINT analysis. There are hundreds of available collection and analysis systems throughout the NSA/Director of National Intelligence that make the data enormously susceptible to misuse and abuse.

Edward Snowden succinctly stated it recently in an online discussion: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

It’s time to change the nature of this debate, to one serving the people and Constitution best, not the government and political infrastructure.

Jeff Wright, who lives in Boise County, is an author, researcher and former chief consulting engineer for Bell Laboratories.

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