Tales of the Wiretap! Major Media Moments: Echelon Listens In

Let us begin this week with two recent items from the news. First there was NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, asking New York Times reporter-of-the-moment James Risen whether he had any information about the Bush administration eavesdropping on CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In the journalism trade, this is known as “fishing.” Or, somewhat less charitably, “trying to get a rumor into print.”

And then there was Frank Rich, following up on this in his Sunday column, pointing out that almost two weeks before The Times published its scoop about the government’s extralegal wiretapping, the Showtime network “blew the whole top-secret shebang” when a terrorist referred to the N.S.A.’s secret phone-tapping techniques in the series Sleeper Cell. If terrorists concocted by Hollywood can figure this out, surmised Rich, real-life ones know this, too.

As someone who has, on occasion, concocted these Hollywood tales, I can testify that Frank Rich has the big picture precisely right: The N.S.A.’s Echelon program is about as well-kept a secret as Sam Alito’s abortion preferences. But when it comes to giving credit to Showtime, he’s a little out of the loop.

For almost 10 years, almost everyone who labors in the made-up spy trade has used the National Security Agency—and Echelon—as the all-purpose, all-knowing, “this-is-your-worst-nightmare-of-government” Big Brother stand-in of choice. We all know the key words that trigger Echelon. They’re listed on hundreds of Web sites. We all watched Steve Kroft’s Sixty Minutes report in February 2000, exposing the potential abuses of the system and its use by the Clinton administration. And more than a few of us have read the first-ever mention of Echelon in the press: A cover story in the June 18, 1988, issue of The New Statesman titled “Someone’s Listening,” involving Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and intercepts of phone calls made by Senator Strom Thurmond.

So what does this all add up to?

For the past decade, whenever a screenwriter got into script trouble and needed to insert some incredibly arcane information to advance the plot, the solution was always the same: Have Tom Cruise (or one of the Sutherlands) step into the back of an unmarked white panel truck, where Ving Rhames is sitting in front of a computer screen.

“I need an arcane piece of information to advance the plot,” the guy would announce.

“No problem,” Ving replies. “I’ll just hack into Echelon.” And with a mere two keystrokes, we’re onto the next action sequence.

(A brief sociological aside: Try as I might, I can’t pinpoint the exact date when the “muscle-bound black guy” replaced the “dissipated white nerd” as Hollywood’s preferred casting choice for the obligatory computer geek. But I’m sure somebody is looking into it right now for their master’s degree in cinema studies.)

Anyway, with all this in mind, I decided to put in a call to Ving. Herewith, the results:

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 22-31-34523: Anderson Cooper, anchorman; Jon Klein, president, CNN/US.

KLEIN: You’ve got to work the empathy angle, Anderson. Win their trust. Make it personal. That’s the only way we’re going to win.

COOPER: I like the shots they’re using of me in the billboards, and the adverting. Cool but caring. Still …. I’m worried it’s a little bit of overkill. And to be honest, I feel sort of bad about—what’s his name. Aaron. Aaron Brown. Vaporized.

KLEIN: Forget him. He was a foot soldier. He had to be sacrificed. This is war.

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 625-21-2382A: Byron Calame, public editor; Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times.

KELLER ( answers): Keller.

CALAME: Hi, Bill, it’s Byron Calame. I’ve got some questions about this N.S.A. story. Why did you hold it for a year? Was it the election? Did you cave in to Bush?

KELLER: Ummm … ( a pause, then:) I’m sorry, but I’m out of the office until June 2009. If this is urgent—concerning W.M.D., national security or Ahmed Chalabi—please contact our reporter, Judith Miller. Otherwise, please leave a message at the beep. ( Pauses.) Beep!

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 64-228-381: Katie Couric, NBC; Les Moonves, CBS.

COURIC: Les: I’m about to go through the tunnel. If I lose you, I’ll call you right back.

MOONVES: You’re killing me here, Katie! What’s it going to take? Fifteen million? Twenty? We’ll rename it the Couric Broadcast Network. I just don’t want this to blow up on us.

COURIC: Can you hold on? I’ve got another call. ( Clicks call waiting:) Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE VOICE: Hi, Katie, it’s Jeff Zucker. Time is short; the clock is ticking. I don’t want to put a gun to your head, but I’ve got to know: Are you on the team or not?

