Early in the fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq, the National Security Agency was blindsided by enemy fighters’ frequent use of rudimentary wireless communications devices known as “high–powered cordless phones,” according to documents among 263 published today by The Intercept.
The documents, drawn from the agency’s internal news site, SIDtoday, and provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, date mostly to the latter half of 2003, and show the NSA was at the time rapidly expanding its internet monitoring. But even as its digital surveillance grew more sophisticated, the agency saw its targets increasingly adopting crude forms of communications like shortwave radio, SMS cellphone messaging and, most vexingly, high-powered cordless phones. The “poor man’s cell phones,” as the cordless devices were called, spread through Afghan borderlands and along Iraqi roadsides. Meanwhile, the NSA was scrambling to fill what one SIDtoday article referred to as an “intelligence gap” around the devices. The agency assembled more than 500 people at Fort Meade, including foreign intelligence partners and contractors, in order to understand, and plan how to crack into, a type of communication “increasing exponentially worldwide,” as an internal bulletin put it.
The NSA’s scramble to monitor cordless phones helps illustrate how the agency, despite its best efforts to predict the future, can end up blindsided. Just as the military after the Cold War continued to buy sophisticated weapons for use against conventional forces, leaving it poorly prepared for guerilla warfare, so too did the NSA’s state-of-the-art mass internet surveillance leave it unprepared for enemies in rural areas with crude radios.