Saturday, August 18, 2007

Spooks, Gadgets, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" Part II

What really got me thinking about what the CIA and NSA can and can't get away with while I was watching "The Bourne Ultimatum" was the CIA's problems with the kidnapping of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr a/k/a Abu Omar in Italy. They succeeded in kidnapping him from an Italian street and whisking him to the Aviano Air Base, but it wasn't exactly a complete success. Apparently, the CIA isn't as spooky as we thought or would hope. Twenty-six Americans and five Italians have been indicted for the kidnapping or, as the CIA calls it, "extraordinary rendition." Their gadgets and technical prowess might also not be that sophisticated.

Italian prosecutors apparently tracked and identified the CIA agents involved via their use of cell phones. They were not tracked in real time. The prosecutors apparently identified cell phones that were responsible for unusually high traffic during and near the extraordinary rendition , and not all of these phones were registered to aliases. The phones were even used to call the CIA headquarters, the local CIA station chief, and the commander of Aviano. In the CIA's defense, they may have had the cooperation of Italian intelligence officials, and weren't trying to hide. Nevertheless, operations like this are potentially embarrassing to the U.S. and its allies and of questionable legality so why not take basic precautions? Why not use prepaid phones like every drug dealer, thug, and terrorist?

You would hope that the CIA has encrypted satellite phones for agents to use. There are also encrypted cell phones commercially available. Of course, encrypted cell phones might actually increase suspicion and make a covert operation even more obvious. After all, the Italians weren't eavesdropping on the CIA, they simply tracked the numbers called to and from each cell phone. Encrypted satellite phones would both prevent tracing through cell phone records and prevent eavesdropping. However, if they don't have them or if they're just looking for a lower tech solution, then prepaid cell phones would be the answer.

Imagine if the CIA had used prepaid phones exclusively in their efforts to grab Abu Omar. Just pay cash for the phones so they can't be traced to individuals. Other operatives could collect them in advance a few at a time so as to not arouse suspicion. The phones would best be purchased by agents not associated with the operation from all over the country or Europe, as this would make it even more difficult to connect related calls. This would make it harder to gather up retail store surveillance images to connect particular individuals to each phone. Perhaps several dummy retailers could be created to purchase the phones in bulk from a variety of companies wholesale. Each morning remove new phones from the shrink wrap, exchange numbers, and hit the streets At the end of the day, the phones go in the trash and the process begins again the next day. Now the Italians would have dozens of different numbers to trace and all of them would be dead ends. Every day calls from a new set of prepaid phones would create a new pattern of calls that would not match the previous days calls.

Better yet -- don't throw the phones away. Give them to passing teenagers, leave them on cafe' tables, leave them in the backseat of taxis, and other places where they're likely to be "stolen." Give some anonymously to charities . The point being to increase the number of calls and the geographic range of calls for each phone. This makes it even more unlikely that they could be ferreted out as part of a pattern. If a phone becomes identified with an operation under investigation, then the investigating authorities would be kept busy tracking down clueless teenagers and their friends. It seems one of the things the Italians looked for was phones with SIM cards that were no longer used within days of the kidnapping.

Speaking of SIM cards, perhaps the CIA could simply have a supply of prepaid SIM cards to swap in and out of the phones. A large number of SIM cards would be easier to hide than an equal number of phones. Dozens could be kept in a plastic baggie. Each time the SIM cards were changed, the phone would be identified by a different number. SIM cards could easily be flushed down toilets, tossed in storm drains, burned, cut up, and even swallowed.

Any phone or SIM used to call anyone associated with CIA headquarters, or other U.S. installations should be used once and discarded immediately. Likewise, any phone used to call any cooperative local official would be used once and then discarded. It might even be a good idea to make these calls from distant locations. Call someone on the other side of town, or another country or who is driving around in a car, and then have them relay the messages to the people you don't want connected with the operation using a completely different prepaid phone that is immediately discarded. If the person tracking you knows that you've called Langley or Aviano, then they'll know to track that phone number. A call to another anonymous cell phone in the city is unlikely to arouse suspicion. If the phone called from the suspect phone is not used to place the sensitive call but rather another prepaid phone, then the number called is a dead end. If the phone used to call U.S. or foreign officials is used once, the trail begins and ends with the one call. If the phone is then left somewhere to be stolen, then tracing calls from that number leads to a whole new set of false leads.

I doubt that the Italians could have pieced together the convoluted trail created by using dozens of prepaid phones or SIM cards for limited periods of time, and then allowing them to be "stolen" or redistributed.

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