SIGINT is good, and necessary.


"It's not enough for the leaders of Germany and France. Both countries want a halt to eavesdropping on leaders, companies and law-abiding citizens after allegations the National Security Agency gathered tens of thousands of French phone records and hacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.
The German leader said trust has been severely shaken and something had to change. The spying revelations come from leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – reports that the U.S. had spied on 35 world leaders. Brazil's president canceled a state dinner after learning she was a target. Spain's prime minister says he'll summon the U.S. ambassador."  CBS News


The issues of US domestic SIGINT collection and SIGINT employment overseas shoud be considered separately.

Domestic SIGINT is essentially a police matter involving the civil rights of Americans.

Overseas SIGINT and other forms of information collection are necessary instruments of  foreign affairs.  Countries do not have friends.  They have interests and those interests are seldom perfectly aligned.  To think that any country can abstain from seeking to know what other "players" will attempt or seek to attempt and with whom is a childish fantasy.

US SIGINT "broke" the Japanese diplomatic ciphers before Pearl Harbor.  The two countries were at peace.  Was it a moral or ethical lapse for the US to have done that?  I think not.  It was merely prudent.

Why spy on "partners," "friends," or "allies?" That is easy to answer.  Countries and individuals are somewhat unpredictable in their behavior.  International relations are not a game.  World politics is a deadly serious business involvng the welfare and safety of hundreds of millions.  Any informational advantage must be sought. To know in advance the positions of interlocutors in any diplomatic or military process is a great advantage.  This advantage must be sought.

If Angela Merkel did not know the US or anyone else might be listening to her cell phone then she is not a competent head of government for Germany.

The complaining European politicians have benefited greatly from similar activities of the United States.  They know that.  If they want agreements similar to those between the US and the Anglophone partners, fine agree to whatever they want.  Tell them whatever they want to hear.  pl

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47 Responses to SIGINT is good, and necessary.

  1. Howard C. Berkowitz says:

    Captain Renault is working overtime, finding more and more gambling in Rick’s Cafe.
    In 2000 or so, I attended the European Operators’ Forum (ISPs and telcos), where they were complaining about the cost of government initiatives for metadata and some content (email) retention. 2006 saw a formal European Commission directive on data retention:

  2. Duncan Kinder says:

    There is a fundamental distinction between engaging in such activity and getting caught at doing it. Just as reasons of state exist for information gathering, other reasons of state exist for being “shocked, shocked” when it has been revealed.
    In passing, note that Mr. Pollard and his defenders make similar arguments to those defending NSA spying.

  3. turcopolier says:

    Duncan Kinder
    My only objection to what Pollard did is that he did it to us. pl

  4. pbrownlee says:

    Wasn’t one of the principles of Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta that the more you spend, the less you know?

  5. Paul Escobar says:

    Mr. Lang,
    For what it’s worth, Glenn Greenwald appears to agree with you:
    “on morning joe: its getting to the point where harold ford jr is starting to rethink his views on snowden…he just implied that yes, he didn’t mention richard cohen, he says hes flabbergasted we were listening in on merkels phone calls” – @tweet2thedeath
    “Unsurprising that Harold Ford Jr wasn’t bothered by mass spying on ordinary citizens but upset over elites being targeted” – @ggreenwald
    He has also been reminding his audience that the vast majority of revelations have highlighted unseemly targetting of civilians. He does not seem to care much for these revelations of elite voyeurism.

  6. turcopolier says:

    Paul Escobar It does not seem to me that anything you wrote resembles my expressed views. pl

  7. turcopolier says:

    If you are saying that more is not necessarily better in the intelligence business, I have often expressed that opinion. pl

  8. turcopolier says:

    IMO the US cannot be said to have been “caught.” A cleared defector is a hazard of the trade. pl

  9. walter says:

    Was Jesus “childish” or “naive” when he asked us to turn the other cheek? to focus on higher values
    There are people like myself who are want our nation to risk being a more moral, ethical, spiritually pure nation…and that our national security will be enhanced by reducing the amount of enemies and animosity toward us.
    It is a legitimate argument to argue that my posture is naive and childish, but it is also legitimate to argue that your perspective is too “old school” and that different ways might be possible that will result in a more peaceful world.
    Jesus, MLK, Ghandi, all these guys were idealists who were laughed at and killed but their peaceful ideas changed the world for the better

  10. turcopolier says:

    Absolute nonsense. You are a child in a world filled with adult sharks. I spent my life trying to protect people like you and I regret it. pl

  11. blowback says:

    If I were Angela Merkel, I would now rip out all my ‘phones, place a very large order for Iranian crude payable in euros or through barter and veto any appeal of the European General Court in Brussels’ recent ruling.

  12. mbrenner says:

    What do you think of NSA’s systematic electronic surveillance of citizens in other countries who are attached to their own versions of the Fourth and Second Amendment.
    In the light of what has transpired over the past 12 years, might it not make sense to take advantage of these revelations to rein in the senseless, unproductive (or counterproductive)
    practices of electronic vacuuming that only build a bigger haystack without any regard as to whether in fact there is a needle underneath it – or even whether the needle is a hairpin, a pipe cleaner or a Neolithic phallic symbol – the last best conforming to the emotional needs of the juveniles running our intelligence agencies.

  13. mbrenner says:

    One further question as to utility. It already has been admitted that we learned nothing of value from tapping ms Merkel’s cell phone. Is there anything CONVEIVABLE that might have had any value? Perhaps a remark to her husband suggesting that the chances of the German government deciding to remove its troops from Afghanistan by a given date are 90% rather than 80%? Utterly meaningless. Would any major policy decision about Afghanistan we’ve made over the past 12 years have been affected by anything we might have learned from the private conversations of any foreign government leader?
    Isn’t this all a distraction from the glaring flaws in the White House and elsewhere in Washington?

  14. John says:

    Do not all nations attempt to spy on each other, friend or foe, since time immemorial?
    Methinks the Lady doth protest too much… for her personal and political gain.

  15. Paul Escobar says:

    Mr. Lang,
    You differentiated between the spying which takes place between power-players & that which American citizens are subjected to.
    I took a leap and assumed your post was a reaction to the Harold Ford Jr. MSM types, who would rather defend the civil liberties of foreign elites than those of their own countrymen. Greenwald seemed to share such a sentiment, and I thought it worth sharing.
    Apologies if I erred,
    Paul Escobar

  16. Farmer Don says:

    Col. I agree with you.
    But; IBMs hardware sales have tanked in China. People are moving away from Gmail in Germany, bit coin is gaining in popularity world wide.
    This spying on business partners and customers, and getting caught, has a $ cost for the US economy.
    It also goes without saying, that the cost of the intelligence structure has to be subtracted from the value of the intelligence gained.

  17. ISL says:

    More interesting are the denials by Obama that he knew, followed almost immediately by reports that he did. Is his advice that bad on dealing with the crisis, is he ignoring good advice, or does he just not care as he gazes down from his Athenian heights?
    It does seem to say to me that despite months of likely investigations, there still is no clear idea of what information was compromised, which either says something about how “good” Snowden was, or how “incoherent” the intelligence data system was at the root level, or both.
    Very glad you canine pal is better. They are a precious gift if we listen to their teaching, here too short.

  18. LeaNder says:

    Paul Escobar, there is much talk about Merkel suddenly being “shocked” about the idea of her cell phone being listened in, while she did not show much concern before. But strictly my impression is that this is mainly based on interpretations of her press speaker’s phrasing and not on anything Merkel said.
    I am not watching this closely, but there seems also some type of appeasement policy from the chancellery. It is claimed that the cell phone that was supposedly listened in is her party cell phone only, they also claimed that anything of any importance is done via encrypted phone lines.
    Experts over here take Pat’s position: countries have no friends, they have interests. They also suggest that we have widely profited from US expertise. Apart from that the topic of industrial espionage surfaced again as it has occasionally over the decades, mostly as rumors.