COURIC: My kid is on the other line. Can I get right back to you?

NSA Echelon Intercept 93-785-221. Unidentified journalist and editor. (Note: We picked up dozens of instances of this same conversation being repeated, all over America.)

EDITOR: I’m sorry. It was either cut 1,500 words or kill the piece.

JOURNALIST: So you killed it??? You killed it???? When did Al Qaeda take over the copy desk? Put me on the phone with Osama. He wants to cut my copy? I come up there, I’ll cut off his hands, I’ll cut off his head—

EDITOR: Hey, don’t go ballistic on me! There’s no reason to go thermonuclear here—

Journalist: … What about my expenses?

EDITOR: We’re wiring the cash, right now, to a Western Union office.

JOURNALIST: All praise to Allah.

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 12-236-1818. Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, unidentified male.

DOWD: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE ( heavy breathing): There are known knowns; there are unknown unknowns ….

DOWD ( angry) Rummy, is that you? Is that you again? I told you to stop calling here—

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: … But the real question is: Are women necessary? Are women columnists necessary? ( Sound of hysterical laughter, followed by a hang-up.)

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 91-28-7291. Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor, Washington Post; Bob Woodward.

DOWNIE: You’re compromising us, Bob! You’re operating like your own cell! Your methods could take down the entire organization!

WOODWARD: I’d love to chat, Len, but—off the record—I’ve got Bush on the secure line, then I’m supposed to meet Cheney at a secret location. Can I call you back after I do Larry King Live?

NSA Echelon Intercept 77-48-2635. Bill O’Reilly; Roger Ailes, chairman, Fox News.

O’REILLY: Letterman tried to take me out last night. It was a surprise attack, but I think it blew up in his face. So tell me: Where am I going wrong here?

AILES: As Bush would say, “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Billy.” Crushing the infidels at CNN. Decimating the unwashed at MSNBC.

O’REILLY: I respect that you took the phone call; now I’ll give you the last word.

AILES: Sooner or later, we’re going to achieve Rupert’s goal: global worldwide domination.

O’Reilly: Sounds good to me. Fair and balanced. But then, I’m only looking out for the folks.

Let us begin this week with two recent items from the news. First there was NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, asking New York Times reporter-of-the-moment James Risen whether he had any information about the Bush administration eavesdropping on CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In the journalism trade, this is known as “fishing.” Or, somewhat less charitably, “trying to get a rumor into print.”

And then there was Frank Rich, following up on this in his Sunday column, pointing out that almost two weeks before The Times published its scoop about the government’s extralegal wiretapping, the Showtime network “blew the whole top-secret shebang” when a terrorist referred to the N.S.A.’s secret phone-tapping techniques in the series Sleeper Cell. If terrorists concocted by Hollywood can figure this out, surmised Rich, real-life ones know this, too.

As someone who has, on occasion, concocted these Hollywood tales, I can testify that Frank Rich has the big picture precisely right: The N.S.A.’s Echelon program is about as well-kept a secret as Sam Alito’s abortion preferences. But when it comes to giving credit to Showtime, he’s a little out of the loop.

For almost 10 years, almost everyone who labors in the made-up spy trade has used the National Security Agency—and Echelon—as the all-purpose, all-knowing, “this-is-your-worst-nightmare-of-government” Big Brother stand-in of choice. We all know the key words that trigger Echelon. They’re listed on hundreds of Web sites. We all watched Steve Kroft’s Sixty Minutes report in February 2000, exposing the potential abuses of the system and its use by the Clinton administration. And more than a few of us have read the first-ever mention of Echelon in the press: A cover story in the June 18, 1988, issue of The New Statesman titled “Someone’s Listening,” involving Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and intercepts of phone calls made by Senator Strom Thurmond.

So what does this all add up to?

For the past decade, whenever a screenwriter got into script trouble and needed to insert some incredibly arcane information to advance the plot, the solution was always the same: Have Tom Cruise (or one of the Sutherlands) step into the back of an unmarked white panel truck, where Ving Rhames is sitting in front of a computer screen.

“I need an arcane piece of information to advance the plot,” the guy would announce.

“No problem,” Ving replies. “I’ll just hack into Echelon.” And with a mere two keystrokes, we’re onto the next action sequence.

