NSA awards pact to redesign operations

Calif. company will target foreign e-mail, calls, faxes

October 02, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The National Security Agency has awarded a $282 million contract to a California company to redesign the way the agency sifts through the flood of foreign e-mail, telephone calls and faxes it intercepts each day - a step forward in efforts to haul a Cold War-era approach to eavesdropping into the digital age.

The award, one of the agency's largest in recent years, comes amid continuing criticism in Congress of missteps by the country's intelligence agencies. The NSA has drawn notice for its failure to translate an ominous message Sept. 10 last year until Sept. 12, the day after the terrorist attacks, and for its difficulty keeping up with the burgeoning growth in global electronic communications.

The NSA and the contractor, San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., would say little about what new technologies were in the works.

But intelligence analysts said in interviews yesterday that one likely focus would be the capacity to swiftly spot threatening messages amid the growing tide of cell phone and Internet traffic.

"How do you find the terrorist ordering a pizza, which is actually a signal for another 9/11?" says a former senior intelligence official. "It's a daunting task."

Another focus of the new technology, experts said, could be replacing the work of linguists listening in on phone calls with software able to recognize ill-boding words and phrases in a range of foreign languages.

"Rather than have NSA linguists listening to 130 languages, the idea is, `What if we can introduce new computer-based technologies that can machine-read the material?'" said Matthew M. Aid, a former defense intelligence analyst and the author of a forthcoming book on NSA.

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