16 January 1999. Thanks to Anonymous.

The Times [London], 16 January 1999

[Section: World News Features]

Everyone is a suspect in the age of the superspies

By Roger Boyes

BONN -- A young lawyer stumbles upon a political scandal and finds himself pursued through America by crooked intelligence officers deploying the full battery of modern surveillance techniques. This is Hollywood's "Enemy of the State," the lawyer is the actor Will Smith, and the problem is solved in a gunfight between Mafia chieftains and National Security Agency chiefs.

Standard fare, yet the film has tapped a nerve. It coincides with an energetic debate in the foreign policy community about Catastrophe Terrorism - the ability of small groups to threaten society with weapons of mass destruction. There is no proper apparatus to guard against such a threat, government advisers say, and the West should move quickly towards setting up new agencies, new laws and new databases to sift out suspects. And, of course, we are all suspects.

This is not exclusively an American debate. The German Constitutional Court has been questioning experts on the legality of extensive electronic monitoring by the country's main spy agency, the Federal Intelligence Service.

In common with other Western intelligence services, it mops up large quantities of electronic data and analyses it, usually according to the frequency of certain "hit words" or coded numbers identified in the raw text. Three petitioners, two journalists and a Hamburg law professor, are claiming this infringes their right to privacy.

The German constitution, seeking to guard against a repetition of Nazi-era surveillance, insisted on tight controls over eavesdropping. The rules have been loosened a little in the past four years but still allow the police and the Prosecutor's Office only limited surveillance powers against people who are reasonably suspected of involvement in organised crime.

Figures presented to the court differ widely. Joachim Jacob, the federal ombudsman for data protection, estimates that more than 100,000 telephones and fax connections are being monitored every day within Germany and that 4,000 conversations are recorded. The intelligence service claims that only 700 telexes and faxes a day are sucked up daily in what is described as an "electronic vacuum cleaner". Of those, only about 15 conversations are actually analysed every day.

The service emphasises its technical limitations. It says the computer at its Pullach headquarters outside Munich is not equipped for large-scale interception. The easiest targets remain faxes, telex messages and mobile phones.

But petitioners believe the agency is playing down its interception activities. It has just under 6,000 full-time employees, 1,100 of whom are spies in the classical sense. The technical department, however, employs 1,400 staff. The words "Kalashnikov", "bin Laden" and "heroin" can trigger an intercept by them.

America's National Security Agency, based in Fort Meade, has an intercept system, Echelon, that picks up calls as far away as Libya and Iran and focuses on companies, governments and individuals.

A US study team on Catastrophic Terrorism concludes that the vast data trawling of the NSA, the CIA's terrorism specialists, the FBI and the Pentagon do not have the answer to the new terrorism. A National Terrorism Intelligence Centre is needed to collect, collate and analyse information.

Terrorism's scope has changed radically in the past seven years, argue three professors - Ashton Carter (Harvard), John Deutch (MIT) and Philip Zelikow in the latest issue of "Foreign Affairs." "Today's terrorists, be they international cults like Aum Shinrikyo or individual nihilists like the Unabomber, act on a greater variety of motives," they say. Terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction and the world is now dependent on a nearly invisible and fragile network for distributing energy and information.

The "Foreign Affairs" proposal also suggests a National Information Assurance Institute grouping private companies, universities and representatives of industry and government. It would guard against cyber-terrorists spreading computer viruses and trade information before tipping off government. But such an institute would have a huge pool of confidential information - medical records, credit ratings, telephone records. Who guards the guardians?

Europeans should listen carefully to this US debate and question its assumptions. It is all right for Hollywood to imagine an evil mastermind striking at society. But it is another matter to base a hi-tech backed strategy on such an ill-defined threat. Given shrewd political guidance, existing agencies, acting within present laws, can provide a shield against catastrophe.


Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Note: For a different view of terrorism  and intelligence see: Superterrorism