by Larry C Johnson (bio below)

An old friend, Paul Kaihla, who writes for Business 2.0, reminded me he had published a piece 4 years ago that highlighted one of the challenges of tracking terrorist targets. While this example falls outside the current debate about phone intercepts inside the United States, the technological challenge is the same. The fundamental point is that the law enforcement and intelligence community can deal with the threat. If they need new authorities they should seek them. But ignoring laws is not a prerogative of the President or any leader for that matter.

Weapons of the Secret War

By Paul Kaihla, November 01, 2001

. . . The Escobar takedown shows how U.S. sigint can work with local forces to eliminate bad guys. In 1993 the CIA and a covert U.S. Army unit called Centra Spike spent months in Colombia monitoring Escobar’s communications from both the ground and the air, finally pinpointing his location when he made a call from his cell phone. Colombian special forces commandos gunned down the Medellmn cartel leader as he ran barefoot across the rooftop of an apartment building.

Sigint’s work against the cocaine cartels evolved into a game of high-tech cat-and-mouse, especially after Escobar’s death taught traffickers the vulnerability of cell phones. One of the cartels’ countermeasures is to “roll” cell phones to confuse wiretappers. Using scanners, they steal the identities of innocent bystanders’ mobile phones and program the “cloned” numbers into their own handsets for a few days at a time. Authorities can’t keep track of what phone numbers they should be tapping.

In response, authorities deployed a remarkable surveillance technology that operates over Colombia from spy planes. It uses a series of devices called IF-to-tape converters (“IF” stands for “intermediate frequency”), in conjunction with directional antennas, receivers, and wide-band recorders, to scoop up the major bands across the entire cellular spectrum. Loaded with the proper gear, one aircraft can record all of the cell traffic in a major city by circling it at a high altitude and exploiting the powerful microwave signals that form a handshake between cell sites in wireless networks. Back at the plane’s base, a computer extracts audio files of actual conversations from the captured signals. The audio files are then filtered with sophisticated voice recognition software, allowing intelligence analysts to identify all of a suspect’s conversations by his voice, no matter how many times he rolls his phones.


Larry C. Johnson is CEO and co-founder of BERG Associates, LLC, an international business-consulting firm that helps corporations and governments manage threats posed by terrorism and money laundering. Mr. Johnson, who worked previously with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism (as a Deputy Director), is a recognized expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, crisis and risk management. Mr. Johnson has analyzed terrorist incidents for a variety of media including the Jim Lehrer News Hour, National Public Radio, ABC’s Nightline, NBC’s Today Show, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and the BBC. Mr. Johnson has authored several articles for publications, including Security Management Magazine, the New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. He has lectured on terrorism and aviation security around the world. Further bio details.

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