Yakety-Yak: Assessing the Threat

David Wise is the author of the forthcoming book "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America," to be published by Random House.

In the past week, the public has had to interpret a puzzling new language emanating from Washington. Official pronouncements about terrorism are peppered with obscure and mysterious words. There is “chatter” in the system, “spikes” and “increased volume of noise.”

For example, last Tuesday, the president’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, talking about a string of new warnings of attacks, declared that “there has been a recent increase in the chatter that we’ve heard in the system.” On the Sunday talk shows two days earlier, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice revealed that “the volume of information has gone up ... you get from time to time spikes in activity.” Not to be outdone, Vice President Dick Cheney cited “the increased level of noise in the system.” (He had been asked by NBC’s Tim Russert about “the chatter out there.”) Cheney, Rice, Fleischer and Russert have not lapsed into the latest Valley talk; they have simply adopted as their own the euphemisms that shroud some of the nation’s most sensitive forms of intelligence-gathering.

The jargon describes what spies call signals intelligence, or SIGINT. Every day, from satellites in outer space, ground stations in Pine Gap, Australia, Alaska, England, Germany and other points around the globe, from aircraft, specially equipped submarines and surface ships, the nation’s electronic ears intercept tens of thousands of communications and conversations and beam them to Washington. A terrorist using a cell phone in Hamburg, an e-mail from Afghanistan to Iran, a walkie-talkie conversation in the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan--all may be scooped up and relayed to the U.S.


Most of this activity is conducted by the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade, Md., north of the capital. The NSA, with a secret budget believed to be about $5billion and 35,000 employees, is the nation’s principal eavesdropping agency. But the lesser-known National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, has an even bigger budget and operates more than a dozen spy satellites, with exotic code names such as Vortex, Jumpseat, Trumpet, Crystal and Tennis.

So, “chatter” or “noise” or “volume” usually refers to the communications intercepts captured by this global intelligence system. A “spike” just means that there is more of it, as there was in the summer leading up to Sept. 11 and, if officials are to be believed, more recently.

Although the new language generally refers to electronic intercepts, it can, more broadly, also mean intelligence gathered from human sources, or HUMINT. For example, the recent vague warnings that terrorists might blow up the Statue of Liberty emanated from the interrogation of Abu Zubeida, the Al Qaeda leader captured in Pakistan in March. Recent warnings that terrorists might target U.S. banks and other financial institutions also came from him.

But much of the chatter cited by officials refers to communications intercepts, which are rarely made public. One notable exception occurred in 1986, when President Reagan went on television and described intercepts of messages between Libya and East Berlin that he said proved the Libyan regime was responsible for the bombing of La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, an attack that killed two U.S. servicemen and injured more than 200 people. Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya in response. Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, then head of the NSA, was livid over the leak but could not complain much publicly because it was the president doing the leaking.

In the 1970s, a joint CIA-NSA eavesdropping operation picked up radio-telephone conversations from the limousines of top Soviet officials in Moscow, including Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev. The operation, code-named Gamma Gupy, leaked to the news media.

And during the Cold War, the NSA, in a top-secret project called “Operation Ivy Bells,” succeeded in tapping into an underwater communications cable that the Soviet military used in the Sea of Okhotsk. But the Russians learned of the operation from a spy, Ronald Pelton, who had worked for the NSA. He was arrested in 1985, convicted and sentenced to three consecutive life terms.


More recently, the NSA and the military relied on communications intercepts to try to pinpoint the location of Osama bin Laden at the height of the war in Afghanistan. That effort did not succeed, but U.S. intelligence is still listening, hoping to pick up some hint of his whereabouts or that of his subordinates.

Because the level of chatter is something that only the administration knows at any given time, however, it can lead to suspicions, as were widely aired last week, that the White House was orchestrating a series of warnings to deflect criticism of its handling of intelligence information prior to Sept 11.

Certainly, the chatter from officialdom was extraordinary. On Sunday, Cheney agreed that the prospect of another terrorist attack against the U.S. was “not a matter of if, but when.” The next day, Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI director, warned that suicide bombings on U.S. soil were “inevitable.” A day later, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld predicted that terrorists would “inevitably” acquire chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons, and the FBI passed on its warning to New York authorities about Lady Liberty and other landmarks in the city.

The administration seemed to be saying: “You want warnings? We’ll give you warnings.”

Fleischer appeared to concede as much when he told reporters that the new alarm bells set off in Washington were “a result of all the controversy that took place last week.”

But viewers and readers attempting to make sense of all this must be careful to read the fine print. For example, in her appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” last Sunday, Rice said: “Well, this--this is not a new set of warnings. What we have is a flow of information that has been continuing over a period of time. Sometimes the level or the volume of information will spike.”

In an election year, and with a joint committee of Congress planning to hold hearings on the terrorist attacks last September and the shaky role of the intelligence agencies, in Washington the chatter about chatter is not likely to subside soon.