  19. nick b says:

    Col., Can you tell me how much of this is theater for the euro masses? As you mentioned it would be naive for foreign leaders to think others, or us, are not trying to monitor them. Additionally, they cooperate with us in this area extensively, correct?
    I saw this article in the WaPo 10/24.
    I had to chuckle, and wondered if this was a not-so-subtle reminder from US intelligence to our allies that they had better limit their criticism. Snowden, in this case becomes somewhat useful, as he doesn’t even need to have this information. We just need to claim he does. The threat of release, and subsequent embarrassment should help blunt criticism, no?

  20. turcopolier says:

    Dr. Brenner has never had access to the fruits of SIGINT and is unqualified to judge whether or not such projects are worthwhile. To imagine that access to the supposedly private conversations of a head of government is not a great potential asset is incorrect. The Europeans are utterly driven by domestic political gain or loss in this matter. ISL. The president would have had a daily feed by his briefers of anything of value. pl

  21. turcopolier says:

    Farmer Don
    I agree and that is why I have become opposed to foreign entanglements. YOYO. pl

  22. seydlitz89 says:

    Col. Lang-
    Interesting thread sir. While I agree that total domestic surveillance is distinct from foreign intelligence collection, and has to be addressed separately, I think the arguments that “everyone spies” and “this is part of our national security” don’t really fit the political context we have today.
    The examples of Germany and Japan are always used, but these examples from pre-WWII or WWII regard governments that we saw as adversaries, not allies. The Soviet Union used its embassies as primarily espionage centers, but that too belongs to a different era.
    The US today comes across as a hypocrite due to our actions. We have various tiers of allies. The “five eyes” and Israel at the top, followed by NATO, followed by the rest of our “friends and allies”. NATO allies are essentially seen as vassal states and are so treated. Does anyone seriously think Germany or France are going become adversaries? So what exactly is the argument for treating them as potential ones?
    If we are in fact dealing with vassals then it explains our use of whatever advantage we have or can develop, since we are in a power relationship of the strong dealing with the weak, and will not hesitate from rubbing their collective noses in it. Whereas alliances are not supposed to be that way at all, rather the members are seen as equals, which was of course the advantage that NATO had over the Warsaw Pact back in the day. We blather about equality among partners all the time, of course, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Over time our pseudo-allies begin to greatly resent this and the relations between the alliance members deteriorate . . . as we see.
    One can see the level of hypocrisy when one considers what the response would be were it to become known that the US had targeted the Israeli PM in the manner the German Chancellor was targeted . . . imagine the howling!
    The trust that was one of our great advantages in terms of soft power (or Weber’s concept of “prestige”) is gone.
    Sir, I think we need to re-think all of this. Either we have no alliances, or if a country is an ally of the US, then they should enjoy specific rights and privileges, just as we should. We shouldn’t have Allies 1st-10th class, or pseudo-allies, or “wink and nod” allies . . . or vassals labelled “allies” . . . In all another long overdue nail in the coffin of US exceptionalism . . .

  23. nick b says:

    A morally pleasing argument to be sure. Some what reminiscent of the Melian side of the Melian dialogues.

  24. turcopolier says:

    We are not “exceptional.” We are mere humans who have to live in a Machiavellian world rather than in an imagined world filled with benign creatures. I don’t know what your background is so I am at a disadvantage in lecturing you. I presume from your discussion of allies and adversaries that you have never worked in intelligence or in diplomacy. Strategic intelligence is as much about the daily functioning of government as it is about dealing with adversaries. There is no reason to think that France or Germany will become adversaries but they are important “players” in the daily give and take of meetings, conferences, UN resolutions, etc. To know in advance what their position will be on a matter of mutual concern is a great advantage before the matter comes to a climax of some sort. Do you really think that France and Germany do not do the same thing? I happen to know that they do. pl

  25. Lord Curzon says:

    Wasn’t there something a few years back with the US listening in on Chancellor Kohl’s phone calls which resulted in a deal being made, the price of which was his quiet resignation to avoid corruption charges pertaining to his Party’s funds?
    Maybe Angela Merkel is recalling what happened to her predecessor!

