NSA part-timers find careers thwarted as they try move to full-time status

March 21, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

For more than a decade she was a faithful employee of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, a spy agency so secret most Americans don't even know its name, even though it's larger than its well-known cousin the CIA.

She was an intelligence analyst with an advanced degree who earned commendations and cash awards for her work. She began working part time to care for her child, assured by NSA management -- and backed up by federal regulations -- that she could return to full-time work when she was ready.

But she and several hundred other part-time workers -- virtually all of them women -- were surprised by NSA officials who said they cannot apply for full-time work.

"They were interested until they found out I was part time," said the woman, who requested anonymity, fearing reprisals. "And they said, 'We can't touch you,' " she said.

"Those women were trapped, even though they had a significant amount of time with the agency," said Joann C. Branche, a Columbia lawyer who is representing the woman in her complaint against NSA. "You have people who are relying on information to make career choices and then are penalized."

Complaints from the intelligence analyst and others resulted in an investigation by NSA Inspector General Francis E. Newton, whose report in April 1993 was sharply critical of an agency that already is the subject of a Pentagon inspector general's investigation into accusations of racial and sexual discrimination.

"The [NSA] inspector general finds . . . inequitable treatment of significant numbers [hundreds] of affected employees," said the report, distributed only to NSA's top management. "The vast majority of these employees are women from a wide cross-section of professional cryptologic career fields."

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, said the problem is well-known among workers and that it causes others "to be afraid of going on part-time status, even temporarily." The inspector general called upon NSA to correct the problem.

NSA does not permit its officials to be interviewed. In response to written questions from The Sun, the agency issued a #i three-page statement, in which it said it had addressed the inspector general's concerns by creating procedures to ease the return to full-time work for those who attempt to do so in the future.

But for those who have long been trying to make the conversion, Michael A. Smith, the agency's director of policy, wrote in the response that budget constraints will prevent NSA from aiding them even though they have followed procedures.

"Given these [budget] limitations, it is not feasible to provide the opportunity for every part-time employee, regardless of skill, to convert to full-time status," the statement said. "These reductions have caused us to alter our previous policy, which allowed for these conversions."

The agency -- among Maryland's largest employers, with 20,000 workers at Fort Meade and thousands more stationed around the world -- now is trying to see how many part-time employees it can raise to full-time status, he said, though he expected there would be few.

"NSA's current hiring program is limited to employees in the critical skills areas (mathematics, computer sciences, engineering and foreign languages)," wrote Mr. Smith, "and the majority of our part-time work force does not fall into these categories."

Since its inception in 1952, the agency has been charged with writing and breaking codes and listening; it gleans information from satellites, microwave dishes and electronic hideaways worldwide.

Congress also is looking into the problem. NSA officials were questioned two weeks ago during a closed-door meeting of the House Intelligence Committee, said a committee staffer.

NSA's part-time workers said they never were told why they couldn't apply for full-time work. The inspector general's report is silent on that point, and NSA's statement did not address that question.

But workers suspect the agency was hoping they would get frustrated and quit, giving NSA an easy way to meet congressional orders to cut its work force by 17.5 percent by 1997.

Some workers have done just that, including the intelligence analyst. "I put my heart and soul into working there, and they don't deserve it," said the woman, who is seeking back pay and benefits.

Although she has left the agency, she still is barred from talking to the news media about her work.

Besides destroying her career, the situation has harmed the agency's mission, the woman said. A man with less experience and fewer of the skills necessary for the job was chosen for at least one of the several full-time jobs she requested.

Other current workers who are fighting the policy declined to discuss it with The Sun.

The situation with part-time workers also calls into question the commitment of NSA to its women employees, who make up 39 percent of the agency staff.

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