Kevin O'Brian


Interview with dr. Kevin O'Brian, RAND Europe

by Stephen Cole

- We pose the question asking why a country with such resources [as the United States], and so much money spent on intelligence gathering couldn't foresee [the September 11 terrorist attack]. Is it an over-concentration on hard technology and a forgetfulness about the human element?

- I think there is an over-concentration at the moment. This has been so in the post-soviet post-cold-war world. The United States has always relied very heavily on the technology side of intelligence. They've recognized in the 1990-ies – particularly in the wake of the intervention in Somalia in he mid-1990-ies, but even more so in the post-august 1998 scenario after the bombing of the US embassies in Africa that their human intelligence capability is extremely limited and very threadbare at the moment.

- And what explanation is there for that?

- A lot of it is simply due to the post-cold war post-soviet world layoffs, cutbacks, etc. There was a strong belief after the collapse of the Soviet Union in between 1989 and 1991 that the human element would have less requirements – that there would be much more heavier requirements for the technology element.

-So the accountants said: Ok, we don't need as many people because we've got all the technology. That, in a nutshell, is it – isn't it?

- I would not say that it was so much a financial issue. I think that there was a stronger belief that in the future, technology would be, in a sense, the end-all – and that the human intelligence that had been used to penetrate the eastern and Soviet block intelligence services, as well as other services around the world, were going to be of less requirement. This has of course changed over the course of the 1990-ies.

- How hard or how easy is it to follow the electronic paper trail?

- It is relatively easy to follow the paper trail. It is much less easy to determine what is actually written on the page.  The electronic paper trail can be followed through any number of means: electronic communication, other types of electronic signatures, indeed, even things like satellites can be used for tracing of these types of communication.  However, actually being able to read what is written on the page is becoming increasingly difficult with the levels of encryption, and things like steganography, that are put into place, particularly by people who don't want states to know what they are doing.

- So where does the issue of the freedom of the net come in here?

- Freedom of the net means that, in a sense, anyone can use the net to communicate. As has been proven time and time again during the 1990-ies terrorist organizations, organized crime groups, etc. has used the Internet and its various means to communicate plans, arrangements, etc. They've even used it for controlling the flow of their finance, and even more so, to carry out various types of attacks.

- But there is no proof that this particular group of terrorists have used cryptography. Your reaction to that?

- Absolutely. The fact is, we've seen reports that they may have actually been spoofing or misdirecting intelligence services quite knowingly, and that they are aware of the fact that they could use the technology against the intelligence services by sending out false signals – by sending out false reports and rumours, by using technology such as mobile phone communications or Internet messages to actually misdirect the intelligence services' gaze away from their attacks.

- Are you of the same mind that just having new technology is not enough to beat terrorists – because some people thought that it might be?

- Absolutely not. The new technology can do things like help you trace their financial networks, perhaps be able to clamp down on their communications in terms of their signals, event attempt to follow their trail through just using the footprint of those signals – in other [words] to trace where they are. But the new technology is proving difficult in two senses. One is that the encryption technology now available publicly through public key infrastructure is much much more powerful than anything that the western intelligence services can crack at the speed they used to be able to crack during the cold war. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the technology can divert away from the actual activities. This is where the human intelligence comes back into the equation. But even using human intelligence sources and means to try and infiltrate those groups in order to gain intelligence on their activities can be extraordinary difficult.

- Do you think there will be a will by the American public to regulate more of the traffic on the Internet?

- I think, to a degree, that there would be. But the problem would then be raised of the issue of electronic commerce, being able to control and therefore secure the types of transactions that occur on the Internet every day not just in terms of consumers but also in terms of business to business transactions. If we allow for the greater control of individual citizens liberties in this sense, then we're opening up not just a debate over encryption, but we're opening up a whole civil liberties debate, which makes it a much wider scope than just this issue.

Broadcast: BBC World, ClickOnline,2001-09-22 14:30 MET