  26. Bill H says:

    “What do you think of NSA’s systematic electronic surveillance of citizens in other countries who are attached to their own versions of the Fourth and Second Amendment.”
    You didn’t ask me, but by all means their government should not be spying on them. That says nothing about what our government may or may not do to them.

  27. Bill H says:

    A repeated process with BHO, denying that which is patently undeniable and then having to “walk back” said denial. It’s remarkable how forgiving the media is each time he does this.

  28. jonst says:

    First off, the references to Claude Rains and being ‘shocked at gambling going on’, are better place on people who say that Merkel’s reaction, and other leaders’ reactions are staged. Of course they are staged. Of course they assume this kind of spying is going on. Just was WE know that when we are caught at this our allies–to the extent they are allies–must act with faux outrage. It is OUR reaction that is phony…when we accuse them–the Merkels’ of hypocrisy.
    As to the general practice..collecting intel is not an end in itself. And indeed, as war is too serious a matter to be left to generals, so to is this kind of thing too serious a matter to be left, solely, to ‘spooks’. The point of our collecting intel is primarily, in the end, enhancing the security of the people of the United States. If it, this practice, ever begins to threaten the security of the US people it should be challenged and altered. That is the metric that should govern the practice.
    The fact of the matter now is so much intel is being collected it far exceeds the ability of anyone, any agency, any nation, to fully search it and categorize it all. So, the point of collecting the metadata might be less about becoming aware of, or stopping, something about to take place, or to take place at any time in the future. i.e gaining intel. Indeed, it may be that we are collecting SO much data that we risk burying the key data in piles and piles of meaningless data. i.e. where everything is a secret nothing is a secret.
    The goal now of collecting the amount of data, and the type of data, being collected, may be to hinder dissent in the future. Or disagreement with anyone power, in the future. People are coming to believe, perhaps, that every damn thing they have done in a digital environment, and I mean EVERY damn thing, they have ever done, or said, or wrote, or looked at, or listened too is being captured, titled, stored, and rendered suitable to search if the name on the file every crosses someone in power. And at that point…you might really have a nation of sheep…fearful to open their mouths, on any issues.
    To say, ‘well, we’ve always done this, we’ve always have lived in this dangerous world, and had to do it’, is missing the point in my opinion. This is a NEW WORLD. From a technological perspective. The storage and search mechanism, and the ability to manipulate digital data are of such a different degree than anything previous, that it is like we are dealing with something sui generis.

  29. The Twisted Genius says:

    I’m glad and proud we have a formidable SIGINT capability. Within our resource limitations, we should be targeting as many foreign countries, leaders and groups as possible. Obviously we have to prioritize. We target China, Russia and Iran and no one is bothered except the Chinese, Russian and Iranians. But I bet they expect it, do their best to defend against our efforts and do their best to target us. Countries like France and Germany are major players. They should, and probably do, act the same. Everything else is hypocrisy. I have no idea where Israel and Saudi Arabia sit on our current collection targeting list. As far as I’m concerned, they should be priority one targets. We should be unapoligetically targeting the crap out of them.
    Domestic SIGINT conducted by the IC rather than the police/judicial system is another story entirely. I consider it unconstitutional and abhorrent. I think this mass collection is nothing but an exercise in empire building. These massive databases make for impressive PowerPoint presentations calling for more resources and bigger programs, but precious little useful intelligence.
    Snowden’s revelations have shined a bright light and a close look at the NSA. He has done us and the NSA a favor in my opinion. Yes, there have been political and economic costs. There will be more. I do believe the NSA’s domestic collection program will eventually be curtailed by public and IT industry demand and by congressional action. It should be curtailed. It sucks up resources and focus that should be applied towards more important targets… like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

  30. seydlitz89 says:

