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interview: rich disabatino

How come we didn't have a prior warning -- at least from all the electronic eavesdropping that we do, and on someone like bin Laden, who was obviously a target of our intelligence agencies?

Bin Laden as a target is an extreme target. It's very hard to do. And one of the reasons is because of the technology that's involved. Bin Laden's group has notoriously used scramblers, Internet encryption, fiber optics; and it's been very hard for us to intercept that type of transmission. ...

Now wait a second. I thought we were able to take this stuff out of the sky, let's say, and not only listen to it and record it, but we have computers that can decrypt it.

Well, we are probably one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world. However, we have a long way to go, especially with a new threat such as sophisticated targets, such as bin Laden. For instance, we can receive information and it could be processed automatically on keyword recognition. However, if that information was scrambled or encrypted, you would not be able to even hear the keyword until it was processed in the clear.

Let me take you through this for a minute. He makes a phone call or a bunch of people in Afghanistan are making a phone call. We can collect that, right?

That's correct. If it's being transmitted in the airwaves, we could collect that.

about rich disabatino

Rich DiSabatino is the director of Intelligence Support Group Ltd., a private company providing electronic intelligence training, support, and equipment to government, military, and law enforcement agencies within the U.S. and approved foreign countries. Here, he warns of the limitations of electronic intelligence, arguing that it can only augment human intelligence, not replace it. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.

So can't we just listen to it at that point?

No, at that point, it would have to be decoded. For instance, if it was a digital phone, it would come across in digital process. In intelligence gathering, that information is recorded and then processed at a later date.

So it's not done usually in real time?

Not unless it's an active surveillance. Usually there's such an amount of information that's being gathered that it has to be processed at a later time, post-processed.

So in bin Laden's case, are we doing it by satellite? Are we doing it by putting wires on telephone lines? How are we collecting this information?

I would imagine in bin Laden's case, because it was [in] a rural area that he's operating, that there's not going to be any physical hardwire interception or hardwire taps. The interception would come through the airwaves, whether it be microwave or satellite or different forms of airwave communication.

And how do we do that?

That could be handled in several manners. Usually information is received from a plane. ...

Like the one we had that was off of China?

That's correct. That's picking up a variety of [radio frequency] signals, whether it be low-wattage cell phone transmissions or microwave transmissions.

And in bin Laden's case, these are going to be encrypted? These are going to be sort of scrambled, encrypted signals?

The signals that the [plane] would pick up would be encrypted. First of all, they would normally be digital, where they would have their own type of digitizing and have to be cleared into analog so we could understand it. But above that, they would be encrypted, and they would have to be decoded.

I thought we could do that.

We can do that. We can decode encrypted conversations. The problem that comes into effect is the amount of time it takes for us to do that and the amount of manpower.

Can we use voice recognition? ... Can we actually pick up somebody's voice out of all of these conversations? Can we actually do that in this case?

Absolutely, we could use voice recognition or keyword recognition; however, it has to be in the clear before we can recognize it. In other words, if the transmission was to be made in an encrypted mode, it would have to be decrypted before we could even have the ability to use another program such as voice recognition. ...

If he's encrypting what he is transmitting -- and let's assume that he's using a different means of transmission, in other words a different phone, different ESN number, phone number, a different type of device each time -- then we do not know [whether] particular data belongs to bin Laden or belongs to the target. Therefore, it's a lengthier process. It'll take more time to physically go through and find the data that we need to decrypt.

And that means somebody has to actually sit there and listen.

That's correct. It takes a lot more of human intelligence processing when you're dealing with encrypted matter. Theoretically, a computer could go through anything that is not in the audio range and is in a encrypted mode; however, if you have more than one target using encryption at the same time, it becomes much more complicated. ...

That's the part of it that's sort of surprising to me, because I think of these giant supercomputers, and supposedly they can go through all of this stuff in a microsecond and pull out someone's voice and lay it out there and tell us in real time what's going on. Or there's a keyword system that alerts us to someone saying "bomb" or "bin Laden." That's not happening? Is that a myth?

