Eavesdropping on a Planet in 'Chatter'
Patrick Radden Keefe is the author of Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping. For his book, Keefe researched the possibility that the United States has a planet-spanning surveillance network, known as Echelon. Keefe is a third-year student at Yale Law School and was a Marshall scholar and a 2003 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.
Other segments from the episode on March 14, 2005
DATE March 14, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Hugh Miles discusses his new book "Al-Jazeera: The
Inside of the Arab News Channel That is Challenging the West"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
With more than 50 million viewers, Al-Jazeera is the most popular news channel
in the Middle East and perhaps the most controversial news channel in the
world. As the first major alternative to the propaganda on state-controlled
TV stations, it represents a journalistic breakthrough, but its critics
consider the programming tainted by an anti-Semitic and anti-American bias.
Now Al-Jazeera is planning to launch an English-language version of its news
channel. Al-Jazeera is headquartered in Qatar, where it was founded nine
years ago by the emir, Sheikh Hamad.
My guest Hugh Miles is the author of the new book "Al-Jazeera." He's the son
of a British diplomat, spent much of his childhood in the Middle East and
studied Arabic at Oxford. He's written for the London Review of Books and
the Sunday Times of London. Miles first started watching Al-Jazeera during
the invasion of Iraq when he was working for Sky News in London, which, like,
FOX News, is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Miles' job was to monitor the Arab news
channels. To research his book, he went to Qatar, where he says he was given
full access to all but financial records. He says there are several things
that make Al-Jazeera unique and explain its popularity.
Mr. HUGH MILES (Author, "Al-Jazeera: The Inside of the Arab News Channel
That is Challenging the West"): Before Al-Jazeera arrived in 1996, the
quality of Arab television news was dire, absolutely dire. And there
was--there were several other channels offering news in Arabic, backed by
wealthy Arab princes or governments, but these news channels weren't
interested in providing a quality news service. They had other agendas,
serving the government, basically, which in practice meant much buffing of the
ruler's ego and those--lots of tedious national occasions and cutting of
ribbons and kissing of babies, completely vacuous. And Al-Jazeera just
dispelled all that.
And another important difference about Al-Jazeera is, when considering the
market that it's broadcasting to, many Arabs, especially Arab women, are
illiterate. And so television news is a primary source of how people find out
what's going on. In Iraq, for example, over 75 percent of Iraqi women, adult
women, are illiterate. And more than 50 percent of the Egyptians, which is
the most populous Arab country by far, are illiterate. So Al-Jazeera is
disproportionately important in how people understand the world around them.
GROSS: Did you feel that the concepts of fairness and accuracy were
consistent with how they're defined by Western media?
Mr. MILES: Certainly. I found that Al-Jazeera was absolutely fastidious in
presenting both sides of every story, even though arguably sometimes it's
better to present an opinionated point of view. But Al-Jazeera was meticulous
in trying live up to that slogan, the channel's slogan, which is `the opinion
and the other opinion,' so whatever they said, they would balance it with
the other side. Apart from anything else, they know that they're being
scrutinized by the world, and so they really try hard to present both sides of
the coin. But I...
GROSS: The--go ahead.
Mr. MILES: I'm sorry, I should just qualify that by saying that within
Al-Jazeera, it's very important to differentiate between the news, which is
created by Al-Jazeera's journalists and tends to be of an extremely high
standard--of course, sometimes they make mistakes, and there's no such thing
as objective truth and nobody's perfect. But they do, on the whole, a very
But then on the other hand, you have Al-Jazeera's talk shows. Now the talk
shows are what has made the channel famous in the Middle East, and those talk
shows feature guests, guests who are not employees of the station and who use
the opportunity on Al-Jazeera often to say extremely hateful things, quite
often very anti-American or anti-Semitic things. Now the question arises: At
what point must Al-Jazeera start taking responsibility for its guests? And
that is really not a very easy question to answer.
GROSS: Why not? Why shouldn't they take responsibility for not putting on
hate speech, for not putting on anti-Semitism?
Mr. MILES: Well, because the problem is that many people in the Arab world
hate America right now. They hate Israel. Now what do you do with these
people? Do you let them have--do you give them no voice at all? Do you
pretend they don't exist? I mean, when the studies and polls have shown that
a very, very high percentage of Arabs loathe America and would like to go to
war with Israel tomorrow, you can't pretend they don't exist. Al-Jazeera, in
many ways, holds up a mirror to the Arab world and it gives people an
opportunity to say things which everyone is feeling. That's not Al-Jazeera's
fault that people hate America. I mean, it's sad but true.
And the good news is that, in the future, if there was a change of American
policy in the Middle East, if there was a change of condition in various Arab
countries, then I think we could confidently expect to see that reflected on
Al-Jazeera's talk shows.
