In 2011, U.S. 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.
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.”
U.S. 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 hot dogs – 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 investigations.
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.
In 2011, the database had 420,000 names
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.”