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Bin Laden exploits technology to suit his needs

By Daniel Sieberg

(CNN) -- Within the veiled and shadowy network of Osama bin Laden's operation, information is likely communicated through both high- and low-tech means, using everything from a Web page to a whisper.

This is the belief held by several analysts who say bin Laden has morphed his terrorist tactics to keep pace with U.S. intelligence-gathering methods. Bin Laden has been targeted by the United States as the "prime suspect" in last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Following the September 11 cataclysm, authorities are "not ruling out any legal investigative techniques," as one government official put it. This could include using online surveillance, such as the FBI's "Carnivore" (DCS1000) packet-sniffer system or "Echelon," which is widely believed to be a satellite-based espionage network capable of monitoring worldwide communications.

While U.S. authorities have never officially admitted to its existence, a European Parliament investigative committee has concluded that Echelon is real.

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A number of Internet service providers (ISPs) also say they have recently been served with a warrant to provide records related to national security.

But has bin Laden simply abandoned technology, recognizing its inherently traceable attributes? Has he merely reverted to old-fashioned means of contact, such as speech or hand-written notes?

Yes, and no, say observers.

James Bamford, author of two books about the National Security Agency (NSA) ("Body of Secrets" and "The Puzzle Palace"), says while bin Laden may have dropped digital dissemination, his followers maintain some sort of high-tech presence.

"It's a combination of low-tech communication with supporters, communicating by messaging or couriers, and using the Internet to reach others," he says.

Bin Laden was known by authorities to use a portable satellite phone in remote places in order to speak with some of his cohorts, says Bamford. But not long ago, his use of it abruptly stopped.

"About a year or so ago the NSA lost all track of him," says Bamford, who was until recently Washington investigative producer for ABC news. "He may still use it occasionally to talk about something mundane, but he discovered that the transmitters can be used for honing."

Bin Laden is not a typical leader, in that he doesn't need to address his organization on a regular basis, says Bamford. He is more of a spiritual or motivational leader, and can therefore leave the day-to-day management to his cell groups.

This makes it difficult for the NSA, he says, since it is "not the kind of communication they're used to."

Encryption wars

Simon Reeve, the author of "The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism," says bin Laden has ditched his satellite-linked phones, mobile handsets and Internet access in favor of "Stone Age" messaging techniques to elude law enforcement.

"Bin Laden is not now using any sophisticated communications technology," the London-based Reeve says.

"The American National Security Agency has devoted huge resources trying to trace him through his old satellite and portable phones, but he no longer uses them, to avoid being targeted and attacked."

But the NSA may also be battling high levels of encryption used by bin Laden and his group.

Encryption is the conversion of data into something called ciphertext, which must then be decrypted or unlocked by the proper "key." Both processes involve complex algorithms -- a procedure or formula for solving a problem. Breaking into encrypted information requires sophisticated computer skills and mathematics.

But beyond encryption is steganography, or the hiding of a secret message within an ordinary message. Data is first encrypted by the usual means, and then inserted using a special algorithm into an innocuous file format, such as an image, thus attempting to evade any scanning of the data. It is similar to identifying code used in some music files -- a proposal being considered by the music industry -- called watermarks.

It is possible, Bamford says, that bin Laden is using steganography to covertly distribute information to his supporters and hide messages throughout the Internet and on particular Web pages.

As the nation's cryptologic organization, the NSA uses satellites and other methods to intercept communication such as e-mail, faxes and telephone calls to detect threats to the country. The NSA is said to be the largest employer of mathematicians -- both codemakers and codebreakers -- in the United States, and perhaps the rest of the world.

Officials with the NSA would not comment on the technological abilities of Osama bin Laden or the al Qaeda organization, citing the sensitivity of its ongoing investigation.

They also declined to comment on whether bin Laden's followers had opted for a more low-tech approach, saying only "we cannot provide any information on that."

'Behind the curve'

Speaking on CBS's "60 Minutes II" news show in February, Gen. Mike Hayden, the head of the NSA, acknowledged the difficulty of keeping pace with rapidly evolving developments in the high-tech world.

"We are behind the curve in keeping up with the global telecommunications revolution," Hayden said at the time.

Other agencies, including the FBI, would not comment on the technological nature of their investigation into bin Laden's activities.

But former FBI Director Louis Freeh spoke to the issue of dueling encryption last year before a Senate panel.

"Uncrackable encryption is allowing terrorists -- Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda and others -- to communicate about their criminal intentions without fear of outside intrusion," he said. "They are thwarting the efforts of law enforcement to detect, prevent and investigate illegal activities."

Mixed approach

Hayden's worries are echoed by Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer (CTO) and founder of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. Schneier, an expert in cryptology, has also created two encryption algorithms (Blowfish and Twofish) and testified before several congressional subcommittees on Internet security.

"The years of the military being at the leading edge of technology are gone because it moves so fast," says Schneier. "In the real world, the rise of technology means that everyone has access to the exact same stuff. The limitations are basically just money. He (bin Laden) definitely has more money than the average terrorist."

And while authorities also have access to internally produced systems, potentially giving them an advantage, Schneier says they aren't infallible, as evidenced by Tuesday's attacks.

He also believes that bin Laden is using a mixed approach to technology, depending on his needs.

"He'll go high-tech when it suits him and he'll go low-tech when it suits him," Schneier says. "But it's hard to speculate on when he decides to opt with one or the other. Certainly, where his operations are located (in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan), there is not a lot of infrastructure."

Regardless of bin Laden's technique, last week's devastating tragedy leaves open many questions on the preparedness of the U.S. authorities.

"The fact that we were attacked, the fact that nobody seems to have known anything about it, is an indication to me that they haven't broken it," says Bamford, referring to the NSA's attempts to break any encryption used by bin Laden. "In my opinion, this is the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history."

CNN's Kristie LuStout contributed to this report.

• Federal Bureau of Investigation
• Counterpane Internet Security Inc.
• National Security Agency

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