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The failure of American intelligence

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On Feb. 7, 2001, CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee Osama bin Laden was the "most immediate and serious threat." His prediction became grimly true Sept. 11. America's multibillion-dollar intelligence system has failed, and failed badly. There are no quick solutions.

Mr. bin Laden already has been subjected to the most intensive electronic manhunt in history. With an annual budget of $26.7 billion, American intelligence services are the best funded and equipped in the world. What happened?

It is not as if American intelligence had not picked up whispers that something was afoot. On Sept. 13, the daily German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that American and Israeli intelligence agencies received warnings more than three months ago that Mideast terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft. The newspaper quoted anonymous German intelligence sources that America's Echelon network was collecting information about terrorist threats.

The National Security Agency's (NSA) fabled Echelon system is the key weapon in the US fight against terrorism. A global network of satellites and ground-based listening posts constantly feeds streams of intercepted telephone, e-mail, fax, microwave, and cellular telephone transmissions into banks of NSA computers equipped with "dictionary" search algorithms to sort items of interest. Echelon's interception abilities are estimated by the European Parliament at 3 million messages per minute.

The system is constricted by a number of factors. Fiber-optic communication cables must be directly tapped. Easily available encryption algorithms slow Echelon's supercomputers' ability to decode encrypted messages.

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