Ex-NSA Agent Ryan Schoelerman spoke to World-Information.Org about military data collection, disinformation and Serbo-Croatian language training.
Q: Ryan, you served as a US Marine for several years. You were involved in data collection and then returned to college. What motivated you to leave the Military? You could have become a career intelligence officer.
A: It had to do with youth, experience and education. There was definitely an opportunity to stay in and of becoming part of the larger Juggernaut, becoming one of the career intelligence people and in a way of staying manipulated. However, when I went to Somalia in the last year of my four years tour, I started being a little disillusioned and gained some more knowledge. I began to be critical of what I was actually doing and what was happening, and why we were doing what we were doing. In Somalia, working within this larger political organization of the UN, I saw a lot of the inner politics that happened, as opposed to what was being portrayed in the media. These countries were supposedly acting in the greater interest of the international community, but then the larger intelligence organizations were there, slicing up the pie and using the mission as an intelligence gathering opportunity. I was jaded and tired and did not want to do it any more. I wanted to look at the world from a more broader, more open and educated perspective.
Q: Had you stayed on, where do you think you would be today, and what sort of activities would you be doing?
A: If I had stayed on, I would have gone to officer candidate school and gone on into higher ranks. What was offered to me was a re-enlistment position at Menwith Hill.
Q: Menwith Hill, Yorkshire, is known to be one of the listening stations of Echelon. You would have been involved in Signal Intelligence in a serious way.
A: The re-enlistment position would have been part of this whole process that builds you more and more into Echelon intelligence. You do your first school, which for me was SIGINT Collection Operations and then they usually take you to a second level of training and keep building your knowledge base. The second level of training offered to me was to be a Serbo-Croatian linguist, and/or further cryptanalysis schools and things like that. And then I would have moved on to Menwith Hill as a duty station, probably for something like three years.
Q: Why Serbo-Croatian?
A: At that time (1993) there was a lot of talk of US involvement in the Balkans. I remember there was a Marine Corps force on ships off the coast of the Balkans, because they were sent to Somalia from there when the Army Rangers were ambushed and killed in Africa. So for all that was known, the war in the Balkans was going to continue for a while and the intelligence community was getting prepared for a long-term involvement. One of the things being done was getting intel people to go for Serbo-Croatian Linguist training.
Q: What is the function of a linguist in this type of intelligence collection?
A: As I stated in my presentation, the intelligence network is all about databases and building databases. So on one level a linguist would be used to translate written communications and also to translate when listening directly in on a communication Ė so long as itís not encrypted. But linguists also operate in the field, tactically. I believe the situation in the Balkans was very similar to Somalia where some commanders of military units become like warlords and operate on their own volition. When this happens they donít always follow standard communication procedures and they use different names with each other. For example you and I are two warlords communicating, one day I call you and I use your last name, then the next day I use your first name. Someone listening in on this would most likely assume that I spoke with two different people. What happens is these two names go into a database and the linguist, over time, learns the way people communicate or talk, accents and the cadence of how someone talks and then eventually correlates that the two are one and the same person.
Q: In terms of some of the presentations this morning, which painted a rather bleak picture of what the information environment looks like, all information seems to be a product of huge disinformation and propaganda schemes. As somebody who has actually been involved in intelligence collection, what is your perspective on that?
A: I think this perspective is very correct on many levels. One of the things I did in Somalia once I knew I was going back was writing a letter home to my mother and had her send me news clippings from the papers. I was comparing what we were doing with what was released to the press, and there is definitely broad differences. This is not necessarily misinformation, but just not the full picture, so I guess you could call it misinformation. I was just a kid and they manipulate these kids to do the dirty work collecting information. The information you collect goes on to higher levels, and somebody on that level is going to make a decision as to what is going to be released and what is not. I think the picture painted earlier this morning was very clear. Obviously, there are only certain sections that get covered.
Q: For people not familiar with the military, the Armed Forces often appear a kind of ďblack boxď, a sort of opaque and unitary actor. But within the military, are there also dissenting voices? Did you ever get to know people within your environment who asked themselves whether they were doing the right thing?
A: As a matter of fact, we have something that is called the USSID, the United States Signals Intelligence Directives. One of those directives states that when a ship is pulling into a port, within a certain distance of a sovereign nation your receiving equipment has to be turned off. One day we were pulling into Hong Kong and they came in and went to the senior petty officer and told him we were going to stay there and do collection while we were in port, and he said no this is against the regulations. But the commanding officers were telling him that he had to do it. So he removed his security badge and sent a certified letter to his Congressman and went down to his bunk and laid there for two weeks. People started collecting while we were in Hong Kong. Later the commanding officer suddenly said no, we are not doing this any more. So the letter hit somewhere in the chain.
Q: Whenever you are involved in data collection at the level you were involved in, I suppose you never get the full picture of what these data are actually used for?
A: Not on a full spectrum, like for example its military use. You get a glimpse depending on what you are doing. On tactical field levels you can see directives being sent out, especially within special operation units, in coordination with snipers and things like that, you can see them taking people out, you get the full picture of that. In terms of collecting larger level intelligence you are just an operator collecting data. The data goes through another door and you donít see what happens there.