More Than Eavesdropping at NSA

The electromagnetic spectrum, now called cyberspace, is a vast medium through which signals, communications, radio, television and all other electronic transmissions are possible. For the most part, what goes out into cyberspace is the business of the transmitter, although governments and international agreements establish some controls guiding and restricting usage in order to prevent chaos. These controls do not relieve the transmitter of the responsibility for the content of those signals, all of which are subject to intercept by someone or some agency.

The most proficient of the worldwide interceptors is the National Security Agency (NSA), whose mission is to search the spectrum for intelligence information threatening the security of the United States, a practice called communications intelligence or electronic intelligence. NSA’s activity has recently become the subject of public debate concerning the constitutionality and moral responsibilities of intruders into our private lives. Government action is being demanded to limit or restrict those activities, and uncounted numbers of media columns and broadcasts are keeping the subject alive.

What is not being covered, or hardly mentioned, is another of NSA’s missions: communications security (COMSEC), the means and practices of preventing other interceptors from gleaning the intelligence information contained in those signals that might be harmful to the United States. Denying or limiting NSA surveillance has no effect on information being collected by other intelligence services, especially those of foreign nations.

COMSEC is poorly practiced by the transmitters of worldwide information, particularly the individual users of the Internet. For hundreds of years, transmitters have been conscious of the need for secrecy, and they have designed codes and cyphers to deny their messages to any except their messages to any except their intended receivers. For examples, Leonardo da Vinci wrote in mirror script. Codes and ciphers were adopted by military leaders in early times, but almost all such efforts have been effective only temporarily, a fact learned too late by the Germans and Japanese during World War II when American and British forces were reading their high level message traffic.

NSA and our signal communicators have gone to great lengths and used complex technology to ensure the secrecy of governmental messaging. Their success is universally accepted though seldom guaranteed. Unfortunately, NSA cannot guarantee against sabotage or treasonous conduct by individuals, which all too often is ignored, inadequately revealed, or unpunished. Such violations of COMSEC include the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, the newspaper front-page exposure to the terrorist world that we were reading their cell phones, and the download and publication of millions of diplomatic messages now in the hands of potential enemy intelligence agents.

Over the years, we have been led to believe that warrants issued by judges guarantee the legality of surveillance of individual citizens or groups suspected of criminal activity. The practice has been exploited for many years by police departments and the FBI to wiretap telephone lines. It would seem that we could entrust the same authority to professionals in the intelligence community who are charged with monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum.

Meanwhile, we need to educate any and all who transmit through cyberspace that their transmissions can be, and probably are being, intercepted for intelligence – or perhaps just for information damaging to the sender. Restricting NSA from collecting and scouring such messages does not guarantee anyone’s privacy, because all of those other agencies and untold numbers of private scanners are also listening.

Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, USA Ret., formerly served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe. He is a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare and 1st Vice President of the American Security Council Foundation.

Reprinted with permission from ARMY Magazine, Vol. 64 #7. The Association of the United States Army.

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