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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Security and Defense: Shshsh...shabak.com

The Palestinian terror cell was difficult to trace. It operated out of the Samaria area, carefully and discreetly watching every step it took, while leaving almost no tracks. During the period in 2003 when it was operational, it carried out a series of attacks that killed Israeli civilians throughout the West Bank.

The cell, like many others before and after it, became a target for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency, or 'Shabak' in Hebrew parlance), the intelligence organization responsible for exposing Palestinian and Jewish terror groups. Relying on its wide pool of HUMINT (Human Intelligence) capabilities, field agents scoured the West Bank, activating informants to garner any piece of information that could lead to the cell's capture and subsequent dismantlement.

Finally, after weeks of intense field work, the case was cracked - though from an unexpected direction. One of the agency's computer programmers, from the Information Technology Department (IT) at headquarters, picked up a loose thread in the massive fabric of intelligence at his disposal. A week later, the cell was apprehended.

Following the capture of the cell, the IT received that year's Prime Minister's Award of Excellence and Israeli Defense Award - for the key role it played in the successful operation. This in spite of the fact that the "agents" responsible didn't draw a single gun. In fact, most of them never even left their air-conditioned offices.

Widely associated with espionage and "dark room" interrogations, the Shin Bet is actually a "funky, intellectually challenging place to work," according to IT director "T," who says that more than 20 percent of the agency's employees are involved in hi-tech endeavors.

But threads such as the one that led to the capture of the cell in question aren't found through the mere pressing of buttons on a keyboard, T. explains. They are located through a process of "data fusion," which T. describes as "finding a needle in the haystack of information."

"We receive information from a wide range of sensors, some human and some electronic," says T. in a rare interview at Shin Bet offices in the center of the country. "We need to collect the intelligence, filter it, sift through it and store it properly, so that when we need it again we will be able to find it."

TO SUCCESSFULLY meet this challenge, the Shin Bet - normally shrouded in secrecy - launched its first-ever public recruitment drive last month. Its campaign to attract top-tier computer programmers to the IT division included the unveiling of a slick Web site, and online want-ads aimed at job-seekers at home and abroad.

This is unprecedented. With the words "The Defender Who Shall Not Be Seen" engraved on its emblem, the Shin Bet rarely opens its doors to outsiders, particularly journalists.

T. explains why an exception was made in this case. The goal of the campaign, he says, is twofold: to attract top computer minds, and promote a more positive public image for the Shin Bet, long associated with undercover - sometimes violent - activity.

The following quote from the Web site (www.shabak.gov.il\IT) gives credence to T.'s claims: "Have you ever thought of how to stop a suicide bomber on his way to an attack? Have you ever wondered how to locate a 'ticking bomb' in the sea of information surrounding us? If you thought the only way to fight terror was through interrogation in Arabic, think again."

In other words, asserts T., the new language of counter-terrorism is JAVA and .NET - which is why, he says, the Shin Bet is trying to woo experienced engineers and computer programmers away from hi-tech startup ventures. To this end, he says, the agency is offering competitive salaries and a chance to develop the latest technologies, with the added bonus of doing work that helps make this country safer.

To illustrate the necessity for top-notch IT, T. gives the events of 9/11 as an example. According to the commission that investigated the bombings, the information about plans for the attacks was available ahead of time to the relevant agencies, but it was in different places and in different formats. "What they failed to do was put everything together and build the picture," he insists.

Which is why, he says, the Shin Bet is now investing close to 80% of its annual procurement budget in developing technology and computer systems. The new recruits (approximately 4,000 applications - among them from Europe and the US - have been submitted via the Web site) will be charged with setting up data warehouses to store the floods of intelligence collected by the agency, and with writing algorithms that can sift through the info and route it where it needs to go, when it needs to get there.

"The idea is not only to have all of the information in storage," explains T., "but to have a system that is able to alert you to old pieces of information that might be connected to what you are working on, even if you were not aware that the information was even there."

CLUELESS AS to how to open itself up to the civilian tech world, the Shin Bet drafted influential entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, who was behind Israel's start-up boom in the late 1990s, and was a founder of Mirabilis, which invented ICQ, the first significant Internet chat service. (Mirabilis was bought by America Online for hundreds of millions of dollars.)

In an open letter to potential candidates, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said that in August alone the agency thwarted 25 suicide attacks and arrested 17 potential bombers - thanks, in large part, to its IT department.

Diskin, only the third chief of the secretive agency to step out of the shadows and appear in public while in office, is featured prominently on the new Web site. In the past, Shin Bet heads were identified in print only by the first initial of their first name, and had their faces blurred on television.

Shown in the video giving a speech in rolled-up shirt-sleeves, Diskin says that computer geeks are just as vital to the organization's effort to weed out suicide bombers as are its undercover agents and interrogators.

"We are looking for a needle in a needle stack, and that's even harder than finding a needle in a haystack," Diskin says. "Therefore, we need advanced technologies for the collection and storage of information, using unique algorithms for the categorization and analysis of information sources."

Former top officials in the agency say that combating modern-day terrorism requires a combination of hi-tech savvy and traditional methods of information-gathering.

"The dark rooms don't bring the goods anymore," says Ester Levanon, a former top official who helped computerize the Shin Bet and who now serves as chief executive of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. "There is information everywhere, and the question is what you do with the millions of pieces of it, in order to find what you need."

Hezi Kalo, a former head of the IT division, says the agency is now using state-of-the-art equipment to trace and locate terrorists. He says that its "artificial intelligence" requires synthesizing vast amounts of information and intelligence, and producing a profile in real-time, sometimes within minutes.

"It is an imperative tool, not just something that is 'nice to have.' If you don't have it, you can't operate," he asserts.

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