No, no, no. [We are] technologically capable of doing that. However, how many supercomputers do we have to do this? Once again, we have to gear up for this. This is something that has to be our main focus, and with the technology and the new equipment to process this information much faster.

Is it just the technology? Or is it the fact that there's a huge volume of traffic out there to deal with?

It's like the fire-hose effect. There's a huge volume of traffic, and that volume all has to be processed. When we're looking at a non-visible target, such as terrorists, we don't know which piece of information or where to target to look for that information. Therefore, the volume of information that we have to take in is extraordinary. ...

So we're stuck at a certain level of technological ability to get a piece of this done quickly, but not all of it? And that explains how they were able to probably coordinate and operate without us being able to figure out in advance what they're up to.

Especially when they weren't the concentrated target. In other words, we were focusing on many targets throughout the world. If we concentrated all our efforts onto one particular target, we could devote more time. We could devote more manpower. But what we have to do with these upcoming global issues and problems we have is that we're going to have to be much more spread out, and to handle a large variety of problems. ...

So it's not surprising to you that, despite all of our electronic eavesdropping, we didn't have anything to lead us to believe that something was going on.

No, not at all. The advanced notice is not surprising, because of the amount of time that it would take to decode, the amount of time and manpower and budget requirements that it would take to do this on all the targets throughout the country; actually, throughout the world.

It sounds like, to do encryption, you need an encrypted phone as the sender and another decrypting phone as the receiver. That makes it a little bit more difficult to keep that going on, if you're in Afghanistan and somebody else is in Vero Beach, Fl.

Not necessarily. The way that could be handled is that you would have an encryption device on your phone. There would be a central location where you would dial into a central location that could be any place in the world. At that location, it will decode the conversation and put it onto a clear line that will redial out to whoever you want to speak to.

So if, for example, our intelligence agencies are trying to figure out what phone he's on, they might not be able, in real time, to intercept whatever the conversation is.

That's correct. And especially today, with the ability to do call-forwarding, the ability to put add-on computer boxes that allow call-forwarding. We would not be able to have an exact location.

And the kind of coordination that went on here, the kinds of communication over apparently a long period of time that went on here -- they appeared to be able to keep that out of our web of antennas and listening devices. They're that sophisticated?

It's an extremely sophisticated group. They have been trained both here in the states and abroad. They've been trained in some of the institutes and colleges throughout the world, engineering backgrounds, scientist backgrounds.

You mean there are people in these organizations who have been trained with our latest electronic capabilities?

That's correct. There are many people that have been trained here in the States as engineers [who can] understand encryption and decrypting. ...

I would imagine there is a lot of, if you will, gnashing of teeth and hair-pulling going on after Sept. 11.

With such an incident as the Sept. 11 incident, whenever you have multiple intelligence agencies and you have Congress looking at who should be at fault, I think there would be a lot of hair-pulling going on.

But they didn't know, right? I mean, we were collecting all of the stuff in the air, apparently. We were watching. But you're saying that because of the level of encryption, it was impossible really to figure out what was going on.

Because of the level of sophistication, it was impossible to figure out what was going on in a real-time mode, in a mode that would have given us the proper warning for the constraints that were on our intelligence agency at the time.

And it's not surprising to you?

Absolutely not. Absolutely not, because, once again, of the level of sophistication. ...

We have a language problem as well, right? There aren't that many people who speak Arabic who are in this business.

Right. The language barrier is another problem. The information has to be taken, and it is transported to a translation area that would have to translate this. ...

So I understand the process then. If it was Afghanistan and they're looking for bin Laden and his network and their communications, they're really dependent upon actual airplanes. Satellites aren't that useful, unless he's using a SAT phone or something like that. Is that right?

Satellites are not as useful as an aircraft flying above in the airspace. The amount of power that's being used in some of the transmitting devices, the satellite isn't readily able to intercept. ...

