Video: The brave new world of spying

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/20/2005 7:46:47 PM ET 2005-12-21T00:46:47

In Yemen in November 2002, a U.S. spy satellite picked up a cell phone call from a passenger in the front seat of a car on a remote road. The phone number triggered a National Security Agency (NSA) computer in Fort Meade, Md. The man's voice didn’t match any known terrorist.

But then another man was heard, talking from the back seat. The NSA quickly identified him as Abu Ali al-Harithi — wanted for the bombing of the USS Cole two years earlier. The CIA ordered a missile strike from an unmanned predator aircraft. Everyone in the car was killed.

"It shows how just somebody riding in the back seat of a car in a remote part of a remote desert, and somebody sitting at a desk at NSA could actually hear their voice and take action immediately," says electronic intelligence expert James Bamford, the author of the book “The Puzzle Palace: A Report on NSA, America's Most Secret Agency.”

In fact, NSA spying now goes far beyond wiretapping phones with a pair of alligator clips, or intercepting e-mails — and for good reason, as President Bush explained in his Monday news conference, saying, "People are changing phone numbers and phone calls and they're moving quick and we've got to be able to detect and prevent."

More than 50 years ago, the U.S. dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall to tap into Soviet bloc communications, to capture what spies called back then "information in motion."

"Today one of the key aspects of NSA is what they call 'information at rest,' this is information in databases," says Bamford.

Now, former officials say the NSA can use the Internet to:

  • Plant viruses in people's hard drives.
  • Download the contents of laptops.
  • Bug keyboards to intercept messages before they're encrypted.
  • Track people's whereabouts through their cell phones.
  • Use satellites in space, giant parabolic dishes on the ground and electronic bugs under the sea to spy on every kind of communication all over the world.

In this brave new world of electronic spying, NSA computers are collecting billions of pieces of information every day. The problem is picking the electronic needle out of the electronic haystack. That still requires old-fashioned analysis — by human beings.

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