Putting NSA under scrutiny As it adjusts to a changing world, the Fort Meade agency is targeted by critics

October 18, 1998|By Neal Thompson

IS THE National Security Agency doing its job - or stumbling through a midlife crisis? Is it protecting the United States from harm by eavesdropping on potential enemies? Or buying too many high-tech toys - all the better to soak up the world's fax, cellular phone and Internet transmissions - and spending too little on humans to analyze all the electronic booty?

Those questions and others were raised during debate over the Intelligence authorization bill, quietly approved by the House and Senate recently. A report accompanying the bill, now on the president's desk, amounted to the latest in a spate of semi-public critiques of the shadowy agency, its budget, hiring practices and effectiveness.

Another critique came from former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman David E. Jeremiah, who in a classified report to Congress in June said NSA and other intelligence agencies failed to warn U.S. leaders of the May 11 underground nuclear test in India, despite an abundance of intelligence collected days before the test that "indicated something was going on."

That was followed last month by a report to the European Parliament critical of NSA's widespread eavesdropping on European nations, including U.S. allies.

Next on the horizon is a report to Congress by the Free Congress Foundation, which says some of NSA's intelligence-gathering techniques violate the Constitution.

And last week saw another jolt of bad publicity for NSA - the arrest of former cryptologist David Sheldon Boone, charged with selling top-secret NSA documents to the Soviets - which observers say was a symptom of internal problems that continue to go unchecked at the huge but secretive Fort Meade agency.

"These are issues that need to be discussed and the American people need to be made aware of," said Patrick Poole of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. "It ought to give the American people pause if the foundation and the [American Civil Liberties Union] are working hand in hand on this."

These developments come as the intelligence community - which includes NSA, the FBI, the CIA and 10 other agencies - stands at a crossroads. The agencies find themselves in a post-Cold War shift from a lengthy obsession with the Soviets to a focus on strange new antagonists.

They're struggling to stay ahead of new technologies that make it easier for the bad guys to conceal or scramble their conversations and computer files, and tougher for NSA's electronic ears to intercept and decode them. And they are trying to do it all with fewer people.

It's the people issue that has become a vexing one for NSA, intelligence analysts and former employees say. It's an issue muddied by conflicting goals.

NSA has been ordered by the Department of Defense to increase diversity by hiring more women and minorities. However, it must trim its work force. NSA said it is progressing toward both goals, despite a steady flow of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints to the agency and the occasional lawsuit.

At the same time, NSA's role is expanding into areas such as helping the federal government prevent computer glitches when the clock strikes Jan. 1, 2000, and helping the Pentagon protect the nation's computers against hackers and cyber-terrorists.

Some observers say those duties dilute NSA's more traditional role as eavesdropper. Congress appears concerned enough to seek change.

"The committee has concluded that very large changes in the National Security Agency's culture and method of operations need to take place," said a report that accompanied the intelligence authorization bill. But the authors of the report said Congress was "frustrated" and "met resistance" and "found unreceptiveness" to suggested changes.

The sexier details of the authorization act - such as how many billions of dollars NSA and the CIA will get from Congress this year - are classified. But the report and accompanying records and commentary in the Congressional Record offer insight into lawmakers' thoughts on how well the 46-year-old agency is maintaining our national security - or not.

Congress seemed mostly concerned about the "toys vs. boys" debate.

"It has often been said, by both Congress and the administration, that the IC [intelligence community] neglects processing I in favor of more exotic and interesting collection programs, and that this trend has worsened in recent years," said the congressional report.

Similarly, Jeremiah's report spoke of an imbalance between the abundance of data collected by the nation's spies and a "decline in analytic depth."

Jeffrey T. Richelson, an author and intelligence analyst with the National Security Archives, said NSA is trying to computerize analytic tasks once performed by people. The goal is to create programs that automatically review intercepted data by keywords, such as "nuclear" or "Iraq" or "embassy." But until those programs are perfected, the analytical process is selective. Some information gets analyzed, some gets stored to be analyzed later.

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