NSA's Dirty Little Secret

April 11, 1994

The National Security Agency, the ultra-secretive spy agency based at Fort George G. Meade, does its best to keep quiet about what goes on there. That is as it should be, as far as cracking codes and collecting data from satellites and microwave dishes worldwide is concerned. But one of NSA's dirtier secrets is being edged into the public eye, where it belongs: a disturbing record of unfair employment practices.

NSA has one of the worst minority hiring and promotion records in the federal government, with only 11 percent of its roughly 20,000-member work force composed of minorities compared to 27 percent in the government as a whole. Black workers at NSA say they are routinely passed over for promotion, a charge supported by statistics. After a Sun investigation revealed these problems, a Pentagon inspector general began exploring them. His findings are expected soon.

Another investigation by an NSA inspector general found "inequitable treatment" of hundreds of part-time workers, 98 percent of them women, including many experienced cryptologists. These employees accepted part-time jobs to raise young children and for other reasons, assured by NSA officials that they could reapply for full-time vacancies. But when they went to reapply, they were refused full-time jobs.

NSA argued that federal budget constraints made it necessary to change its hiring rules. Yet these employees say they were never told why they could not re-apply for full-time work. In some cases, men with fewer qualifications were hired to fill vacancies that women were told they could not apply for. Complaints forwarded to the NSA's Equal Employment Opportunity office were delayed and downplayed.

NSA director Vice Adm. John M. McConnell has promised to correct work force inequities. Unfortunately, just as NSA's hush-hush nature made faulty employment practices easy to occur and hard to detect, so the secrecy makes it difficult to know whether progress is being made.

Congress needs to stay involved, to extract more information than NSA typically is willing to provide. True, the agency's mission is dealing in covert operations, but that is no reason for its management to escape most hiring and promotion standards other bureaucracies and employers must meet. Tens of thousands of employees should not have to rely on newspaper investigations to gain improvements in their workplace.

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