NSA goes to the movies Trend: As technology looms ever larger in our lives, Hollywood is seeking a new vision of villainy in the secret intelligence agency at Fort Meade.

February 15, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

With the Cold War warmed, the Soviet Union dismantled and KGB agents out of vogue (and out of jobs), moviemakers have replaced Russia -- and Nazis and mobsters, too -- with a more modern genre of big-screen evil: the techno-spy.

And in its search for new varieties of wiretapping, computer-hacking bad guys, Hollywood has aimed its cameras at the National Security Agency, the nation's super-secret eavesdropping and code-breaking organization at Fort Meade.

It began five years ago with the movie "Sneakers," in which Robert Redford's crew of computer hackers steals a code-cracking device that can break into any computer on Earth. Two bad guys pretending to be NSA agents try to snatch the device, which, at the movie's end, is handed over to an avuncular, real NSA guy played by James Earl Jones.

In the past year, NSA has made cameos in a movie-length episode of the TV show "Murder, She Wrote" and has joined the two FBI agents of the TV show "The X-Files." There's an NSA "agent" on the show "The Visitor." The movie "Wag the Dog" invokes NSA's name in vain a few times, as did "Men in Black." The film "Good Will Hunting" contains a funny scene with an NSA recruiter.

And crews recently wrapped three months of filming in Baltimore and Washington for "Enemy of the State," in which a rogue NSA guy is trying to kill a lawyer, played by Will Smith.

If you've seen "Mission Impossible" or "The Net," you know the new genre's plot lines. Instead of Russians or Nazis bent on ruling the world, some guy dressed in black (goatee or ponytail optional) wants "access." Instead of drugs or money or weapons, he needs: A) a computer chip; B) a diskette; C) the carrier of the diskette or computer chip. In "Enemy of the State," there's a slight twist: the NSA bad guy is after the carrier of the videotape.

David Marconi, who spent three years researching and writing the original screenplay of "Enemy of the State," initially chose NSA because it seemed like uncharted celluloid territory.

"I found they have more funding and manpower than the CIA and FBI put together, and yet nobody knows who they are," Marconi said.

Indeed, since its creation in 1952, NSA has become the nation's largest intelligence agency, while remaining its most secretive. About 20,000 people work at its Fort Meade headquarters; thousands of others work abroad. NSA's mission is to intercept and decode other countries' electronic communications in search of potential threats to U.S. security. The Defense Department oversees NSA and its top-secret budget, which pays for the agency's expensive, high-tech tools, such as satellites and the world's most powerful computers.

"So, it seemed like a very good organization to weave a story around -- especially the way society is going today and embracing technology," said Marconi, who calls the movie "a Hitchcockian high-tech thriller."

What-if?

With more and more people using computers and cellular phones, Marconi said, there's a growing potential for NSA to use its tools to spy on Americans. He said his movie seeks to portray such a "what-if scenario."

"It's not an indictment of the intelligence apparatus of this country," he said. "I just want it to serve as a wake-up call. It was yesterday's sci-fi novel, and now it's today's reality."

Dragging NSA onto the big screen coincides with an emergence from the shadows for an agency that once denied its own existence and tried to quash books and articles about its secret operations.

"Ten or 15 years ago, if someone was trying to make 'Enemy of the State,' NSA would have been there actively discouraging them," said John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that sometimes bumps heads with NSA in its fight against government oversight of computers and the Internet.

Today, NSA is more public than ever. You can even go to the NSA gift shop at the National Cryptologic Museum and buy an umbrella with NSA's logo on it (which is where "Enemy of the State" crews shopped for props).

"NSA has been its own worst enemy," said Barlow, who consulted on "Enemy of the State" and thinks NSA's clinging to secrecy is excessive and archaic.

"Because, in the absence of real information about what's been going on in there, people supplied their own information. So, people overestimated their malicious intent."

Indeed, some portrayals of NSA "agents" make NSA folks laugh. Unlike the CIA -- which practices "HUM-INT," or human intelligence -- NSA is all about "SIG-INT" -- signals intelligence. That means a lot of linguists listening to foreign phone and radio transmissions and a lot of mathematicians using algorithms and computers to decode some of those messages.

More Dilbert than Le Carre

"We work at desks in offices. We're not running around with guns," said NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel.

NSA's reaction to Hollywood: They'll grudgingly put up with the attention, but they just wish moviemakers would get the facts straight.

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