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New targets: National Security Agency spies target computer terrorism, economic espionage and nuclear weapons


No Such Agency

December 15, 1995|By TOM BOWMAN AND SCOTT SHANE | TOM BOWMAN AND SCOTT SHANE,SUN STAFF Researchers Susan Waters, Jean Packard and Paul McCardell contributed to this series.

The State Department demands intercepts from a shifting list of world hot spots - Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Chechnya, Bosnia. With each crisis, NSA has had to scramble to find linguists skilled in obscure tongues.

"If I were the head of NSA today, I'd be over in Kyrgyzstan buying up a couple of Kyrgys or whatever they're called," says former Director of Central Intelligence Adm. Stansfield Turner. "You go out like Noah and you get two of everything and bring them over here."

In some Third World nations NSA has been stumped by a problem it never saw in the former East Bloc: primitive communications its dishes and satellites can't pick up. As U.S. transport planes landed at Mogadishu airport in 1993, Somali militiamen alerted their bosses by pounding in code on a drum.

"The country was so devastated they didn't even have a phone system that worked," says a senior Defense Department official.

Fortunately for NSA, most of the world's hot spots still offer plenty to pick up. In Bosnia, the agency reported to the Pentagon the missile site that would shoot down Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady, though the information was not acted upon in time, Admiral McConnell said in his June talk.

The FBI and CIA have pushed for more eavesdropping on terrorists, and NSA has kept its ear close to Peshawar, Pakistan, in an effort to find the shadowy financiers of the World Trade Center blast.

But while Soviet generals talked for years on the same schedule and the same channels, terrorists move constantly and use multiple aliases. This sometimes frustrates the intelligence agency's standard tactic - programming computers to scan phone traffic for selected phone numbers and names.

NSA computers searched the airwaves for the notorious terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal for two decades before picking up information last year that led to his arrest in the Sudan, according to congressional sources.

Drug dealers can prove just as elusive. Until recently, the agency was wary about getting involved in counternarcotics, fearing that sensitive methods could be exposed in court or that drug rings would include Americans, whom NSA cannot legally target.

But one veteran DEA official says the flow of information has dramatically increased since the Soviet collapse and is now "a godsend."

All of NSA's tips come with strings attached, however: Prosecutors must be willing to drop a case - no matter how important - rather than permit NSA eavesdropping to be revealed in court.

Commercial espionage

Of all NSA's post-Soviet missions, the most controversial is economic spying, which often targets the perfectly legal activities of traditional U.S. allies.

Australia, New Zealand and Canada - which along with Britain and the United States have for five decades shared their signals intelligence - recently built their own intercept sites to pick up commercial satellites, according to one intelligence expert.

With so much competitive economic information flowing over commercial satellites, the old allies have become rivals and no longer want to share business intelligence, this expert says.

President Clinton has responded in kind. Declaring a sound economy the key to national security, he has pressed the spies for data on America's trade competitors and evidence of unfair trade practices.

When the Mexican peso collapsed late last year and the United States contemplated a bailout, NSA informed American policy-makers that Mexican officials were not being candid about currency reserves. The United States confronted Mexico and demanded straight information.

For now, NSA apparently is not passing foreign companies' commercial secrets to their American competitors. In an era of Tennessee-built Hondas and Chinese-made AT&T phones, the eavesdroppers are understandably uncertain about whom to spy for and whom to spy on. But a few voices say NSA should do more to help U.S. industry.

"If we were willing to spy for the military security of our country during the Cold War, I see no reason morally, ethically, logically that you won't spy to protect the economic security of the country in the non-Cold War," says Admiral Turner, the former CIA chief.

"There are practical problems with it and I acknowledge all of them. I only say, don't turn your back on it on some silly moral principle."

For now, NSA seems to have steered a middle course, targeting corrupt foreign practices that put U.S. companies at a disadvantage. Last year, Raytheon Co. beat out the French high-tech company Thompson for a big contract in Brazil after NSA tipped off American negotiators that Thompson was trying to bribe Brazilian officials.

"Intelligence on bribery let's us know what we're up against," says a senior Clinton administration official. "You're better prepared."

'Dramatic change' ahead

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