    Sir, I worked in US overt strategic Humint collection during the last decade of the Cold War in Berlin, that is “joint allied”. I have a bias towards Humint and see much of the current US emphasis on SIgint as resulting from the US Sigint community’s necessity to find a new mission after the end of the Cold War. There is also the whole corrupting influence of using Signit for commercial/industrial espionage. I heard all the arguments back then, and honestly found them wanting.
    So there is the cultural aspect to this. The US has always relied heavily on Sigint since we have been historically good at it and not so good at say Humint. As far as “daily functioning” goes, is that not why a country has diplomats, military/intelligence liaison, country specialists, open source analysis . . . ?
    But what I really have a problem with is the whole corrosive aspect that this attitude towards Sigint has on our alliance relationships. We worked well as a team during my service and I thought at the time that would be the wave of the future, which unfortunately has not been the case. The only time I had to lie to my alliance partners was regarding sources of NSA interest . . .
    So sir, my basic point is, that if we are in fact dealing with the “Machiavellian world” that you mention, then we don’t really have alliances or “special relationships”, so much as vassals, adversaries and potential adversaries, and we say so openly and drop the hypocrisy. As to whether France and Germany “do the same thing”? They spy on us of course and I’m sure the BND had a nice file on me, but that is not really an argument for the intensity or capability that we are unleashing towards them, let alone the backlash we will suffer in the future as a result.

  31. turcopolier says:

    It sounds like you were some sort of de-briefer. did you ever have access to SIGINT products? TTG and I are both old HUMINTERs (clan and overt)and probably share your inclination in that direction. US SIGINT has been a virtual industry ever since it grew so large in WW2. Many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of Clandestine HUMINT and I think that has resulted in a disproportionate reliance on SIGINT. Nevertheless I agree with TTG that it is good that we have such a robust capability. As for the means of collecting and diplomacy that you mention, they are all necessary but without SIGINT we would be much more at risk than we are. We do not have “special relationships” of friendship with foreign countries. All is transactional. The idea of the “Special Relationship” with the UK was produced largely by British propagandists seeking American help in WW2. Before that war, defense against an imagined Japanese/British naval alliance was the basis of most of our war plans.

  32. seydlitz89 says:

    Sir, I’m not arguing against having a robust US Sigint capability, but it is rather the targeting. While targeting the domestic US population is both illegal and immoral, targeting allies is corrosive to necessary working relationships and ultimately self-defeating.
    I served four years as a German language debriefer and the following four as an ops officer, all in US overt strategic Humint collection. Oh, and I loved it . . .

  33. b says:
    “German papers lay into Obama over US spying claims”
    These are the most pro-U.S. papers in Germany. But now they have major “anti-American” editorials on the issue.
    It is NOT the spying on Merkel as a chancellor that is the problem. She is known for some lack in communication security issues.
    What is really concerning the people is Alexander’s “collect it all attitude”. (I for one believe it is pretty useless.)
    People here in Germany do have a historic baggage with spying. We do not like to be sniffed on. Our constitutional court has judged that the “right to privacy” is a major human right that should, like other major human rights, be held high by everyone.
    The U.S. does not do so. It will cost it dearly. Forget the Transatlantic Trade Deal. It is dead in the water. Forget selling more IT products in Europe. I’d rather buy Chinese because they have less interest in spying on the general public. Forget about your Internet products. Ten years from now there will be a different Internet and it will be much more secure and in Europe will likely be dominated by European companies.
    The commercial damage “collect it all” has done to the U.S. is much bigger than whatever your SIGINT might have ever collected.

  34. Ramojus says:

    “… Before that war, defense against an imagined Japanese/British naval alliance was the basis of most of our war plans.”
    Really? Being a 20th century history junkie, I would like to learn more details about this. Colonel, could you point me to some sources to read? Thanks.

  35. turcopolier says:

    Look at the color war plans generally. Several posited Britain as the planning enemy the Red plan was specific. It was not an accident that much of the Regular Army was stationed along the Canadian border in the east. pl

  36. different clue says:

    When you get your different and more secure Internet, will there be a way for ordinary British and American citizens to wire themselves into it so as to reduce the level of digital spying currently waged against us on our current Internet system?

