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Summary

How does our government eavesdrop? Whom do they eavesdrop on? And is the interception of communication an effective means of predicting and preventing future attacks? These are some of the questions at the heart of Patrick Radden Keefe’s brilliant new book, Chatter.

In the late 1990s, when Keefe was a graduate student in England, he heard stories about an eavesdropping network led by the United States that spanned the planet. The system, known as Echelon, allowed America and its allies to intercept the private phone calls and e-mails of civilians and governments around the world. Taking the mystery of Echelon as his point of departure, Keefe explores the nature and context of communications interception, drawing together fascinating strands of history, fresh investigative reporting, and riveting, eye-opening anecdotes. The result is a bold and distinctive book, part detective story, part travel-writing, part essay on paranoia and secrecy in a digital age. 

Chatter starts out at Menwith Hill, a secret eavesdropping station covered in mysterious, gargantuan golf balls, in England’s Yorkshire moors. From there, the narrative moves quickly to another American spy station hidden in the Australian outback; from the intelligence bureaucracy in Washington to the European Parliament in Brussels; from an abandoned National Security Agency base in the mountains of North Carolina to the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. 

As Keefe chases down the truth of contemporary surveillance by intelligence agencies, he unearths reams of little-known information and introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of unforgettable characters. We meet a former British eavesdropper who now listens in on the United States Air Force for sport; an intelligence translator who risked prison to reveal an American operation to spy on the United Nations Security Council; a former member of the Senate committee on intelligence who says that oversight is so bad, a lot of senators only sit on the committee for the travel. 

Provocative, often funny, and alarming without being alarmist, Chatter is a journey through a bizarre and shadowy world with vast implications for our security as well as our privacy. It is also the debut of a major new voice in nonfiction. 

Listen to an interviewwith Patrick Radden Keefe on Fresh Air.
©2005 Patrick Radden Keefe (P)2005 Books on Tape, Inc.

Critic reviews

"Mr. Keefe writes, crisply and entertainingly, as an interested private citizen rather than an expert." (The New York Times)

"Intelligent and polemical, Keefe's study is sure to spark some political chatter of its own." (Publishers Weekly

What listeners say about Chatter

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for agtsmith
  • agtsmith
  • 06-03-05

Really neat look at intelligence gathering/secrecy

It's a shame this book hasn't been more widely listened to (only 3 ratings at time of this writing, all 5 stars) because it's extremely informative and brings to light issues/events that you might not be aware of, or even think of when you consider the topic of intelligence. It's an ideal book for anyone curious about the subject, and if you're interested in learning a little from a neat non-fiction book, this one is a great choice. Just listen to the audio sample first, the narrator's voice is quite deep and maybe a little exaggerated. My mp3 player lets me select a higher playback speed so I can make the voice sound more normal and it's not a problem for me. I still highly recommend it regardless.

15 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for James
  • James
  • 26-01-06

Worth your time.

This is a really solid introduction to a topic I knew almost nothing about. If you want to learn something substantive about Signals Intelligence (electronic evesdropping) in an utterly painless way, this is a great download.

It's pretty well-written, and although it meanders about at times, by the time it's all done, you've had a very broad exposure to the topic.

The author here is not some privacy zealot out to do a hatchet job on the NSA. Rather, he seems to approach his topic with a genuine sense of intellectual curiousity and an understanding of the inherent trade-offs between privacy and security interests. But what emerges from this fair and frank analysis of the available information is no less troubling.

If you are concerned about your personal privacy, this book shows you have every reason to be justified in those concerns. If you aren't particularly concerned about privacy and just hope our spys manage to find a way to stay ahead of the bad guys and head off the next 9/11, you should also be very concerned about what this book has to say about the effectiveness of U.S. evesdropping capabilities.

The picture that emerges here is that of a traditional, hide-bound government bureaucracy, unable to adapt to the changes in modern communication, rather than the all-seeing, all powerful, Great Eye of the U.S. that some would have us fear.

Yet at the same time, this very bureaucracy is almost completely shielded by secrecy, and still possesses incredible power to invade our privacy, both at home and overseas.

We may have the worst of all possible worlds: an ineffective NSA that often can't actually find the bad guys, spends billions of our dollars, possesses powerful tools for the invasion of our privacy, and has been basically left to its own devices.

The book not only shows you these problems, it also gives you enough exposure to the field to understand why they all are going to be very difficult to solve.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Joseph
  • 29-04-05

Good but not great

The book does an okay job discussing some of the world of SIGINT. The book doesn't progress to solid conclusions, but as previous reviewer said, tends to jump around.

As a former SIGINT worker, I think that the book best details the goverments over reliance on technical intelligence as well as indirectly exposes the results of the brain drain of the 80's from the agencies as we left to join the "gold rush" of technology start-ups.

The best parts for me are the discussion of how public technologies have caught and surpassed NSA capabilities. There are some interesting character analysis of people who do this work. As a former traffic and crypto-analyst, I have to agree with the section on how we perceive ourselves, relative to the others within the intelligence community.

10 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Jonathan
  • 09-04-05

GREAT BOOK!

The narrator could have read a bit faster, but did a great job nonetheless.
Incredible story for those that have 'heard things' about Echelon and it's capabilities, and have fears built falsely on the listening capabilities of our government, this book helps to define many of the things they can and can't do, but also may be able to do. Terrific book!

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • D. M.
  • 22-03-05

Great Book!

If you are at all interested in technology or intelligence, this is definitely the book for you. I figured it was going to be a retelling of everything that we already hear on the news and the internet. However, I learned a lot of things that I didn't even fathem existed. The only reason that I gave the book a 4 out of 5 is that Keefe left me with an urge for more at the end. This was done intentionally as he admits that his book is not the "final word" on the matter, but "the first." I highly recommend it to everyone. It kept me glued to my iPod for hours per day.

3 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Unapologetic
  • 22-06-15

Biased book with interesting anecdotes

Chatter sheds light on many failures of the intelligence community and specifically the NSA. However, the author, fails to understand and deliver the reasons "why?". His left leaning rhetoric gets in the way of what could have been a well written evaluation of the NSA and SIGINT at large. One example, author complains about polygraph examiners instead of linguists being hired after 9/11, without understanding how the linguist needs were being met by the NSA and the agency's need for examiners instead of more linguists.

Chatter maybe worth buying 75% off from the deeply discounted shelves outside Barnes and Nobles. Otherwise save your Audible credit, and read the book's mediocre highlights online.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for G Barth
  • G Barth
  • 21-03-05

Fascinating

One of the delights of this audiobook is the clever and deft writing. For a guy who claims he is not an investigative reporter, he sure fooled me. This audiobook is full of "Really!" moments--and it does offer a good, critical evaluation of claims, counterclaims and explanations about intelligence gathering. The narration is wonderful and even those reasonably familiar with Elint and Sigint will find a LOT here of value. You'll be recommending this audiobook to friends!

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for SJR
  • SJR
  • 21-04-05

Overrated

Highly overrated by prior reviewers in my mind. There are some interesting tidbits, but jumps around a lot, not really a cohesive story. I really do not need a list of listening posts around the world. The fact that the government is listening where it can is not surprising.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Gael
  • 29-07-07

A must

So many different angles and elements- could be a thriller- but rings with expertise, facts, and keeps ones interest after the book is done! Sobering!

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Stephen
  • Stephen
  • 21-03-05

Great Insight

Fascinating look into how the government spies on everyone. Gives a historical good overview of eavesdropping by the NSA, and other agencies. Also discusses the ethics of eavesdropping and the debates by leaders on this issues. Very good read. Try it!

1 person found this helpful