GROSS: Well, but you know, there's a difference between talking about policy
disagreement, how a country behaves as a country--there's a difference between
that and condemning all Jews or saying that, you know, Americans deserve to be
attacked by terrorists or that, you know, it's a good thing that people died
in the attacks on the World Trade Center. And there's a difference between
hatemongering and conspiracy theories...
Mr. MILES: Sure.
GROSS: ...and discussing policies that you disagree with...
Mr. MILES: Sure.
GROSS: ...or behavior that you disagree with.
Mr. MILES: I absolutely agree. And of course, it reaches a point where it's
incitement to racial hatred, where it's incitement to kill people. Now...
GROSS: Yes. Well, how much did you feel like it reached that point when you
were watching Al-Jazeera and when you were inside Al-Jazeera?
Mr. MILES: Extremely rarely, probably less often than it does on FOX News,
for example. And that's not just my opinion. That's also the opinion of the
British regulator, for example. Ofcomm has found FOX News in breach of
its code of broadcasting more often than it's found Al-Jazeera.
GROSS: What is the British regulator?
Mr. MILES: It's the same as the FCC.
GROSS: I see. OK.
Mr. MILES: It's the--sorry, I didn't make that clear. It's the independent
television regulator, which is a body designed to monitor the quality of
news. And it's consistently found more fault with FOX than it has with
GROSS: What were the criticisms of FOX?
Mr. MILES: The problem Ofcomm, the British regulator, had with FOX News
during the invasion of Iraq--well, firstly during the invasion of Afghanistan,
problems included waving the American flag, the Old Glory lapel pins which the
news readers were wearing, Geraldo Rivera brandishing a gun, using the pronoun
`we' interchangeably to describe FOX News and the American military. None of
this would be legal for a British broadcasting outfit. In Britain, the rules
are that it has to be fair and balanced, ironically. And so FOX could never
be broadcast from the UK to a British audience. It would certainly contravene
GROSS: So FOX is not carried by British cable?
Mr. MILES: FOX can be received by satellite in the UK. Now that--Ofcomm has
made a special exception for this because it understands that most British
people are not FOX's target audience because it's aimed at American expats.
Ofcomm has decided to make exception for FOX. But that hasn't stopped
Ofcomm coming down heavily on FOX on several occasions, not just for biased
reporting, but also for giving undue prominence to certain commercial products
in what was supposed to be a news item.
GROSS: My guest is Hugh Miles. He's the author of the new book "Al-Jazeera,"
which is about the Arab news channel, the controversial Arab news channel.
Before we talk more about why Al-Jazeera is so controversial, just get a
little bit of the channel's history. How did Al-Jazeera get started?
Mr. MILES: Al-Jazeera started in 1996 in Qatar, which is a tiny, tiny
gas-rich Gulf country between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It was funded and set up
by the emir of that country, a man called Sheikh Hamad. He set it up with
approximately $150 million of his own money. And he has been the godfather of
Al-Jazeera. He's consistently given it more money and given it political
protection. So that's how it came about.
GROSS: Why did he want to create it?
Mr. MILES: Well, people disagree over why he wanted to create it. The
Saudis, for example, think that he created it in order to cause problems in
Saudi Arabia. I would argue that the reason he created it was because he was
a liberal. He was Western-educated; he was at Sandhurst Military Academy.
He is much younger than the other Arab rulers. He is another--a new
generation. He was just 44, I believe, when he came to power in a coup. So
he's a new type of Arab leader, and I think that he genuinely wants democratic
reforms in Qatar.
GROSS: My guest is Hugh Miles, author of the new book "Al-Jazeera." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is British journalist Hugh Miles, author of the new book
"Al-Jazeera" about the history of the Arab news channel and the controversies
What was Al-Jazeera's early programming like?
Mr. MILES: Pretty riotous. They deliberately decided to make it as
controversial as possible. They broke taboos almost at a weekly rate,
political, religious, sexual taboos.
GROSS: Like what?
Mr. MILES: Well, the two most controversial Arabic shows on Al-Jazeera,
which runs to this day, are "Religion and Life," "Sharia wal-Hayat,"
and "Al Ittijah Al Muakiss," which means "The Opposite Direction."
"The Opposite Direction" is a political talk show where typically two guests
are invited on to have a row, and it's mediated by a gentleman called Faisal
al-Kasim, who's a Syrian. And typically they have political opposites
facing one another. For example, there'll be a member of the Algerian
government facing a member of the Algerian government in exile, and they hate
each other even before they're on the show. And so it's explosive. And
al-Kasim does his best to wind them up and asks them the most provocative
questions that he can. And it's been hugely controversial. It's led to the
cessation of diplomatic relations with several countries. It's caused
enormous offense. And Faisal al-Kasim is very proud of it, and it's been
hugely popular. But it's broken many, many taboos by considering all sorts of
very provocative questions. And the show continues to run to this day, and
they continue to debate all kinds of hot-button issues.
