As NSA considers cutting jobs, angry employees refuse to work

Some staff members say agency computer system could fail because of heat

November 16, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Reprinted from yesterday's editions.

For the first time in its history, the National Security Agency is laying off more than 400 technicians and electricians - eliminating an entire department - and leaving them without a lifeline to private-sector jobs.

According to several agency sources, the employees, most with high-level security clearances and at least 15 years at the agency, have been told to keep quiet about the layoffs. Several employees said management told them in a unit meeting that their jobs would be eliminated by June.

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph that accompanied an article on the National Security Agency in yesterday's editions was not of an NSA building, as the caption implied. The building in the photograph is the headquarters of a Swiss company, Crypto AG, that was discussed in a 1995 Sun series on the NSA. The Sun regrets the error.

In the meantime, many of them are refusing to answer repair and maintenance calls at the agency, and using up hundreds of hours of accumulated sick leave. Most at risk by the work slowdown is the department's critical responsibility of keeping a system running that pipes cold water and cool air to the agency's extensive computer network and mainframes to prevent them from overheating.

The plans to eliminate workers come at a difficult time for the agency, as it continues its search for Osama bin Laden, in addition to working to prevent terrorist attacks. Many of the employees, who spoke to The Sun on the condition of anonymity, said they felt betrayed, especially because their unit worked 24 hours a day, some of them sleeping at the agency at Fort Meade, in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yesterday, an NSA spokesman said in a written statement that the agency is looking for "ways to focus its government resources" by turning work over to contractors and through incentive and early-retirement programs, and that only as a "last resort" will it turn to "involuntary separation programs" late next year.

An NSA memo, though, tells division heads and employees that the agency director has determined that several departments, including the technicians' and electricians' department, "can and should be out-sourced."

The memo, dated Nov. 7, says "the bottom line is that there is no guarantee" that any of the employees will be retained by the agency.

Patricia Cox White, associate general counsel for acquisition and logistics, signed the memo, which was obtained by The Sun.

"I've traveled all around the world for more than 20 years for them, and this is the way they thank us," said one employee.

"We have locked up, put on the brakes," said another. "We're not doing service calls, we're not doing repairs. I saw a guy yesterday who has been here 30 years put his feet up on the desk and say, `Hire a contractor to do it.' ... If those systems overheat, they will shut down, and then the agency will shut down."

For more than five decades, jobs at the NSA have been among the most secure in government. Because all of its employees undergo extensive background checks and get security clearances, and have access to some of the agency's most closely guarded secrets, the agency has rarely let employees go.

Last year, agency Director Michael V. Hayden announced plans to hire contractors to replace more than 600 information technology employees under a highly publicized program, Project Groundbreaker. Those employees, though, all of whom had left the payroll by this month, were offered incentives such as bonuses and better pay to switch to a private company hired to do their work. The agency also set up a job placement center for those who did not want the private-sector jobs.

These incentives are not likely to be available to the employees of the Installation and Logistics Department, according to the memo.

"There is little likelihood that Groundbreaker-like salary/bonus/benefits packages will be offered," the memo said. "Do not expect an employment office" to be set up for assistance, the memo continued.

The agency has been under heavy pressure from Congress over the past two years to cut back and refocus its funding to its core mission: spying on the communications of the country's adversaries and protecting this country's communications from eavesdropping.

Congressional oversight committees, concerned by a computer shutdown that halted the agency's operations two years ago and worried about reports that the agency can't keep up with the ever-expanding volume of faxes, e-mails, phone calls and digital relays, ordered an overhaul.

Until now, the overhaul has not included layoffs.

Working for the NSA has long been a point of pride for the agency's more than 20,000 workers. Employees from the installation and logistics unit said that the agency's highest officials knew them by name, and that if one of the agency's systems failed, the unit would have the problem fixed in minutes.

Many in the department were responsible for fixing problems at secret eavesdropping locations throughout the world, where electricians who hook up high-powered cable wires need top security clearance and specialized skills.

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