Author Patrick Keefe LAW ’05 is an expert in government eavesdropping.
Keefe, who researches the clandestine world surveillance network Echelon, divulged some of his secrets at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Thursday, when he discussed his new book “Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping.” The writer described his discoveries regarding the far-reaching presence of the National Security Agency and shared details about government spying methods with the approximately 40 students in attendance.
The author spoke to the current U.S. intelligence framework and outlined the structure of Echelon — the secretive five-nation global reconnaissance organization that allegedly includes the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
“Eavesdropping is nearly impossible to detect,” Keefe said. “You’ll almost never find a smoking gun.”
Keefe said his book mostly addresses the large amounts of wasted time and resources lost in obtaining intelligence. Because of the magnitude of material that must be filtered to find valuable information, he said, a search can become a “fool’s errand.”
Every three hours, the NSA collects enough information to fill the entire Library of Congress, Keefe said, and terrorists can take advantage of the overwhelming nature of that data.
“A million phone calls can be narrowed down to 1,500 significant ones almost immediately, but to go from there is difficult,” he said. “One of the scariest things imaginable is that [terrorists] know that we’re listening and can set up deliberate red herrings, which is the traditional form of terrorism.”
Weaknesses in U.S. intelligence can be attributed to a short-handed staff and too great a focus on exorbitant technology spending rather than human resources such as linguists, Keefe said.
Keefe described his attempts to walk onto isolated NSA “listening” center sites in uninhabited countryside locations. His plans were foiled once, he said, when he realized the particular center he had chosen was surrounded by an army firing range. At another NSA base in Rosemond, N.C., Keefe said he discovered a gigantic “smiley face” on a satellite dish. He said he later discovered that the face was drawn in by NSA officials to greet Soviets taking satellite pictures of the base during the Cold War.
While some of these secrets were less than critical national security issues, it was often difficult to get NSA officials to talk about any of their activities, Keefe said.
“I’ve found an inverse relationship between how much someone knows and how much they’ll be willing to tell you, unless they’ve got an ax to grind,” he said.
Keefe said Echelon nation members typically set up surveillance bases in countries not affiliated with the surveillance network.
“Most countries don’t complain about American bases on their soil because they expect to get some of that information in exchange,” he said.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1999 with a degree in history, Keefe studied at Cambridge University before entering the Yale Law School. He said his time in England made him realize how much the press in the United States overlooks the issue of global surveillance. This missing information, coupled with the failure of U.S. intelligence to interpret terrorist messages before September 11, is what led Keefe to research listening centers and eventually write his book, he said.
Some students said they thought Keefe’s talk was enlightening and raised awareness about important issues of national security.
“I found it disconcerting and highly troubling to hear that our intelligence is diffused and not centralized like it should be,” Elizabeth Friedman ’08 said.
Others said Keefe’s discussion was too cynical and did not offer constructive ideas to address concerns he raised about intelligence.
“He talked about a fascinating topic with a discouraging tone,” Minh Tran ’09 said. “It was like, ‘here’s the problem, but we won’t have the solution in the near future.'”
Keefe said he is currently writing a series of articles on global crime, focusing on money and light arms smuggling and human trafficking. But after he finishes that project, Keefe said, he plans to find a more permanent job.
“It sounds incredibly boring, but I’m going to work for a law firm,” he said.