The other show, "Religion and Life," is hosted by a man called Sheikh
Al-Qaradhawi who is a religious authority; he's Al-Jazeera's resident
religious authority. He's not actually an employee of the station. And he's
a very controversial figure. People disagree over whether Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi
is a liberal or a conservative or even a force for good. His reputation in
America was scuttled when he passionately endorsed Palestinian suicide
bombing. But at the same time, the sheik has also helped America, for
example, by inferring authority on the invasion of Afghanistan, which many
people didn't do. He condemned the 9/11 attacks, which sounds basic, but many
clerics in the Middle East didn't. At the same time, he called for a jihad
against France for imposing the head scarf in schools.
So Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi is a wild card, and his fatwas are enormously
influential; they affect hundreds of millions of Muslims, Shia and Sunni. And
he's on one of Al-Jazeera's flagship shows. He's also--I'm sorry, he's also
reflected on questions on sex, and one of the most controversial episodes of
"Religion and Life" was when he ruled that fellatio was within the bounds of
GROSS: It's surprising to me that that would even be discussed.
Mr. MILES: Yeah, sure. Arab viewers were absolutely spellbound. He--and not
only were they spellbound that it was being discussed, but they were amazed
that the sheik was so liberal. I mean, his overriding policy toward sex was
basically as long as it's between consenting adults, anything goes.
GROSS: It's kind of disturbing to think that there's a cleric on TV who's
advocating suicide bombing or advocating a jihad against France. I mean,
that's not only provocative; I mean, that's like a call to arms. That's a
call for people to go out and kill.
Mr. MILES: Well, arguably, yes, you're right. But the bottom line is that
free speech is not an unalloyed advance. And if you're going to have a
television where people are going to be allowed to say what they feel, I'm
afraid you're going to get a reflection of what people in the region feel.
And right now plenty of people in the Middle East hate America's guts. Now
that's not Al-Jazeera's fault. And arguably, you could say that the same kind
of hateful speech comes out on American news networks as well.
Mr. MILES: It's sad, but it's not the media's fault, necessarily.
GROSS: Do you think that there should be more editorial responsibility
for--obviously this is editorially condoned. I mean, he's had a show--you
know, this cleric has had a show since the history--since Al-Jazeera started.
I mean, is this the kind of thing you asked them about, you know, is this
editorially responsible to have somebody on--you know, a religious figure
who's basically not only condoning but basically calling for suicide bombing
Mr. MILES: Sure, yeah. Well, let's say it's worth pointing out that Sheikh
Al-Qaradhawi is not actually an employee of Al-Jazeera; he's technically a
guest. But nevertheless, he is on their screens almost on a weekly basis, and
he is the leading religious authority on Al-Jazeera. Yes, his opinions are
inflammatory. I mean, there's no doubt about it. There is--not just from the
sheik, but from other guests as well. There are hateful opinions expressed on
Al-Jazeera. But that's--unfortunately, that's what happens when you get free
speech in a region which is riven by hate. And that is a price that we must
pay for having free speech in the Arab world.
GROSS: I'm having a little trouble accepting that, you know, just 'cause
there's a lot of hate, that that belongs as a regular feature in that
vitriolic a way on the media. I mean, part of editorial responsibility, it
seems to me, is finding people who are informed and reasonable and do--you
know that you don't give your regular slots to the biggest extremists and have
them--just 'cause there's hate out there...
Mr. MILES: Well...
GROSS: ...you don't necessarily give it a regular feature...
Mr. MILES: Sure.
GROSS: ...and let it run free.
Mr. MILES: No, I agree with you. And it's important to underline that
Al-Jazeera's journalists are not hateful like this. Al-Jazeera's journalists
are much more balanced and are much more professional. But they invite on
guests, and the guests are balanced. On the talk shows, the guests--when one
is anti-American, there'll also be a pro-American voice. So the idea is that
it's not completely one-sided.
GROSS: Just one more question on this. As a journalist yourself, did you
find yourself thinking a lot about where the line is between free speech and
journalistic responsibility for the speech that's on the air?
Mr. MILES: Sure. I do think about that, and I did think about that when I
was with Al-Jazeera. But I think it's also very important to keep Al-Jazeera
in perspective with other news channels. I mean, for example, Al-Jazeera is
often criticized for its terminology it uses, like `resistance' and `martyr'
and `occupation' and `the so-called war on terror.' And Rumsfeld and
Wolfowitz in particular have been two of Al-Jazeera's most persistent critics
about these terms. Now terminology is a perennially sticky issue. I mean,
was it an invasion or was it a liberation? Did Basra fall or was it occupied?
