National Security Agency seeks math whizzes

February 10, 1992|By Douglas Birch

Industry and academia have cut back on hiring. But the secretive National Security Agency needs more than a few good mathematicians and has sacrificed some of its cherished anonymity to recruit them.

At a time when the NSA plans to trim its overall work force by about 15 percent, the high-technology spy agency near Fort Meade is aggressively recruiting people with degrees in mathematics.

The agency, which refuses to cite numbers, already claims to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States.

Mathematical minds are prized because they are so versatile, said Dr. Richard J. Shaker, the NSA's chief of math research.

Specialists in algebra, number theory, combinatorics and other esoteric arts often are drafted to do work outside their narrow hTC fields. Some of these theoreticians have "provided big breakthroughs needed for our work in communications, engineering, speech research, signals processing and the design and implementation of powerful, specialized computers," Dr. Shaker said in a speech at a meeting of national math groups in Baltimore last month.

A national study released at the same meeting showed high unemployment among mathematicians who earned doctoral degrees in the United States last spring.

The study also found that the number of people with doctorates in math who are U.S. citizens has plummeted from 75 percent in the mid-1970s to 43 percent last year -- and the NSA is understandably averse to hiring foreign nationals.

"We need you," Dr. Shaker implored the crowd of about 400 mathematicians gathered at the Convention Center. (He declined last week to elaborate on the speech.)

"The bulk of our work, exceptional work, is classified," he said in his speech. "For the most part, we are a black hole."

But in its role of recruiter, the agency has seen fit to loosen up as it continually strives to attract mathematicians. The thaw began in 1987, when NSA invited top-ranking mathematicians to attend two meetings at its once-impenetrable campus.

Later, employees were allowed to put NSA on their name tags at math meetings. Before that, they were told to be discreet and list their affiliation as the Department of Defense.

NSA recruiters were quite visible at the Baltimore meeting, where three mathematicians stood in an NSA booth handing out glossy brochures and blue refrigerator magnets.

A dozen NSA mathematicians gave public lectures. Vice Adm. William O. Studeman, the director of the agency, sent a statement pitching its recruiting program.

NSA has created a mathematics speakers bureau and supports numerous high school education programs. Dr. Shaker's picture even appeared with an article on the NSA's math education programs in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The spy agency won't say why it appears to be pressed for brainpower at a time when international tensions have eased. A public affairs officer, who asked that her name not be used, said NSA would not comment on "operational" issues.

But Cipher Deavours, a second-generation cryptographer who publishes the journal Cryptologia, said the agency probably wants to hire mathematicians to work on satellite imaging systems.

Enabling ultra-fast computers to turn reams of data into three-dimensional pictures is "one field where you need an awful lot of high-powered mathematics," said Dr. Deavours, who teaches at Kean College in New Jersey.

Before the Soviet Union disintegrated, the NSA's mission included monitoring the Eastern bloc, whose telephone, radio and television transmissions had to be laboriously unscrambled and translated, he said.

In the post-Soviet world, he said, spy satellites may be better suited to gathering intelligence from a shifting list of smaller nations because the technology is relatively cheap, reliable and efficient.

Paul Joyal, a former staffer with the Senate Intelligence Committee, speculates that the NSA needs to expand its code-making and code-breaking research to respond to "a proliferation of more sophisticated encryption capability, not only nations but by companies." Mr. Joyal now is president of Integer Inc., an international consulting firm in Silver Spring.

The NSA sometimes has recruiting problems, some academics say. One is the need for secrecy.

Scientific advances, it generally is agreed, often are the result of the cross-pollination of ideas -- the sharing of research through published papers, talks at conferences and chats with colleagues.

Academics say some young mathematicians fear that a career with the NSA -- where employees are told not to talk about any aspect of their work with anyone, even their spouses -- will isolate them from their peers and prevent their work from making a broader contribution to the field.

"Generally speaking, academics are great believers in extreme openness and sharing ideas and results," said David W. Kueker, associate chairman of the math department at the University of Maryland at College Park. "And obviously, when you are in a somewhat restricted, confidential or secretive environment, that would certainly change."

Partly as a result of this concern, several academics said, new recipients of doctoral degrees rarely join the NSA. More often, they say, the NSA ends up hiring students with bachelor's or master's degrees in mathematics who later are encouraged to enroll in doctoral programs.

These students often enroll at Maryland institutions, such as the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University.

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