Taliban and al Qaeda operatives have become increasingly savvy on how to defeat U.S. communications intercepts, making it more difficult to stop attacks as the U.S. prepares to send up to 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
A senior intelligence source said there are reports that Iranian agents have been providing advice to the Taliban on how to conduct secure communications. The CIA declined to comment.
The source said the U.S. intelligence community is alarmed because avoiding detection has helped the Taliban conduct a series of ambushes on NATO supply convoys. The U.S. and Pakistan have been unable to pre-empt the attacks.
The enemy’s methods go beyond the long-standing practice of deploying messengers to convey directives from leaders to operatives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Osama bin Laden, for example, long ago stopped talking on phones or radios.
They now use multiple phones and dispose of them quickly. This way, the phone numbers collected by the National Security Agency, the U.S. eavesdropping service, become useless. They limit radio chatter to close-range, which makes the transmission more difficult for a ground or aerial receiver to scoop it up.
Basic equipment like a radio direction finder, which can hone in on hand-held radios, do not always work a rugged terrain like the tribal lands where mountains can block the receiver.
Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are now so aware every phone conversation may be monitored that they actually get on the line to taunt NSA interpreters who sit in relay centers to translate and distribute transcripts as quickly as possible.
"They love to get on our bands and taunt us and especially our interpreters," said the intelligence source.
In the war on terror, the NSA set up a network of such centers so an intercepted call can be transcribed and dispatched to joint teams in Afghanistan made up of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command.
Intercepts are perhaps the most important intelligence source for the Pakistan tribal areas, where al Qaeda and Taliban forces reorganized after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Pakistan limits the American footprint there to several hundred CIA operatives, some of whom are former military special operations forces. Members of Congress have complained that the CIA has done a poor job of recruiting spies in the tribal areas.
The chief U.S. weapon there are not troops or spies, but a small plane. The Predator drone has conducted over a dozen air strikes the past year against suspected terrorists there. Ground operations are left to the Pakistanis.
The Taliban’s best tactic may be patience. To make sure a planned operation remains secure, they will do all communication by time-consuming messenger.
"They have a patience we’ll never understand," said the intelligence source.
It is not difficult to figure out how the Taliban-al Qaeda axis knows so much about the NSA. Just look to Washington. For a full year, Congress and the White House debated the powers the president may exert in conducting warrantless wiretaps on suspected terrorists overseas.
During the debate, the public learned the U.S. monitors emails and phone calls worldwide, some of whose signals pass through switching stations in the U.S. before being re-routed.
A cell phone call in Pakistan to an al Qaeda operative in the same country passes through the U.S. Anyone reading stories on the debate instantly knew any call they made could be monitored, especially if the NSA had the phone number.
What’s more, in 2007 the Pakistan government announced that al Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud was behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. How did the government know? It said it intercepted a call from Mehsud to his followers. It even released the transcript — a piece of intelligence the NSA considers top secret.
All of this helps the enemy understand when and how to talk.
Said the U.S. intelligence source, "They have become far more disciplined in their use of communications in that they have achieved an understanding of our intercept and monitoring means and methods."