Now we could argue that Al-Jazeera is biased, and certainly many people have
done. But at the same time, it's worth bearing in mind that in 2001, a study
by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting in the US found that 90 percent of
American news networks failed to mention the word `occupied' or `occupation'
or any other variant of the term in news reports about the West Bank and Gaza.
And in the American press, Israeli assassinations are consistently termed
`targeted killings'; the Israeli military becomes `security forces'; Israeli
settlements become innocuous-sounding `neighborhoods.' Frequently people talk
about a `period of calm' when no Israelis but a number of Palestinians have
been killed. So there is bias on both sides.
GROSS: Let's get back to a word like `suicide bomber' vs. `martyr.' And
`martyr' would be the word that Al-Jazeera uses. `Martyr' puts a very kind of
positive spin on the person who takes their life in order to kill Israelis or
to kill Americans.
Mr. MILES: Undoubtedly, `martyr' is a word with--it's a loaded word. It's a
word with positive connotations. It's hard to...
GROSS: It turns you into a saint for killing other people.
Mr. MILES: Well, I mean, that's the English use. I mean, `martyr' is not a
word we would normally use in this context in English. But it is the normal
Arabic word to talk about somebody who has died in fighting against an enemy,
a Muslim who's died. Al-Jazeera didn't invent the word; it was around before
they used it. But they do use it, and it certainly is a--it's not a neutral
term. So everyone has a terminology. I mean, both sides have terminologies,
as I've explained.
GROSS: One of the things that Al-Jazeera became famous for was broadcasting
tapes from bin Laden. And correct me if I'm wrong, but al-Qaeda has delivered
several tapes or, somehow or another, Al-Jazeera has got--has been the first
to get several tapes from al-Qaeda. What were you able to learn about how
they get the tapes?
Mr. MILES: Well, Al-Jazeera undoubtedly has very close links with al-Qaeda
and has done for some time. And they've been extremely careful to foster
those links. In January 2001, for example, less than a year before the 9/11
attacks, an Al-Jazeera correspondent, Ahmed Zeidan, was the only foreign
journalist present at the wedding of one of bin Laden's sons to the daughter
of one of his aides. And in October, October the 20th, 2001, another
Al-Jazeera journalist, Tayssir Alluni, met with bin Laden face to face in his
hideout. Alluni is now held on terrorism charges in Spain. So Al-Jazeera
have got links to al-Qaeda, which they are proud of, which they keep secret.
They've met other senior al-Qaeda leaders at different intervals. And they
have no problem obtaining--getting hold of tapes, and they have many more
tapes which they haven't broadcast. So it's--for them, it's not a difficult
thing for them to do, to get hold of these tapes. They're the go-to station
for all sorts of extremist groups, including al-Qaeda.
GROSS: When you say they're proud of their connection, do you mean
ideologically proud or do you mean proud that they have such connections to
such a newsworthy--you know, such a news-making group?
Mr. MILES: Oh, they're not at all proud of the ideology. I mean, Al-Jazeera
has got no ideological sympathy for al-Qaeda or bin Laden at all. But they
are proud of the fact that, as journalists, they can consistently get scoops
which are the envy of every other news station in the world.
GROSS: Hugh Miles is the author of the new book "Al-Jazeera." He's written
for the London Review of Books and the Sunday Times of London.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: `Chatter' is the word often used to describe the cell phone
conversations between terrorists tapped by surveillance experts. Coming up,
we talk with Patrick Radden Keefe about his new book, "Chatter: Dispatches
from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping." And Ed Ward tells us about
the troubled history and recent recovery of Roky Erickson, formerly of the
band the 13th Floor Elevators.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Patrick Radden Keefe discusses his new book, "Chatter:
Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The expression `increased levels of chatter' often accompanies a warning that
a terrorist attack may be imminent. We learned that chatter had increased
just before September 11th. My guest, Patrick Radden Keefe, has written a
new book called "Chatter," which he describes as his attempt to figure out how
chatter works, who can listen in and how they go about it. As Keefe is quick
to point out, he is not an investigative journalist, detective or spy. He
describes himself as an average curious citizen. He's a third-year student at
Yale Law School and has written for The New York Review of Books and Slate.
In some ways his book is really about his adventures trying to understand
programs that are shrouded in secrecy, like the NSA, the National Security
Agency, and Britain's GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters. Keefe's
interest in chatter dates back to the late '90s when he heard of a global
surveillance network called Echelon. Back then he didn't know whether this
network really existed or if it was just part of a conspiracy theory. I asked
him if he now thinks it exists.