So that helps explain possibly how we missed Sept. 11.

The mere fact that there's so much information coming out and the means of sophistication is what added to us missing electronically what happened on Sept. 11. ...

The technology that's generally available in the world is so involved that we can't really do what a lot of people out there think we can do with it? That we can take it apart easily?

We can take it apart. We can intercept. We can get the conversations. However, with the restraints that we have set upon us, we can't do it fast enough.

The restraints are money and manpower?

The first two that come to mind is money and manpower. ...

They call it human intelligence. We don't have enough people who have infiltrated these operations to give someone like you, for example, direction on where to look.

At one point in time, we thought that electronic intelligence was going to replace human intelligence. I think we're seeing right now that you can never replace human intelligence. Electronic intelligence will only augment it. ...

The fact is, a lot of the data that has been recorded is probably now being decrypted and listened to in an attempt to find out whether there was anything out there that we missed.

After a situation like Sept. 11, the normal procedure would be to go back over all the data, decrypt it, decode it, and find out what did we miss-- and do that in a faster manner. Right now, we have to look forward and come out with faster means of gathering intelligence, gathering electronic intelligence and processing it. ...

Let me take you back in time -- 1995. Some people came to see you from Afghanistan?

That's correct. That is correct. There were people from Afghanistan who told us they were representing the Afghanistan government and the freedom movement.

Meaning the Taliban?

Meaning the Taliban.

And they came to your offices in Los Angeles?

That's correct.

What did they want?

They were looking for direction-finding equipment to help themselves with their internal civil war, as they told us.

Direction-finding equipment to find the enemy or someone who's on a phone somewhere, or a radio?

Direction-finding equipment to source out other communications, and find a bearing to see just where they were communicating from. They also had an interest in encryption equipment.

And they were sophisticated?

Extremely sophisticated. The people that we spoke to had engineering degrees. I was told that one of the fellows that we spoke with actually worked for NASA at one point in time, while he was going to college here in the states.

Where were they operating out of?

Amazingly enough, they did have an office in Los Angeles, and they were operating out of a plumbing company.

What do you mean, "a plumbing company"?

They owned a plumbing supply store, like a hardware plumbing store.

So you're telling me that the Taliban had a plumbing supply store in Los Angeles that they were using to acquire encryption equipment, direction-finding equipment, and electronic expertise? State of the art?

What they had was a front company that was a plumbing store. They would go out and source out whatever equipment that they needed back in Afghanistan, from electronic equipment to security equipment, uniforms, blankets, what-have-you. They came to our office looking for such direction-finding equipment, and we went to their office, which was a plumbing supply.

With a little dust on the parts? I mean ...

Well, it was a plumbing supply that did not have a lot of activity. In fact, we even doubted who they were at the time, until we received phone calls from Afghanistan inviting us out to the country.

This is when the Taliban were nominally our allies on some level, or ...

At that point in time, the Taliban and that Afghanistan movement was looked at as an ally to the United States. This is in 1995-1996. Shortly thereafter, they were not looked at as an ally. ...

You were told by somebody not to sell them anything. Is that basically what happened?

Our company is restricted on what we can sell by the Department of State. Certain sophisticated equipment we would not be able to sell at all, which we didn't. General equipment, they were allowed to purchase.

Did they get the sophisticated equipment?

We did not supply them with any sophisticated equipment. We were under the impression that they were sourcing it out.

What do you mean "under the impression"?

We were told by members of their movement that they were sourcing out equipment from different countries, like Australia, United Kingdom, and Israel.

So it's no surprise to you that the Taliban, or Osama bin Laden's network, would have state-of-the-art encryption equipment so they could communicate and coordinate without being overheard?

Not at all. Given the sophistication and the degree of sophistication of their engineers, of the people behind them -- within their own movement -- it doesn't surprise me in the least. They are internationally savvy. They know how to shop. They know where to go. And they know what they want.

And apparently, they got it.

Very much so.

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