Mission: confused

December 31, 2003

LET'S TRY TO get this straight: the National Security Agency, in the name of protecting national security, refuses to share with other federal agencies information about toxic waste at NSA's Odenton headquarters that may pose a direct threat to the security of local residents. Huh?

We understand these are dangerous times, what with Code Orange and all. But in its zeal to keep secrets about its physical plant, the super spook agency seems to have lost sight of its larger mission to keep Americans from harm.

What's more, according to reporting by The Sun's Rona Kobell and Ariel Sabar, the global eavesdropping agency seems to be claiming for itself a status above and apart from the rest of the federal government, including the U.S. Army, with which it shares quarters at Fort Meade.

But waste is waste, and as a longtime tenant of what the Environmental Protection Agency has rated as one of the most hazardous dump sites in the nation, NSA has an obligation to make available to federal regulators whatever information they need to make sure it gets cleaned up.

No one's asking NSA to post its secrets on a public Web site or let nosy citizens poke through its trash. All it has to do is share with the Army and EPA regulators information about its buildings and their past and present functions. Surely, their federal colleagues can be trusted.

Yet the NSA recently submitted to the EPA, then suddenly yanked back, a report containing such information, contending it was too revealing. Agency officials told The Sun they would edit out sensitive material and return an unclassified version of the report to the EPA early next year.

Federal regulators and local citizens overseeing the Fort Meade cleanup are understandably skeptical that the sanitized version will be adequate, because NSA has been uncooperative with the effort for years.

On any scale of threats, the potential danger posed by soil and groundwater contaminants at the 86-year-old military post would rank high. Fuels, solvents, munitions -- all have been found there, including 267 buried drums of petroleum. NSA's buildings are not adjacent to the worst of the Army sites, but little is known about what toxic hazards it created on its own, through the production of computer chips or other activities.

It's way past time for the NSA codebreakers to drop their spy masks long enough to let the EPA cleanup crew do its job. National security is too often cited these days to cloak other agendas. Sharing information with federal regulators need not compromise the intelligence agency's mission. Spy work will be of little use, anyway, if we poison ourselves in the process.

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