Mr. PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE (Author, "Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World
of Global Eavesdropping"): I do. I mean, in fact, ironically enough, once
I'd finished my book, a former head of the National Security Agency came out
and acknowledged that the network exists and acknowledged the name Echelon. I
mean, Echelon started out as a code name. It specifically referred to a
particular computer program for sorting through all of the communications that
were intercepted by a satellite. And we use Echelon as sort of a watch word
to refer to the network as a whole.
But the funny thing about code names is the minute you reveal a code name, the
code name is obsolete. So we have now had a former head of the NSA come out
and say, `Yes, there was this system. It was called Echelon.' It's a sure
bet that nobody's calling it Echelon anymore, but the system is still there.
GROSS: So what kind of information does the system collect?
Mr. KEEFE: Billions and billions of phone calls and e-mails primarily and
faxes and telexes. And the ones certainly over satellite, these
communications, are the interceptions through broadband. I mean, rather than
try and isolate up front a particular phone call that you would want to
intercept, you would instead intercept all of the phone calls that were going
over a particular satellite network.
GROSS: So when we hear that there's a lot of chatter, and that means likely
to be an imminent terrorist attack, do you think it's likely that this network
was doing a lot of the listening to that chatter?
Mr. KEEFE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the way--when you hear a story in the
press that refers to chatter, the way that chatter is gathered generally is
through this network that the United States runs with its four principal
allies: the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
GROSS: So were you able to talk to any of the actual, you know, decoding or
interpreting experts who do the listening in?
Mr. KEEFE: I talked to a number of people who had done that; no one who's
doing it currently. There's a real prohibition within these agencies against
talking to the press or to anyone, even in some cases to your own wife,
something the NSA refers to as the security state of mind. There's an old
joke that--the old saw is that NSA stands for `Never Say Anything' or `No Such
Agency.' And I found that that made it exceedingly difficult for me to find
people who currently are doing this kind of work to talk to me. But I did
talk to a handful of people who have done it in the past--in some cases, the
recent past. And they described for me the job of putting on headphones and
GROSS: Why don't you describe it for us?
Mr. KEEFE: Well, there are different positions that one has in terms of
assessing these communications that come in. There are translators, and there
are analysts. And then there are crypt analysts, whose job is to decode any
coded communications. And I talked to people who had done all three. And it
was interesting because the experience they described was sort of, at once,
kind of intimate and yet unfamiliar.
So if your job is to listen in on a particular set of people, say, in the
Chinese government--you sit at your desk, and at your desk often you have
photographs of these people because it helps if you can match a face to a
voice and a name. And they become sort of characters, and you keep track of
them. And so there's this tremendous familiarity. At the same time there's
obviously a great distance and a great gulf between you and them. First of
all, they, by and large, don't know you're listening to them. Second, if you
work for these agencies, as a rule, you're not allowed to visit the countries
that you're studying. So it's a kind of a paradox in a way.
GROSS: It's easier to comprehend the job of listening in on a select group of
people; much more difficult to comprehend what it's like to sort through all
of the, quote, "chatter" out there, you know. So can you give us a sense--do
you know--was there something you were able to learn, like, how information is
sorted from that chatter? I mean, like, you point out that every three hours,
the NSA satellites pick up enough information to fill the Library of Congress.
That's every three hours, so this is an extraordinary amount of information.
Now not all of that information is chatter, obviously, but, you know, what are
some of the techniques for sorting through the chatter?
Mr. KEEFE: Well, they've tried to automate it as much as possible. One thing
you realize is that it's much, much easier whenever you have anything written.
It might be text in an e-mail that you can sort very quickly through. It
might even just be that there's a phone number or a name that you're
targeting. But that makes it much easier to sort of preselect the types of
people or conversations you're looking for. The stories you often hear are
that if you say `bomb' on the telephone, the NSA or the FBI will come after
you. That's certainly not true with the telephone because it's very hard for
these technologies to spot a word in spoken speech, but it's very easy for
them to spot a word in written language. I mean, in a way, it's the same
principle that you have at work in something like Google. You can sort very
rapidly through billions and billions of pages of text in order to find the
particular keywords or concepts that you're looking for.
But what this means with telephone calls is that a lot of the time those might
have to then be transcribed in order to make it easier to sort through. Or if
you have the particular phone numbers of people you're interested in, then you
can focus in just on those. But even that doesn't seem to be working. I
mean, we heard last year that the FBI is still sitting on hundreds of hours of
intercepted conversations between al-Qaeda suspects that no one has
translated. So those aren't just hundreds of hours of intercepted phone calls
that happen to be in Arabic. Those are between al-Qaeda suspects, and no one
has actually sorted through them and translated them and analyzed them.
