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Watching the detectors

Author Patrick Radden Keefe is keeping an eye on electronic intelligence gathering

Six years ago, when Patrick Radden Keefe was a graduate student at Cambridge University in England, he happened upon British newspaper stories that mentioned an international surveillance network with the code name Echelon. Intrigued, he immersed himself in the subject. ''It's one of those classic stories where I got clips from the newspaper and suddenly there's a handful of articles and suddenly I need a new folder and then it's a file cabinet," Keefe says. ''The next thing you know I need a bigger apartment."

Those bulging files and that overstuffed apartment have paid off: At 28, with a few months before he graduates from Yale Law School, Keefe is making a splash with ''Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping," a book that tries to fill in the shadowy portrait of electronic intelligence gathering by the United States and its allies.

On a recent weekday, as he sits on a couch in his childhood home in the Ashmont section of Dorchester, it is the growing culture of domestic secrecy and surveillance that seems to worry Keefe most. While he acknowledges there is a legitimate need for intelligence gathering in the post-9/11 world, he hopes his book will generate a public discussion about the trade-offs between security and privacy that, he says, are being made by government authorities without consulting the American people.

''There are big changes happening kind of under our noses right now," he says. ''What I'm afraid of is we'll wake up 15 years from now in a country we don't recognize."

Nothing in Keefe's manner suggests he is prone to overstatement. He wears a gray suit and speaks with an easy equanimity. When his subject matter grows overly technical, he illuminates it with a flash of humor. But a certain doggedness is also evident -- a trait that came in handy while researching the book, because he was not exactly invited into the world he wanted to describe.

In fact, he says, he was repeatedly stiff-armed in his efforts to get basic information from the National Security Agency, an agency so clandestine that an old joke holds that its initials stand for ''No Such Agency." The NSA is the government organization in charge of surveillance; with a $6 billion budget and 60,000 employees around the world, Keefe says, it is larger than the FBI and CIA combined.

''While I was writing it, I was saying, 'I'm never going to write a book again where nobody would return my calls,' " Keefe jokes.

Asked yesterday whether the agency had any response to Keefe's book, an NSA spokesperson said only: ''We have no information to provide about that."

Keefe may have an easier time getting his phone calls returned from here on out, because he and his book are attracting considerable attention. He has been interviewed for NPR's ''Fresh Air," and ''Chatter" has been respectfully reviewed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times (''a most useful, challenging and provocative book"), and the Village Voice. Keefe has recently published an op-ed piece in The New York Times and an article in The Boston Globe's Ideas section.

A hard nut to crack
In short, he has come a long way since his days as a self-described ''State House brat," when this son of Frank Keefe, the secretary of administration and finance under former governor Michael S. Dukakis, scampered through the corridors of power in state government. (His mother is Jennifer Radden, a professor of philosophy at UMass-Boston.) When he was 10 years old, Keefe made a strong impression as the Youth in a performance of Mendelssohn's ''Elijah" by the Dedham Choral Society. A Globe critic praised the lad, then a soloist in a boys' choir at the Parish of All Saints, as a ''fine boy treble" and ''a musical amateur of the highest order." The reviewer noted in passing that Keefe was a ''lover of fancy cars and a reader of mysteries."

No longer a treble and no longer a boy, Keefe still likes a good mystery. Echelon, though, proved a hard nut to crack. Keefe describes in ''Chatter" his travels through the murky world of surveillance, filled with closed-mouth government officials (who won't confirm or deny the existence of Echelon), intelligence analysts, engineers, mathematicians, scholars, computer geeks, and conspiracy theorists. He went to Menwith Hill, a ''listening station" on the Yorkshire moors in England.

Keefe says he ''wrestled through" his qualms about describing the apparatus of surveillance before concluding that he was not jeopardizing national security, because virtually everything he wrote about is available through public sources.

A storyteller
If Keefe's book proves to be a breakout success -- no easy task for a challenging work of nonfiction, even though he wrote it in an accessible, first-person narrative style -- there will be a trail of very unsurprised people in its wake.

Among them will be Simon Schama, a renowned historian who taught Keefe at Columbia University and calls him ''one of the more remarkable students I have come across."

''He's someone automatically with a very long view," says Schama. ''He wears his learning very lightly. He is totally without side, as we say in Britain." Even as an undergraduate, Schama says, Keefe went beyond the usual secondary sources to research and write a paper that explored the reality and the myth of the famous ''Christmas truce" of World War I.

Keefe showed a similar resourcefulness in dealing with his rebuffs from the NSA. Since the agency would not supply him with any information about the surveillance technology it uses, he says, he went to the US Patent Office and learned from public records what technologies NSA had sought patents on.

Unearthing this kind of material is one thing; weaving it into a compelling narrative is another. That's where Keefe's storytelling ability came in. While he was a fellow in 2003 at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, he made presentations on his subject during the center's weekly lunch seminars before older, established authors such as the novelist Maureen Howard.

''It was just breathtaking," says Jean Strouse, the center's director and an author of biographies of J.P. Morgan and Alice James. ''Here is this kid, basically, who is just such a good storyteller, has so much material. He had us all spellbound."

Keefe is hoping readers will respond in the same way. As for the personal consequences of writing one of the very few books about the work of the NSA, he admits he worried a bit at first before he came to this realization: ''Don't kid yourself. Don't get too big for your britches. These guys have a war to fight. They're not going to worry about some 28-year-old who's writing a book."

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