How does our government eavesdrop? Whom do they eavesdrop on? And is the interception of communication an effective means of predicting and preventing future attacks? These are some of the questions at the heart of Patrick Radden Keefe’s brilliant new book, Chatter.
In the late 1990s, when Keefe was a graduate student in England, he heard stories about an eavesdropping network led by the United States that spanned the planet. The system, known as Echelon, allowed America and its allies to intercept the private phone calls and e-mails of civilians and governments around the world. Taking the mystery of Echelon as his point of departure, Keefe explores the nature and context of communications interception, drawing together fascinating strands of history, fresh investigative reporting, and riveting, eye-opening anecdotes. The result is a bold and distinctive book, part detective story, part travel-writing, part essay on paranoia and secrecy in a digital age.
Chatter starts out at Menwith Hill, a secret eavesdropping station covered in mysterious, gargantuan golf balls, in England’s Yorkshire moors. From there, the narrative moves quickly to another American spy station hidden in the Australian outback; from the intelligence bureaucracy in Washington to the European Parliament in Brussels; from an abandoned National Security Agency base in the mountains of North Carolina to the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
As Keefe chases down the truth of contemporary surveillance by intelligence agencies, he unearths reams of little-known information and introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of unforgettable characters. We meet a former British eavesdropper who now listens in on the United States Air Force for sport; an intelligence translator who risked prison to reveal an American operation to spy on the United Nations Security Council; a former member of the Senate committee on intelligence who says that oversight is so bad, a lot of senators only sit on the committee for the travel.
Provocative, often funny, and alarming without being alarmist, Chatter is a journey through a bizarre and shadowy world with vast implications for our security as well as our privacy. It is also the debut of a major new voice in nonfiction.
The secret global information network that has come together under the umbrella name "Echelon" is detailed here by Yale Law student Keefe. While Great Britain led the way in the mid-'70s, Keefe marks the U.S., Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore and many others as current participants, taking satellite pictures from 10 miles up, sending submarines to hover silently and aiming portable laser devices to pick up conversations inside rooms. All the technologies are impressive, but the burgeoning mountain of data they produce, Keefe argues, does not always prove useful. Likewise, he illustrates how compact electronics can give the opposition a large ability to deceive the Echelon network, and/or to modify their behavior when they detect that they are under surveillance. Ultimately, Keefe makes a case that electronics have not solved the ancient dilemma of deciphering the enemy's intentions (what he is actually planning) from his capabilities (all the things he could choose to do). To prove his point, Keefe cites the mass of rumor and innuendo that failed to give specific warning of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole as well as Colin Powell's U.N. proclamation that Iraq possessed nerve gas. And, Keefe says, ordinary citizens pay a substantial cost in presumed privacy, as well as in potential for abuses of confidential data. Intelligent and polemical, Keefe's study is sure to spark some political chatter of its own.