Congressional panels fault NSA intelligence failures

Agency needs staff, money, reports say

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 03, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In two new reports, the congressional intelligence committees have singled out the National Security Agency as an especially troubled part of an ailing U.S. intelligence system and called for increased funding and manpower at the eavesdropping and code-breaking agency.

The reports from the House and Senate intelligence committees were largely written before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, and express concern about longstanding problems in technology, personnel and management. But the failure of the $30 billion-a-year U.S. spy agencies to give warning of the attacks is likely to intensify the pressure for change at the Fort Meade agency.

The House report calls the problems at NSA "the most serious and immediate," blaming budget cuts and "severe internal mismanagement." The Senate report calls "revitalizing the National Security Agency" its highest priority, saying NSA's shortcomings could be particularly crippling in the fight against terrorism.

"I think both of the reports are expressions of great frustration - frustration that preceded Sept. 11 but which has become far more intense since the attacks," said Steven Aftergood, intelligence policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. But he added: "The committees aren't looking for heads to roll. They want NSA to succeed, and they're prepared to provide the resources to make it happen."

Experts on intelligence say terrorist financier Osama bin Laden in recent years has shifted his means of communication to evade NSA's satellites and listening posts, relying on trusted couriers or possibly using unbreakable encryption. But the current terror investigation has revealed a plot that involved many participants communicating and shifting money between Europe, Asia and the United States, making them conceivable targets for NSA scrutiny.

The reports were issued with annual legislation authorizing the intelligence budget, the Senate committee's on Sept. 14 and the House committee's on Sept. 26. The unclassified portions of the reports were posted on the Internet over the weekend by the Government Printing Office.

The House authorization bill would ease restrictions on the CIA's recruiting of unsavory foreign agents, which some critics have said may have limited the agency's ability to work with informants in terror networks. It would also create a 10-member Commission on Sept. 11 Government Preparedness and Performance, appointed jointly by President Bush and Congress, to conduct a six-month analysis of why the nation was taken by surprise.

The House report acknowledges the efforts of the current NSA director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, to create a "new team" to rebuild the agency. But it adds: "However, the committee is concerned about NSA internal management's willingness to fully understand the need for radical change and to get behind these programs."

Asked for a response to the reports, NSA referred yesterday to a written statement Hayden issued in July 2000: "NSA is in the midst of transforming its foreign signals intelligence and information assurance missions to operate at the highest possible levels of both modernization and readiness. For this agency, change was - and remains - an imperative."

While the reports include relatively few specifics on the troubles at the highly secret agency, outside experts and congressional hearings have identified several intractable problems:

A failure to cope with the enormous challenges posed to NSA's eavesdroppers by new communications technology, including the Internet, unbreakable encryption, hard-to-tap fiber-optic cables and the exploding volume of information. At NSA, like CIA, "thousands of pieces of data are never analyzed or are analyzed `after the fact,' because there are too few analysts," the House report says.

A loss of talent to the private sector, where there has been strong demand for experts in communications and encryption, and resistance to change in NSA's management ranks, a problem Hayden has sought to deal with by bringing in new people. Like the CIA and FBI, NSA also has a severe shortage of linguists trained in Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages particularly relevant to terrorism.

Neglect of the agency's technical infrastructure, which resulted in a devastating three-day shutdown of computer systems at NSA in January 2000. Hayden moved to solve this problem in July by hiring private contractors to handle some of the agency's less sensitive computer and telephone systems.

By all accounts, the problems were exacerbated by post-Cold War budget cuts imposed on the agency in the early 1990s. While the agency's budget is classified, one source says the NSA budget fell from $5.2 billion in 1990 to $3.4 billion in 1995.

In recent years, the budget evidently has risen somewhat, but both committees call for further increases. The economic impact of NSA's budget is huge in Maryland, where it is probably the largest single employer, with about 20,000 workers at Fort Meade.

Last year, a national commission on terrorism called NSA the country's most valuable weapon against terror, but it said the agency "is losing its capability to target and exploit the modern communications systems used by terrorists, seriously weakening the NSA's ability to warn of possible attacks."

Now, when that warning seems prescient, NSA is under intense pressure to use its growing budget to overcome technical obstacles and prevent further attacks, said Jeffrey T. Richelson, author of many books on intelligence.

"If they don't cope with those problems," Richelson said, "they'll lose their reason to exist."

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