  37. mbrenner says:

    A few straightforward points.
    1. There is no major external threat to the United States or to its core interests.
    2. The United States has been spending vast sums (trillions)on its pointless wars, oversized military establishment, and hugely oversized intelligence establishment.
    3, Simultaneously, the United States has been inflicting very serious damage on itself through its domestic and external actions. Some of that is financial in nature (see 2 above).
    4. None of this is addressed in a serious way in the MSM or the almost-MSM
    5. All of this is irrational bordering on madness

  38. FB Ali says:

    States have always sought an advantage in their dealings with other countries (whether friend, rival or foe) by seeking ‘inside’ information. Because such raw product was limited in both quantity and quality, it was just one factor considered by the strategic and political analysts who supported the decision-makers.
    The vast increase in the quantity of raw intelligence now possible using technological means only marginally improves its quality. The quantity itself dilutes the significance of individual items, while the occasional ‘gem’ is compromised by the ever-present possibility of deliberate deception. The conclusions to be drawn are now much more heavily dependent on the intelligence analysts, and their quality. The potential for error is considerable, whether caused by the limitations of the analysts, or deliberately introduced bias (Iraq’s WMD are only one example).
    These limitations ensure that intelligence is still just one of the many inputs that goes into the strategic/political analysis, despite the inflated expectations of intelligence honchos. It probably plays a smaller part in the conclusions drawn than the influence of open source information and analysis.
    These considerations provide a sound basis for a realistic cost-benefit analysis of the intelligence-gathering effort. There is the not inconsequential money cost in these straitened times, and there is the other potential cost if the operation goes wrong or is exposed. It is all very well to say that Merkel and others must have known they were being bugged. It is one thing to have your security people occasionally remind you that this may be happening, it is quite another to have your face publicly rubbed into it in this fashion. It would be unrealistic to expect that this will not have an impact on attitudes, both of the leaders and, even more so, of their publics.
    Were the effort and its results worth all this?

  39. turcopolier says:

    FB Ali
    The only new thing here is Snowden. There will be no serious repercussions, Yes, over the decades it has been worth it. Canada? You should ask your government what their cooperation and agreements are with the US. pl

  40. turcopolier says:

    I agree that the IC is too big but overseas SIGINT is only partly about adversaries. It is a normal tool of statecraft. pl

  41. turcopolier says:

    It appears that you wish to return to an imagined world in which Secretary Stimson could say in the 20s that “gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” This was on the occasion of Stimson forbidding the US State Department to further participate in SIGINT (cryptology). Fortunately the army and the navy did not follow his example. pl

  42. FB Ali says:

    Col Lang,
    Snowden or his like are part of the equation. The modern technology that allows all this massive data collection also enables the odd operative to perform massive leaks. There will always be people inside the organization who are repelled enough by what it is doing to take the risks involved.
    I continue to doubt that intelligence has led to changes in policy that other strategic/political analysis would not have caused anyway often enough to justify the cost of all this massive effort (including the negative costs).
    I am not as sanguine as you about repercussions. There is already a growing revulsion among ordinary people everywhere against the ‘perpetual war state’, of which this intelligence gathering is just an aspect. These disclosures will feed into this sentiment.
    Many Canadians believe their government acts as a lackey of the US in these matters.

  43. turcopolier says:

    FB Ali
    This has nothing to do with the “perpetual war state.” It is ordinary statecraft. I too, oppose the continuation of the AUMF. pl pl

  44. mbrenner says:

    No. It is a matter of proportion. There is no threat out that that can do us grievous harm, so why waste trillions on this massive collection of intelligence trash irrelevant to the very minor threat that does exist – apart from the manifest fact that no one even can process it.
    I have yet to see from the current intelligence community, and its associates, any reasonable justification for what we are doing worthy of the name – or worthy of debate

  45. turcopolier says:

    One more time, you think this is about adversaries. It is not. pl

  46. turcopolier says:

    I am unimpressed by your anti-colonial angst. Did you ever do anything yourself that was not just bullshit? pl

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