America's Fortress Of Spies

December 03, 1995|By SCOTT SHANE AND TOM BOWMAN | SCOTT SHANE AND TOM BOWMAN,SUN STAFF

After posing for photos, Chinese diplomats led guests through their new, $13 million embassy in Canberra, Australia, a dramatic pagoda-style building with a swimming pool, tennis courts, greenhouse and sweeping lake views.

But the grand opening in August 1990 would have been ruined had the diplomats known everything about their elegant chancery.

Thirty U.S. agents had worked for months to lace the concrete and drywall of every office with fiber-optic listening devices, their fine, glass threads undetectable in security sweeps.

As the Chinese diplomats set about their work, their conversations and computer keystrokes were flashed by satellite to the other side of the globe: candid talk about relations with Taiwan, secret cables with details of Beijing's trade deals, reports on the latest Chinese military hardware.

All of it flowed to a field of satellite dishes surrounded by spruce trees a few hundred yards from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. At the headquarters of America's largest, most costly and most secret intelligence agency, another rich harvest had begun.

From its sprawling campus at Fort Meade, the National Security Agency eavesdrops on the globe.

The stream of intercepts from Canberra joined a virtual river of communications from all over the world: phone calls of Cali drug cartel operatives, electronic fingerprints of Serbian missiles and tanks, computer messages outlining North Korea's nuclear program, and faxes of a European company fighting U.S. firms for a Saudi Arabian aircraft contract.

Virtually invisible to the American public, NSA runs the nation's most ambitious spying operation, eclipsing the Central Intelligence Agency in budget and personnel. Its operations cost nearly $1 million an hour, $8 billion a year. Its Maryland work force of 20,000 makes NSA the state's largest employer, and it oversees tens of thousands of eavesdroppers in listening posts from Alaska to Thailand.

Now, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, NSA's dominant prey for four decades, the agency is struggling with new priorities and new pressures. Russian generals have been bumped from the top of a shifting NSA target list that now includes everyone from Balkan warlords to Japanese trade officials. Even as the agency is squeezed by tighter budgets, its eavesdropping capability is threatened by new technology - hard-to-tap fiber-optic cable and uncrackable codes available to anyone with a personal computer.

These challenges are being studied by a commission headed by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, whose report next spring is expected to chart a course for NSA and the rest of the intelligence community.

With the agency at a crossroads, The Sun has undertaken a yearlong examination of NSA, interviewing scores of employees and retirees, users of NSA intelligence, members of Congress and private-sector experts.

What they describe is an American behemoth that wraps the globe in its electronic embrace. NSA's eavesdropping reports shape the nation's foreign policies on everything from the deployment of U.S. soldiers overseas to the duties Americans pay on imported cars. The agency that built some of the nation's first computers in the 1950s and financed the supercomputers of the 1970s still pours millions into telecommunications research.

Yet it is a shadowy institution virtually unknown to most Americans. References to NSA are routinely excised from White House memoirs and congressional reports. The only eavesdropping operations declassified date back to the 1940s.

"They're famous even within the [intelligence] community for saying nothing," says David Whipple, a retired CIA official.

While the CIA is charged with recruiting foreign agents for human intelligence -- HUMINT, in spy jargon -- NSA simply listens.

Inside the mirrored towers of its operations complex, it decodes, translates and analyzes the electronic stew known as signals intelligence. SIGINT supplies the U.S. government with an hour-by-hour flow of the private messages of foreign leaders, trade negotiators, terrorists and narco-traffickers.

"There is not a single event that the U.S. worries about in a foreign policy or foreign military context that NSA does not make a very direct contribution to," NSA Director John M. "Mike" McConnell said in rare public remarks this year.

It is a claim readily backed by NSA's "customers" in the U.S. government. Human spies often lie. Satellite photographs reveal only what is in plain view. Bugging can deliver the inside story.

"It's authentic by definition," says a White House foreign policy aide who looks at NSA's intelligence daily. "It's useful to know what people are saying privately."

NSA's secret dispatches to Washington policy-makers make it an unseen player in daily events.

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