Secret spy agency puts on human face

Thaw: After decades in the shadows, NSA adopts the good - neighbor policy in Odenton.

March 21, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,Sun Staff

On a bright day in November on the runway of Odenton's Tipton Airport, the man in the sport coat near the front row of 300 spectators clapped politely as Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens thanked people for the airport's opening.

She thanked the politicians. They waved. The man clapped.

She thanked the airport officials. They stood. He clapped.

She said, "I'd also like to thank Terry Thompson with the National Security Agency." The man froze.

As all eyes turned toward him, he raised a hand, gave a tentative wave and quickly put it down.

"I didn't know you weren't supposed to do that," Owens said later.

It was a symbolic moment for the NSA, at once an agency seeming to step into the community spotlight yet keeping a foot in the shadows. For the nation's most secret eavesdropper to expose Thompson, assistant director of support services, and other officials to local fanfare was a significant step in the spy agency's 50-year history.

For almost five years, after nearly four decades of isolation, the agency has made slow and cautious moves to become a better neighbor and acknowledge its responsibility as Maryland's largest employer. More than 100 NSA employees volunteer in county schools, the agency donates computers to local learning centers, and the agency gives more blood -- 6,500 pints per year -- than any other employer in the state.

Yet the change has been difficult for both NSA and the community, as neighbors and county and state officials struggle to understand the agency while feeling threatened by its power.

The shift is not entirely altruistic. The agency, once encircled by farms and woods, is now asking the county to keep it informed of the dozens of new housing, business and airport developments suddenly in their back yard. Despite its $5 billion a year budget and authority in Washington, NSA is at the county's mercy when it comes to roads and water.

The agency has long sought the completion of Route 32, just outside its front gates. A decade ago, the county told the agency to get in line and wade through the same bureaucratic hurdles as everyone else. After much outreach on NSA's part, the road is scheduled for construction in early summer.

"In the last five years since I've been here, the change has been nothing short of remarkable," said Bill Badger, president of the Anne

Arundel County Economic Development Corp. "My impression is that they came to realize that for anyone that large, it's hard to be hiding. They also have come to realize that they couldn't just come to us and say, 'Trust us, we need a road.' They needed to come to the county and ask."

This transformation into the good neighbor, though, has not been entirely successful. The agency began construction weeks ago on a $903,000 perimeter fence to take the place of the stately black iron gates. The new barrier is chain link with layers of barbed wire. Neighbors say it will make the agency look like a prison.

With any other group, residents would have hoped to become involved in the design process. With NSA, there is no one even to call.

Still, NSA officials say there is a difference from five years ago: Neighbors and county officials knew NSA was going to build a fence before construction started.

In the late 1980s, when developers set their sights on land across the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from NSA's sprawling complex, they waited for a clear fall day and sent a photographer to shoot the future site of the multimillion-dollar National Business Park.

But as the photographer started to the top of a hill, NSA security vehicles surrounded him.

"They picked him up and hauled him in and asked what he was doing," said Robert R. Strott, senior vice president at Constellation Real Estate, a partner in the project.

Only after hours of questioning, during which the photographer told them he had never heard of NSA, did they let him go.

Business park developers said that in the early 1990s when the first building was under construction, NSA was so concerned that the building would be used as a lookout post that the agency leased the entire 11-story structure before it was finished.

'A little more realistic'

Since then, the agency has become almost a partner of the developers and is working with them to build a private bridge over the freeway for employees to get from the high-rise to headquarters. Agency insiders say they now call the building the "Western Campus."

"Things have really changed with them," Strott said. "Before, it was like they were a nonentity, as if nobody worked there. They are a little more realistic these days."

NSA's work on the business park was only the beginning. County officials say NSA has also poked into other projects planned for the area.

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