Seymour Hersh Reports on a Big 2001 American Intelligence Failure

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Photo: iStockphoto

In this week's New Yorker the investigative reporter has a big take-out on cyberwarfare. (That's when people use computers to fight each other, not to be confused with the kind that will occur when the computers take over.) Among other things, he reveals that the Bush administration made really big intelligence mistakes earlier than previously assumed. In April 2001, there was a minor international crisis when an American reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea and was forced to land in China. The Americans claimed that they took all appropriate steps to destroy all the sensitive hardware and software on the plane, which included an "operating system created and controlled by the N.S.A., and the drivers needed to monitor encrypted Chinese radar, voice, and electronic communications."

Unsurprisingly, that wasn't the case, and there have been occasional hints and minor disclosures that some of the really interesting details have leaked to the Chinese. But the Navy didn't think that the Chinese could reverse engineer the operating system of the plane and "give China a road map for decrypting the Navy’s classified intelligence and operational data." Oops:


The U.S. realized the extent of its exposure only in late 2008. A few weeks after Barack Obama’s election, the Chinese began flooding a group of communications links known to be monitored by the N.S.A. with a barrage of intercepts, two Bush Administration national-security officials and the former senior intelligence official told me. The intercepts included details of planned American naval movements. The Chinese were apparently showing the U.S. their hand. (“The N.S.A. would ask, ‘Can the Chinese be that good?’ ” the former official told me. “My response was that they only invented gunpowder in the tenth century and built the bomb in 1965. I’d say, ‘Can you read Chinese?’ We don’t even know the Chinese pictograph for ‘Happy hour.’ ”)

Why would the Chinese reveal that they had access to American communications? One of the Bush national-security officials told me that some of the aides then working for Vice-President Dick Cheney believed—or wanted to believe—that the barrage was meant as a welcome to President Obama.


As a welcome gift, mass infiltration from Red China still can't beat a bowl of Indonesia bakso!

The Online Threat [NYer]