IN 2011, US intelligence informed French authorities that a
French citizen had slipped into Yemen, probably for terrorist training.
In November, the French security services placed the man, Said Kouachi,
under surveillance. They wiretapped his mobile phone, as well as that of
his younger brother, Cherif. By the end of 2013, French intelligence
had dropped its surveillance of Cherif, and Said’s was terminated in
mid-2014. After three years, the brothers, born to Algerian immigrants,
were judged to be no longer dangerous.
A typical mid-range US special agent
earns roughly $64,000 a year, which translates into $1,230 a week. On a
round-the-clock surveillance with 24 agents, that adds up to $29,500 a
week in agent time -- or almost $128,000 a month. Add in three rental
cars, used in rotation to avoid notice, and it comes to roughly $30,700 a
week. A major surveillance like this might last weeks or even months.
On Jan. 7, however, the brothers, heavily armed and dressed in
black, stormed the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper,
and massacred 12 people. It happened at least partly because the French
security services are unable to monitor all of France’s suspected
jihadists, even those considered high risk because they returned after
fighting in Syria or Iraq.
The French experience demonstrates that tapping cellphones of terrorist
suspects is not enough. Physical surveillance by humans is crucial.
Because terrorists have learned to avoid phones. “The phone tapping
yielded nothing,” Marc Trevidic, the chief terrorism investigator for
the French judicial system, told the New York Times. “If we had
continued, I’m convinced it wouldn’t have changed anything. No one talks
on the phone anymore.”
But physically monitoring suspects is an expensive and complicated
proposition -- in both money and manpower. A former French
anti-terrorism official stated, “The system is overwhelmed.”
US intelligence experts are well aware of the problems of mounting a
24/7 round-the-clock surveillance on suspects. “It’s a manpower eater,”
said Phillip A. Parker, a veteran former FBI counterintelligence agent,
“and it takes away from other cases.”
To keep a target under continuous surveillance, according to one
experienced FBI source who asked to remain anonymous, could require
three eight-hour shifts or perhaps two 12-hour shifts, with four special
agents each shift. Several cars would be needed, sometimes even
airplanes. If only one car was used, the person might quickly realize he
was being followed.
“If you are just sitting around in the street, somebody’s going to
notice you,” Parker explained. “If it’s a real sensitive case, you just
cannot be made. You would run five or six cars, maybe seven or eight. If
you don’t want any chance of the target making you, the average is
three shifts, four guys to a shift, two cars -- that’s a minimum. Three
shifts, so 12 agents. If it’s a really important case, you could easily
double that.” That minimum translates into 24 agents in three shifts of
eight agents to keep watch on a single target.
Parker, who spent much of his career tracking Soviet and Russian spies,
noted, “Most surveillance subjects are not moving more than a few hours a
day. So you may also have to set up an OP [observation post],” often a
house or apartment overlooking the target.
Just as the French services wiretapped the cellphones of the Paris
terrorists, the FBI does not limit itself to physical surveillance of a
subject. “You would also have technical means,” one surveillance
specialist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “If you run 24-hour
surveillance, you have telephones, both cell and land lines, MISUR
[microphone surveillance] and stationery lookouts.”
Agents might also lock onto the GPS of the suspect’s car, to see where
he or she is going. In one high-profile espionage case, the FBI placed
radio receivers at fixed points around the Washington area and was also
able to plant an electronic device in the suspect’s car. When the target
car passed by one of the receivers, the time and location were
recorded. This setup was similar to the E-ZPass system, which is used by
commuters to breeze through toll plazas without stopping.
With so much manpower required to monitor just one suspect, FBI
supervisors often resist mounting a 24/7 surveillance. It takes away
agents who might be working other cases. A smaller field office might
not have enough agents.
Even FBI headquarters might need to scramble to find agents for a
surveillance. One senior FBI official involved in the surveillance and
eventual arrest of Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who spied for Moscow,
told me, “I was constantly asking for more resources.” Spies, he
observed, “often use SDRs,” or surveillance detection routes. “They
might drive around for four or five hours ‘dry-cleaning’ themselves” to
try to lose their FBI pursuers.
Because of the FBI’s reluctance to assign large numbers of agents to
surveillance operations, the bureau also uses a Special Surveillance
Group, known as “the G’s.” These are not special agents, but members of a
unit whose sole job is to track suspects. They are trained to look like
anything except FBI agents. The G’s may be dressed as joggers,
cyclists, pizza-delivery men, mothers pushing strollers or street-repair
workers wielding jackhammers. That scruffy guy on a skateboard, that
hard-hat repairman up on a telephone pole, the street vendor selling
hotdogs -- all may be G’s. They look, in other words, like ordinary
citizens going about their business.
How much does a round-the-clock surveillance cost? Because FBI agents
and G’s are already on the FBI payroll, measuring the actual cost of a
particular operation can be complicated. Though there is clearly a cost
in manpower assigned to surveillance duties and so unavailable to other
Still, it is possible to estimate 24/7 surveillance costs by looking at
the salaries of FBI agents and the number of hours involved. FBI
salaries range widely, depending on grades and years of service. But a
typical mid-range special agent earns roughly $64,000 a year, which
translates into $1,230 a week. On a round-the-clock surveillance with 24
agents, that adds up to $29,500 a week in agent time -- or almost
$128,000 a month. Add in three rental cars, used in rotation to avoid
notice, and it comes to roughly $30,700 a week. A major surveillance
like this might last weeks or even months.
More experienced agents can earn around $120,000 a year, so the totals
could be a lot higher. As a result, it is not surprising that
round-the-clock surveillances are not routine. Statistics show why. The
FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, for example, maintains a “watch list”
of alleged terrorist suspects. In 2011, the database had 420,000 names,
according to a New York Times story, including some 8,000 Americans.
About 16,000 people, including 500 Americans, were prohibited from
flying. That list has been widely criticized for errors. But obviously
-- given the numbers -- the FBI could not watch all the people on the
database. And, thankfully, it doesn’t.
Surveillance is a double-edged tool. Catching terrorists is vital to
protect the country. But we also want to live in a society where liberty
and security are balanced, and the government does not follow people
around without good reason. From that perspective, the high cost and
difficulty of maintaining a continuous surveillance on a suspect may not
be entirely bad in a democracy.
David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. His most
recent book is Tiger Trap:America’s Secret Spy War with China.
ROLAND SAN JUAN was a researcher, management consultant, inventor, a part time radio broadcaster and a publishing director. He died last November 25, 2008 after suffering a stroke. His staff will continue his unfinished work to inform the world of the untold truths. Please read Erick San Juan's articles at: ericksanjuan.blogspot.com This blog is dedicated to the late Max Soliven, a FILIPINO PATRIOT.
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