January 16, 2012

Someone went up to Ft. Meade around 1965


Memories of a signals employee from 1965

Listening for a Sound That Won't Be There

by Jamie Fraser-Paige
by Jamie Fraser-Paige
Once upon a time we fought a war in Southeast Asia, a war we pretty much lost, no matter what Nixon said. Let's not get into the whole set of lies and half-truths that got us into that war. Nor the lies that kept us there or the lives thrown away and the patriotism squandered. All on an unwinnable war far from our shores whose end result was a peace that we could have had thirty years before. I mention the war only to provide context for a small glimpse into how we fought that war in the intelligence arena and why so much of today looks so very, very familiar to me.

I was drafted in September of 1965, one of the 50 thousand that Johnson requested to escalate the war in Vietnam. I didn't have any strong feelings one way or another about the war. I wanted to believe that we were doing something good and noble over there. Call me naïve, I probably was. I grew up reading about World War Two and watched Korea unfold on the screens of the local movie houses in the newsreels – I'm of the last generation so privileged. I felt it was my duty to serve my country when asked. I admired the writing of Robert Heinlein and found the premise of granting suffrage only to veterans that he put forth in Starship Troopers to make some degree of sense.

When I went down for my induction, I opted to enlist, choosing the Army Security Agency as my branch. I made this choice because my cousin had been in the ASA and several of my other friends had served either in that branch or in the Air Force equivalent. I had a facility for language and was fascinated with the world of intelligence. Blame Ian Fleming and Graham Greene for that. I tested well, too well in fact to be trained in any of the languages I really wanted like German (which I'd studied along with Spanish in High School) Russian, Czech, Hungarian and so forth. I scored in the top one percent on the Army Language Aptitude Test, the ALAT. I was doomed to be sent to learn an Asian language. Even that might have been alright. Chinese, Korean, Japanese – Japanese, especially since I liked the culture and had some family history in the area. But no. The Army had other ideas.

I was selected to be trained as a Lao linguist and area analyst. I spent thirty-nine weeks in the Foreign Service Institute – or rather in a contract class taught in some anonymous high-rise in Alexandria, VA – on civilian status learning the language of Laos, a language spoken by only about six million people. I did reasonably well, spending six hours in class each day and an additional two to four in the language lab working with tapes. My classmates and I spoke Lao among ourselves, sitting in bars and clubs in the District and being enigmatic.

I went up to Ft. Meade, assigned to the ASA unit located just outside the grounds of the NSA headquarters known as the Puzzle Palace, America's codebreakers. America's eavesdroppers, phone tappers, cable interceptors. It's called Signal Intelligence – SigInt – and it was considered a very important part of our defense against the great enemy against whom we were struggling, World Communism. I learned my trade there under a very informal Navy Chief Petty Officer who insisted we all call him "Bob." It was anything but glamorous, but you knew that, right? Intelligence is mostly a lot of drudgery unless you're a field agent and even then there's more paperwork than anything else. For that matter, that's true of a lot of jobs that people who don't do them consider exciting and glamorous. Like being a cop. I've done that, too, for that matter.

While I was at NSA, assigned to the Southeast Asia desk, clipping newspaper articles that mentioned my unit's target, the Lao Neutralist Army of Kong Le, there was a major flap in the Royal Lao Air Force. I was at my desk, going through the day's papers when I came across a front-page story about an attempted coup in Laos. At dawn of 22 October 1966, under the command of General Thao Ma, commander of the Tactical Air Force, eight RLAF T-28s set out to strike different targets in Vientiane. I was about to call my boss when some of the upstairs brass strode into the area demanding to know why they had to learn about something like this in the morning's paper.

Since it was my desk they seemed to be gathering at, I attempted to answer. I said that, in all probability the coup attempt – Ma's second in a little over a year – had been a closely held operation with radio silence maintained. Since we had no real assets on the ground and no penetration of the Lao military, there was no way for us to know until it was fait accompli. They wanted to know how a Reuter’s correspondent had gotten the story so quickly and I told him that he was probably standing around the air field when the planes took off from Luang Prabang where he and his most loyal pilots had essentially been exiled. He'd seen the direction of flight – toward Vientiane, not Vietnam – and followed up. "How did he get this information and how could he follow up so quickly?" they asked. "Well," I replied, "they probably pay him a pretty good bonus for scoops like this." They were not amused.

People were not all that amused with General Ma, either. His sortie attacked two ammunition depots and the main command of the armed forces along with the homes of several Generals. Thirty-six people died on the ground and dozens more were wounded. Then the American and British Ambassadors interfered and forced the general to give up. He and 12 of his pilots then fled to Thailand, where – after several months in prison – all were granted political asylum. The T-28s were repainted with the Royal Thai Air Force markings and flew missions in support of various secret wars in the area.
Now, the relevance of this to the present situation is this: We have come to rely heavily on technology. We can eavesdrop on just about anyone, anywhere at any time. We have super computers and thousands of specialists in a variety of fields who can take any piece of Electronic Intelligence and process it, mine it for every bit of information and then make pretty good guesses as to what it means. But the best way to foil us is to use low tech. Meet face to face. Plan the operation before you start, meeting in small cells with little chance of penetration and then carrying out the mission with no further discussion outside that cell. No phone calls, no radio transmission, no email, nothing that requires technology or lends itself easily to technological interception.

The concern currently over the illegal use of no-warrant intercepts of domestic conversations is certainly valid, but it's not the first time we've done something like this. In theory, NSA must have a warrant. Of course, the CIA isn't supposed to operate domestically either, but they do. The practical ex-spook, ex-cop some days yearns for the freedom to use any means necessary to do the job. There's been an internal struggle for years with the two sides of my personality and the civil libertarian always wins, damn his eyes. In my opinion, no amount of wiretaps, radio intercepts, fancy programs to sift among the millions of transmissions of all kinds, analog, digital or any combination legal or illegal will prevent or even warn us of the next terrorist attack if they are following good practice. That's the really sad part. And it makes you wonder – it certainly makes me wonder – if the Bush administration knows that. I think they do and that means that all of this is a ploy to be able to control the American people. And that's not how it is supposed to be. Well, I told you I was naïve.

February 14, 2006