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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
US losing hi-tech spying race
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By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

The United States is lagging behind in the technology to spy on its enemies, endangering the country's security, a Senate report has warned.

It says that a critical spying organisation, the National Security Agency, has been slow to adapt to the hi-tech challenges of the 21st century.

"The National Security Agency is America's most important asset for technical collection of terrorism information, yet it is losing its capability to target and exploit the modern communications systems used by terrorists, seriously weakening the NSA's ability to warn of possible attacks," said report by the Senate Committee on Intelligence.

The chances are they [terrorists] will be using laptop computers, sophisticated encryption, and weaponry their predecessors could not even have imagined

Senate report
The report, which covers intelligence activities during the 1999-2000 congressional session, suggests more funding has already been allocated to improving the technology available to the intelligence services.

But even with the extra spending, the Committee said the National Security Agency was failing to keep pace with revolutionary developments in global telecommunications.

Eavesdropping on the world

The NSA eavesdrops on communications across the world, be they radio transmissions phone, fax or e-mail, in order to detect threats against US citizens.

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In the past, the NSA's main adversary was the Soviet Union, so it had no problem keeping pace with a technologically inferior nation.

But now, it faces opponents who are just as advanced, if not more, than the USA.

"Today we must still deal with terrorists, insurgents, and others who have hundreds of years of history fueling their cases. But the chances are they will be using laptop computers, sophisticated encryption, and weaponry their predecessors could not even have imagined," said the report.

In February, the head of the NSA openly admitted his organisation was "behind the curve in keeping up with the global telecommunications revolution".

General Mike Hayden said the US had been unable to prevent an attack on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 because of that gap.

Rare insight

The report, released earlier this month, provides a rare insight into one of America's most secretive intelligence agencies.

Even the intelligence budget is classified, although experts estimate amounts to $30 billion annually.

The Committee is concerned by the impact of widespread encryption on the NSA's ability to collect signals intelligence on threats to US interests

Senate report
The Senate committee said funds had to be switched from short-term goals to building an intelligence agency that met the challenge of the 21st century.

"The Committee concluded the crisis demanded immediate attention and warranted shifting resources in order to stave off a steady and inevitable degradation of the NSA's unique and invaluable capabilities."

"Failure to do so will irreversibly undermine the NSA and its ability to perform in a transformed global information technology arena," said the Committee.

The report suggests the future of counter intelligence may not lie with spies but with hi-tech ways of collecting information, called measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT).

"MASINT can significantly strengthen collection against many emerging threats, and potentially become the intelligence community's most valuable source of technical intelligence in the 21st century," it said.

MASINT involves gathering spectroradiometric, electro-optical, acoustic or other types of data which can then be interpreted.

Decoding information

One area of concern for the US how the rise of encryption could undermine efforts to spy on suspected terrorists.

"In the last two decades the growing use of computers, computer networks, the internet cellular telephones and other telecommunications technologies has increased the demand for encryption," said the senators.

"The Committee is concerned by the impact of widespread encryption on the NSA's ability to collect signals intelligence on threats to US interests, and on the ability of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to conduct their counter terrorist, counterintelligence, and law enforcement missions."

Another danger highlighted by the report were efforts by foreign nations to conceal, or mislead the US about activities such as military deployments or the development of weapons of mass destruction

The Committee said it was "deeply concerned" about so-called denial and deception efforts, saying it had increased funding in this area.

See also:

12 Feb 01 | Americas
US spies 'losing technology race'
20 Dec 00 | South Asia
Who is Osama bin Laden?
29 May 01 | Americas
How the US became a target
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