Go Forth - In Secrecy

July 19, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

He's 23 and a recent college graduate from Lubbock, Texas, who loves the Dallas Cowboys, sports cars and computers.

He's also a spy, but try to get him to admit it.

"We're not spies," said the burly alumnus of Texas Tech University, with a slight smile. "The opposition has spies."

The young computer specialist joined eight other new, er, employees of the National Security Agency, the nation's largest and most secretive intelligence organization, which gleans conversation and anything else from satellites and listening posts around the globe.

The NSA -- jokingly called No Such Agency -- held a graduation ceremony yesterday for the twentysomething recruits who completed the Undergraduate Training Program, designed primarily to attract more minority employees. Seven of the nine graduates are minorities.

NSA pays for the education and summer employment of promising students before offering them full-time jobs. Yesterday's graduates will follow the 26 agency employees who were hired since the program started in 1987. By August, 60 students will be taking part in the program.

Dozens of family, friends and agency employees gathered yesterday in an auditorium at NSA's Fort Meade headquarters, as the smiling graduates climbed on the stage and received certificates. Hanging before a crimson curtain was the agency's seal, an eagle grasping a large key in its talons.

For the first time, NSA allowed a reporter inside the agency to attend the ceremony. But in keeping with its secret mission, the agency would not allow the graduates to be named.

It was not your typical graduation. There were no camera-touting parents scurrying to get the right angle. An agency photographer dutifully recorded the graduates with their families and posed the recruits for a group shot.

There were no whoops, screams or champagne to fuel the celebration. Cookies and juice were served to the group in a reception room off the cafeteria.

Even the laid-back jests were in keeping with the high-tech, high-intelligence gathering. When there was some confusion on the stage, the agency's director, Vice Admiral John M. McConnell remarked: "We do SIGINT [signals intelligence] better than we do graduations."

High school applicants must have a "B" average, demonstrate leadership abilities and be involved in extracurricular activities. They also must choose a college major that meets agency needs, such as language, engineering, math or computer science.

Besides the Dallas Cowboys' fan, a Hispanic who will spend his days working on computer software engineering, the graduates included a 21-year-old black woman from Washington who studied electrical engineering at Boston University and has worked on agency systems. Also finishing the program was a TC black 21-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan from Lanham who studied an Asian language.

When quizzed about his work, he turned to NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel for guidance. "Language analyst" was finally allowed.

Some of the graduates conceded it was difficult trying to come to grips with the agency's hush-hush manner during chats with college friends about summer jobs and beyond.

"I normally hedge a bit and ramble on," said one graduate, who talks of his government work in "very vague language" or simply says he works for the Department of Defense, the official NSA response.

Rep. Louis Stokes, an Ohio Democrat and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, created the undergraduate program. After watching a steady stream of white male intelligence officials parade into his hearing room, he asked about women and minorities.

Officials at the CIA and the NSA told him they tried to become more diverse in selection but that they had to compete with private industry, which can offer more lucrative salaries. "Listening to that for about four years, I decided to do something

about it, " he told the graduates and guests.

Still, the quest for diversity continues at an agency that employs more than 20,000 people at Fort Meade and thousands more overseas. Spurred by reports in The Sun last year that the agency has one of the worst records in the federal government for hiring and promoting women and minorities, a Pentagon Inspector General's report in April said the agency has acknowledged the problem but has not significantly increased that representation in the past five years.

Minorities make up 11 percent of the NSA work force, compared with 27 percent of the federal government as a whole. The percentage of minorities in NSA's upper pay grades also is about half that for federal workers.

"We accepted that criticism. We're stepping up to it," Admiral McConnell said at the ceremony.

One success story is the Undergraduate Training Program, he ** said. This year more than 300 applied for the program and 25 were chosen, the highest number ever. Of the 26 who have completed the program since 1987 and who have begun work at the agency, only two left.

"Moving through the system with no discrimination, they will rise to the top," Admiral McConnell said.

The NSA director said that as he tries to make the agency more reflective of society, he recalls a favorite phrase of Mr. Stokes, who served in the segregated Army during World War II and later became Ohio's first black congressman: "Give them an opportunity and they'll shine."

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