Air Force general to head NSA Military intelligence chief's nomination goes before Senate

January 25, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Air Force Lt. Gen. Kenneth A. Minihan, who was in charge of the nation's military intelligence, has been nominated to become the director of the National Security Agency, the Pentagon announced yesterday.

General Minihan, 52, a former top military aide at NSA in the early 1980s, will take over the nation's largest and most secretive intelligence agency -- as well as Maryland's biggest employer -- from Vice Adm. John M. "Mike" McConnell, who is retiring after four years as agency director.

NSA, which employs some 20,000 linguists, computer specialists, engineers and mathematicians at Fort Meade and tens of thousands of eavesdroppers around the world, intercepts foreign communications and protects U.S. government communications from foreign spies.

Army Maj. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, director for intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency, has been nominated to replace General Minihan. DIA collects and analyzes military intelligence, from foreign weapons to diseases in combat zones.

The presidential nominations to both the NSA and DIA positions require Senate confirmation.

Last week General Minihan accompanied CIA Director John M. Deutch on a tour of Panama, Colombia and Bolivia to review counternarcotics efforts.

"He's certainly well-qualified," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., who was General Minihan's predecessor at DIA. General Clapper added that the incoming director of NSA faces "a tremendous challenge."

Congress has ordered the agency to reduce its budget and personnel 25 percent by the end of the decade. NSA has an annual operating budget of $3.5 billion and benefits from billions more spent for its eavesdropping satellites.

The budget cuts come at a time when NSA's eavesdropping abilities are being frustrated by the expanding use of hard-to-tap fiber optics to replace microwave communications.

At the same time, commercially available encryption devices are proliferating worldwide and taxing NSA's code-breaking abilities. NSA is being forced to devote more and more of its mammoth computer power to break the spreading encrypted communications. Mr. Deutch and General Minihan discussed these developments during their trip, sources said.

Moreover, a new study released this month by the Commerce Department and NSA shows that U.S. companies are losing ground to foreign makers of encryption products.

The United States bars companies from exporting sophisticated data-scrambling technology, and high-technology companies will likely put more pressure on the Clinton administration to ease these restrictions -- which could in turn intensify NSA's code- breaking headache.

A native of Pampa, Texas, General Minihan is a career intelligence officer who entered the Air Force in 1966 after completing the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Florida State University.

He served a year in Vietnam, beginning in 1969, as a command briefer and target intelligence officer at the headquarters of the 7th Air Force, based outside Saigon at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Among the general's decorations are the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters and the Bronze Star.

During the past two decades, the general has served as a top intelligence official with the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, as commander of an electronic security group at San Vito dei Normanni Air Station in Italy and as commander of the Air Force Intelligence Command at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas.

In 1981, then-Major Minihan spent a year at NSA as chief of the Office of Support to Military Operations and Plans. The next year he was commander of the 6941st Electronic Security Squadron at Fort Meade.

More recently, the general has been involved in the ever-increasing intelligence needs of U.S. troops in Bosnia.

As head of DIA, General Minihan began working on the development of a battlefield computer that would provide commanders in the field the latest intelligence.

Termed the Joint Intelligence Virtual Architecture, it would provide everything from location of enemy troops to the latest eavesdropping information and satellite photos. The general called it "the No. 1 priority for DIA" and estimated it would take six years and $300 million to develop.

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