(A brief sociological aside: Try as I might, I can’t pinpoint the exact date when the “muscle-bound black guy” replaced the “dissipated white nerd” as Hollywood’s preferred casting choice for the obligatory computer geek. But I’m sure somebody is looking into it right now for their master’s degree in cinema studies.)

Anyway, with all this in mind, I decided to put in a call to Ving. Herewith, the results:

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 22-31-34523: Anderson Cooper, anchorman; Jon Klein, president, CNN/US.

KLEIN: You’ve got to work the empathy angle, Anderson. Win their trust. Make it personal. That’s the only way we’re going to win.

COOPER: I like the shots they’re using of me in the billboards, and the adverting. Cool but caring. Still …. I’m worried it’s a little bit of overkill. And to be honest, I feel sort of bad about—what’s his name. Aaron. Aaron Brown. Vaporized.

KLEIN: Forget him. He was a foot soldier. He had to be sacrificed. This is war.

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 625-21-2382A: Byron Calame, public editor; Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times.

KELLER ( answers): Keller.

CALAME: Hi, Bill, it’s Byron Calame. I’ve got some questions about this N.S.A. story. Why did you hold it for a year? Was it the election? Did you cave in to Bush?

KELLER: Ummm … ( a pause, then:) I’m sorry, but I’m out of the office until June 2009. If this is urgent—concerning W.M.D., national security or Ahmed Chalabi—please contact our reporter, Judith Miller. Otherwise, please leave a message at the beep. ( Pauses.) Beep!

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 64-228-381: Katie Couric, NBC; Les Moonves, CBS.

COURIC: Les: I’m about to go through the tunnel. If I lose you, I’ll call you right back.

MOONVES: You’re killing me here, Katie! What’s it going to take? Fifteen million? Twenty? We’ll rename it the Couric Broadcast Network. I just don’t want this to blow up on us.

COURIC: Can you hold on? I’ve got another call. ( Clicks call waiting:) Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE VOICE: Hi, Katie, it’s Jeff Zucker. Time is short; the clock is ticking. I don’t want to put a gun to your head, but I’ve got to know: Are you on the team or not?

COURIC: My kid is on the other line. Can I get right back to you?

NSA Echelon Intercept 93-785-221. Unidentified journalist and editor. (Note: We picked up dozens of instances of this same conversation being repeated, all over America.)

EDITOR: I’m sorry. It was either cut 1,500 words or kill the piece.

JOURNALIST: So you killed it??? You killed it???? When did Al Qaeda take over the copy desk? Put me on the phone with Osama. He wants to cut my copy? I come up there, I’ll cut off his hands, I’ll cut off his head—

EDITOR: Hey, don’t go ballistic on me! There’s no reason to go thermonuclear here—

Journalist: … What about my expenses?

EDITOR: We’re wiring the cash, right now, to a Western Union office.

JOURNALIST: All praise to Allah.

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 12-236-1818. Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, unidentified male.

DOWD: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE ( heavy breathing): There are known knowns; there are unknown unknowns ….

DOWD ( angry) Rummy, is that you? Is that you again? I told you to stop calling here—

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: … But the real question is: Are women necessary? Are women columnists necessary? ( Sound of hysterical laughter, followed by a hang-up.)

N.S.A. Echelon Intercept 91-28-7291. Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor, Washington Post; Bob Woodward.

DOWNIE: You’re compromising us, Bob! You’re operating like your own cell! Your methods could take down the entire organization!

WOODWARD: I’d love to chat, Len, but—off the record—I’ve got Bush on the secure line, then I’m supposed to meet Cheney at a secret location. Can I call you back after I do Larry King Live?

NSA Echelon Intercept 77-48-2635. Bill O’Reilly; Roger Ailes, chairman, Fox News.

O’REILLY: Letterman tried to take me out last night. It was a surprise attack, but I think it blew up in his face. So tell me: Where am I going wrong here?

AILES: As Bush would say, “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Billy.” Crushing the infidels at CNN. Decimating the unwashed at MSNBC.

O’REILLY: I respect that you took the phone call; now I’ll give you the last word.

AILES: Sooner or later, we’re going to achieve Rupert’s goal: global worldwide domination.

O’Reilly: Sounds good to me. Fair and balanced. But then, I’m only looking out for the folks.