Director of NSA shifts to new path

Hayden makes changes to keep up with technology

`He's had to move the culture'

August 08, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Last year, long before CIA Director George J. Tenet resigned in advance of a series of damning reports on intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the chief of an even larger spy agency was quietly asked to extend his term.

Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, was asked by Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to stay on as director until at least September 2005. The 6 1/2 -year term will make the three-star Air Force general by far the longest-serving NSA boss in the agency's 52-year history.

Hayden's survival amid the harsh assessment of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence may reflect his ability to turn around the gargantuan eavesdropping agency in an era of shifting technology and threats.

Even as stateless terrorists have replaced Soviet missile bases as the agency's prime target, so the boom in cell phones, the Internet and the spread of fiber-optic cable and computerized encryption have forced it to reinvent eavesdropping technology.

"The whole ballgame of where and how you collect signals intelligence changed," says Charles G. Boyd, a retired Air Force general who was executive director of the Hart-Rudman Commission on national security in the late 1990s and now heads Business Executives for National Security.

"And that's where [Hayden] has moved this institution. To do that, he's not only changed technologies and processes. He's had to move the culture itself, and that's very difficult to do."

Boyd knows Hayden well from their Air Force service and has followed his work at NSA closely. "As a manager of change and a manager of intelligence overall, I think Mike Hayden is the best we have," he says.

Agency changes

Matthew M. Aid, a respected intelligence historian in Washington who is writing a book on the NSA, says the changes under Hayden appear to be producing results.

"The al-Qaida operatives who are being tracked down and caught - that's largely the result of signals intelligence," which is spy lingo for the intercept of phone calls, e-mail and other messages that is NSA's turf, Aid says. "NSA is flush with cash. It's hiring thousands of new people. It's clearly an agency that's going places."

Some NSA veterans complain that Hayden "brought in corporate types who gave him Harvard Business School models" that "don't work for an intelligence agency," Aid says.

But the people at the CIA, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon who receive NSA's reports see a difference, he says: NSA "has a lot more respect from intelligence consumers than it had when Hayden arrived in 1999."

The changes at NSA have been wrenching, with large numbers of veterans taking early retirement and contractors brought in to handle much of the agency's retooling. More than 22 percent of the agency's civilian work force has been hired since 2000, with more than 1,300 new employees expected to come on board this year, agency officials say.

Aid estimates that 25,000 civilian and military employees work on NSA's sprawling Fort Meade campus off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, although the exact number is classified. At least an additional 10,000 eavesdroppers are scattered elsewhere in the United States and around the world, he says.

Many agency old-timers aren't happy, says retiree Mike Levin, who worked at the agency from 1947 to 1993. "I have a very negative view of General Hayden. Before he had a chance to know what was going on, he announced he was going to clean the place out," Levin says.

But others say the NSA was in need of radical surgery well before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"NSA was set up to monitor an enormous country, the Soviet Union, that didn't go anywhere," says James Bamford, author of two books on the agency. "It was never set up to follow individual terrorists around the world using phone cards, disposable cell phones and e-mail."

Of Hayden, Bamford says, "I think he's done about as good a job as anyone could do given the limitations."

In fact, the author says, the cerebral 59-year-old intelligence veteran, a Bulgarian linguist early in his career, might emerge as a candidate for the post of national intelligence director proposed by the Sept. 11 commission.

Keeping up

When Hayden arrived in March 1999, the agency was by all accounts hurting. Its budget had been cut by about a third since the height of the Cold War, but it had to devise new intercept systems to keep up with what Hayden calls "the greatest revolution in communications since Gutenberg discovered movable type."

The shift of international communications traffic from satellites and microwave links to hard-to-tap fiber-optic cables posed a major challenge. Encryption described by NSA officials as impossible to break was spreading. National magazine stories on the secret agency began to ask: Is the NSA going deaf?

Then, in January 2000, a huge computer crash took the agency offline for days, dramatizing the need for an updated infrastructure.

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