GROSS: Well, you did get to see a listening base in England's Yorkshire
moors. And although it's in England, it's run by the NSA, the National
Security Agency. So are you assuming that this is part of the Echelon
Mr. KEEFE: Yes. I mean, in fact, there are--I mean, there have been
documents that have been declassified or have been found through the Freedom
of Information Act, which suggest that this was one of the primary bases in
this network. And it's a pretty extraordinary place in the middle of the
English countryside, this sort of microcommunity of 1,200 Americans who are
eavesdroppers, who work around the clock intercepting satellite
GROSS: We should say this base won the NSA's Station of the Year prize in
1991 for its role in the Gulf War. You describe this as a 24-hour operation.
There are, oh, people who work, I think, eight-hour shifts, but there are
always people working and, you know, listening in or decoding information.
Just describe what it looks like.
Mr. KEEFE: It's a really arresting sight because it's in this sort of placid
agrarian environment: these green hills and crumbling stone walls and cows
everywhere. And you come up over a hill, and you see--I mean, it looks like a
space station or something. There are these huge white domes which are called
radomes. They look like golf balls basically, but they're enormous, and each
one houses a satellite dish. And the satellite dishes are pointing up at
these communication satellites in space. And there are two dozen of these
domes sort of almost seeming to float there in the countryside.
And the whole area is fenced in with a sort of razor wire fence. It's a
500-acre site, so it's a strange kind of enclosed, very Space Aged base, but
in the middle of countryside that otherwise probably hasn't changed in a
GROSS: Is there a reason it's in the countryside?
Mr. KEEFE: Well, I think there are two answers to that: One is that there's
always a reason for locating a satellite interception base where you do, and
it tends to be in terms of where there are downlinks for commercial
communication satellites. So it would be in the place where it is so that it
can conveniently pick up downlinked satellite traffic. The other explanation
for the remote location is that a lot of these listening stations, I found,
all over the planet are in very remote locales. They're hidden away. They're
designed to be unobtrusive.
GROSS: OK. Now you've got this kind of hidden-in-plain-sight operation.
You've got this highly secret operation that isn't enclosed. You can't
exactly hide that. So what's the official explanation for the base that's
given to the public?
Mr. KEEFE: There isn't really an official explanation. I mean, it's a very
funny thing, actually, over the years, the different explanations that they
give. It even starts with the name. If you go up to the gates, the front
gates of Menwith Hill, it says, `RAF Menwith Hill.' And RAF stands for
Royal Air Force. So the suggestion is that this is, in fact, a British
base, despite the fact that inside it's primarily American, and the British
Air Force has nothing to do with it. There's no place to land planes. There
aren't large contingents of enlisted British Air Force people running around.
GROSS: How deep into the base did you get?
Mr. KEEFE: The front gate. I didn't get inside. I didn't really expect to.
But I was able to walk around the perimeter fence and to observe a great deal
from outside and then, again, forced, in a way, to use some ingenuity because
they wouldn't let me in. I went to a pub over the hill in a local village and
talked for an evening with British people who live in the village around about
their impressions of the base. And a number of them had worked inside the
base, in cafeterias, what have you. And so they were able to tell me a bit
about what goes on inside.
GROSS: Did they actually know of what the purpose of the station was?
Mr. KEEFE: Well, they did. I mean, they knew that it was for the
interception of communications. They joked. These were, in some cases,
teen-agers. And one of them joked with me that it was an alien testing base.
So they knew in, I guess broad-brush strokes, what went on inside. What was
interesting, though, was that they said that inside, the working areas and the
living areas are very strictly segregated, and much of the work goes on in
these underground basements. They worked in the cafeterias and the
recreations centers and what have you, so they weren't actually able to get
inside the control rooms, where, you know, these billions of communications
are being pumped in and analyzed.
GROSS: My guest is Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book is called "Chatter."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the new book "Chatter:
Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping." It's about his
attempt to understand how chatter works, who can listen in and how they go
One of the things you looked into in doing your book is how the development of
cell phones, the creation of cell phones has affected the ability to listen in
on people, the ability for the NSA and other spying agencies to listen in.
What are some of the things you learned about that?
Mr. KEEFE: Well, one thing I noticed is that in terms of the old war, which
was the war against the Soviets, and the new war, the war on terrorism, the
old war was very static in every way. You had a static enemy that was, you
know, roughly in the same place, and the faces didn't change all that much,
and you knew where they were, and they were using landlines a lot of the time.
The new enemy is very dynamic. Al-Qaeda is present in as many as 60 countries
around the world, and they use cell phones and satellite phones. These are,
on the one hand, very easy to intercept. And the mechanics of intercepting a
cell phone or a satellite phone are pretty simple. They're using microwave
signals. You know, the word wiretap originally referred to tapping copper
cables. But the minute something hits the air, it becomes easier to
intercept. The problem is that if your adversary is using cell phones, they
might be using disposable cell phones. They might use numerous cell phones.
One of the people I talked to was a Pentagon official, who told me that there
was a strike on an al-Qaeda figure caught in Yemen. And when they found him,
he had more than half a dozen cell phones on his person. So he would just use
them and then discard them. And if he used each one once, he figured it would
be very difficult for allied intelligence to get a bead on that number.
GROSS: So it's easy for the people we're spying on to evade the spying with
Mr. KEEFE: Absolutely, and e-mail as well.
GROSS: So you learned some things about how Osama bin Laden himself changed
his use of cell phones when he realized how his phones were being listened in
Mr. KEEFE: Yes. This is one of the great cautionary tales, I think, for
people writing about this kind of intelligence. In 1998, there was a story in
a Washington newspaper that said that the United States was able to listen in
to Osama bin Laden's satellite phone. And the day the story came out, bin
Laden stopped using that phone. This was interesting. I mean, it meant that
he was clearly keeping up with what we are and are not able to do. And I
think it also had a chilling effect on journalists in particular who write
about this area because the sense was it's very, very easy to compromise
operations if you talk about this sort of thing.
GROSS: Well, I've often wondered, you know, since everybody knows now that
we're listening to the chatter, or monitoring this chatter, you'd think that
maybe the terrorists who are being monitored would stop using their cell
phones or would maybe, quote, "chatter" a lot to mislead us. Any insights
into whether there's a lot of chatter disinformation?
Mr. KEEFE: Well, I think they do both. I mean, I think it's interesting. I
think they both have learned, in some cases, the hard way to stay off the air
when they're talking about something serious or planning an operation. We
know that Osama bin Laden often, at this point, sends messages by a courier, a
very and almost Luddite reaction to our ability to listen in.
We also know that they do send out red herrings and disinformation. It a way,
it's more in keeping with the classical definition of terrorism, where the
amount of terror generated is disproportionate to the actual casualties. If
our adversaries know that by putting a certain message out on a certain
channel, they can raise the level of terror in the United States and
municipalities around the country will be ready for an attack, they could
bankrupt us that way. It's an effective technique.
GROSS: Now that you know a little bit more about spying capacity and
eavesdropping, are you any more paranoid than you used to be?
Mr. KEEFE: Yeah, you might ask. Certainly initially I became very paranoid,
because in the early part of my research, a lot of what I was aiming to do was
just find out how transparent communications are, how easy it would be, if
somebody wanted to, for them to read my e-mail or listen to my phone calls.
And the answer, I discovered, in fairly short order, was very easy. And that
initially freaked me out a little bit. But it's interesting because I sort
of pushed through that, and I realized that just because they can doesn't mean
they would. I am certainly troubled by the fact that everything is so
But in a way, I came to the more alarming realization that our intelligence
agencies are really struggling. They're in an uphill battle to keep track of
all of the information that's being gathered just on terrorists. The notion
that they would spend any time keeping tabs on me would be paranoid,
certainly, but also maybe a trifle narcissistic. And it's funny. I mean, it
was something that I saw in the many people I talked to, many of whom are
I mean, for instance, I interviewed, at great length, a young woman who had
been a translator for GCHQ and left, and left because she had leaked an
important memo to the press. And she told me, at a certain point, that she
was convinced that all of her communications were being listened to. And I
sort of thought, `Boy, if I knew what she knew, wouldn't I be paranoid, too?'
I mean, there was an inclination to write her off as being paranoid, but then
again, she'd been inside. She knew what these agencies are capable of.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KEEFE: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Patrick Radden Keefe is the author of the new book "Chatter."
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward on Roky Erickson, formerly of the
psychedelic band the 13th Floor Elevators. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Retrospective on Roky Erickson
TERRY GROSS, host:
The 13th Floor Elevators were the first band to be called psychedelic. Their
front-man, Roky Erickson, has gone on to have a dramatic career, chronicling
the supernatural and horrifying inner world he lived in. With the release of
a major retrospective of his work by Shout! Factory, Ed Ward tells the story
of a man who slipped over the edge of the abyss and lived to tell about it.
(Soundbite of "You're Gonna Miss Me")
13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS: (Singing) Oh, yeah! Oh! You're gonna wake up one
morning as the sun greets the dawn. You're gonna wake up one morning as the
sun greets the dawn. You're going to look around in your mind for help.
You're gonna find that I've come home. You didn't realize...
ED WARD reporting:
If you saw the film "High Fidelity," you'll recognize the song that starts the
movie. It's "You're Gonna Miss Me" by the 13th Floor Elevators, a legendary
group from San Marcos, Texas, just south of Austin. Their album, "The
Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators," with its lurid chartreuse
cover, liner notes proselytizing LSD and strange brilliant songs came out in
1966. By then, the band was well known not only in Texas, but in San
Francisco, where they frequently shared ballroom stages with fellow Texans the
Sir Douglas Quintet. Even in San Francisco, the Elevators were considered
(Soundbite of song)
13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS: (Singing) Bedouin tribes ascending from the egg into
the flower. Alpha information sending states within the heaven shower. From
disciples, the unending subtleties of river power. They slip inside this
house as they pass by. If your limbs...
WARD: The songs were by two writers, Tommy Hall, who played something
listed as electric jug, which made squiggly noises, and Roger Kynard
Erickson, better known as Roky. He played guitar, sang and screamed. They
recorded for a tiny label optimistically called International Artists in
Houston owned by Kenny Rogers' brother, Leland, who thought he had the next
big thing under contract.
But the same LSD that the band had declared the solution to everything was
their undoing. The band fell apart. Then Roky was busted for pot, and the
story got darker. Faced with the choice of jail or incarceration at the state
hospital for the criminally insane in Rusk, Texas, Roky took the latter. He
emerged a changed man but not changed for the better. Shock treatments and
medication had taken their toll, and he had a hard time relating to the world
Still, he could write songs, and one day in 1975, Doug Sahm, who had led the
Sir Douglas Quintet, put Roky in the studio and got two songs out of him--on
one side, a song that Doug told me was the best song Buddy Holly never
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ROKY ERICKSON: (Singing) Starry eyes, how can I get to you? My true
little starry eyes, what can I say or do for you. My little starry eyes,
starry eyes forever shall be mine. Starry eyes, what can I say to make you
listen? Starry eyes...
WARD: The other side, however, pointed in the direction that Roky would head
for the next 10 years.
(Soundbite of "Red Temple Prayer")
Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) Two-headed dog! Two-headed dog! I've been working
in the prison with a two-headed dog! Two-headed dog! Two-headed dog! I've
been working in the prison with a two-headed dog!
WARD: "Red Temple Prayer," also obviously known as "Two-Headed Dog," was
just the beginning. There was a galaxy of horrible things out there, and Roky
wanted to tell us about them. He also wanted to rock like never before. Doug
told everyone he could about him. And Stu Cook, former bassist with Creedence
Clearwater Revival, took up the challenge of recording Roky and getting him a
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) Don't shake me! Don't shake me, Lucifer! Don't
shake me! Don't shake me, Lucifer! I've been up all night, and no suicide
drugs will work! ...(Unintelligible).
WARD: It was 1979, and punk had opened people's ears. Cook found CBS Records
in England receptive, and they released an album called "Roky Erickson and the
Aliens." The Aliens were his band as well as the subjects of his songs
when he wasn't channeling horror movies. Titles from the first couple of
albums included "Creature with the Atom Brain," "Stand for the Fire Demon,"
"Bloody Hammer" and "If You Have Ghosts, You Have Everything," all very scary,
all very well done. but ultimately fruitless.
It was pretty much impossible to tour the Aliens because Roky was not getting
better. He moved back to Austin from San Francisco and wound up in a housing
project, where one day federal agents swooped down on him. He'd been stealing
mail addressed to others in the project and taping it unopened to his walls.
He wound up in prison for mail theft.
Stories like this rarely have happy endings, but Roky Erickson had too many
friends who wouldn't give up. Tary Owens, an Austin folkie who had
introduced Roky to fellow Elevator Tommy Hall years ago and was now involved
in recovery in health activism for musicians, began organizing a way to help.
Bill Bentley, an Elevators fan who's now a vice president at Warner Bros.,
organized a tribute album with contributions from ZZ Top, R.E.M. and Doug
Sahm. Roky left prison and attended the release party in 1990 as the efforts
to help him snowballed. His younger brother, Sumner, moved back to Texas
to help. Roky was emerging from his shell. He began to record again.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) Please, Judge, don't send that boy away. In society
I wish you'd let him stay. Please don't give him time. Please don't confine.
Please don't say it. Keep that boy away. Please, Judge...
WARD: Today, thanks to many people's efforts, Roky is doing much better,
happy for the first time in years, just another eccentric Austin musician in
some ways but one with a 40-year legacy behind him and a future that's looking
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. He reviewed the anthology "Roky Erickson: I
Have Always Been Here Before." On Thursday, at the South by Southwest
Music conference in Austin, Erickson will participate in a panel discussion on
the 13th Floor Elevators.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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