NSA methods lag in age of terror

Intercepts: Electronic eavesdropping fails to hear whispered secrets.

December 09, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

At one of his increasingly common public appearances earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, head of the National Security Agency, described the ideal class of recruits for his secretive electronic spying operation. They might have long hair and rumpled clothes, he said, maybe even an awkward, slide-rule and pocket-protector manner. But they would have the brainpower to set the room on fire.

"We don't hire them for their social skills, or how they dress," Hayden told business leaders. "We hire them to be the absolute best at what they do."

Yet what they do at the nation's spy agencies is changing, analysts say, and the eggheads at the NSA could soon be fighting for resources with spies in the trenches of the United States' fight against terrorism. The code-breaking and "signals intelligence" work that the NSA does best - rooted in complex mathematics and linguistic dexterity - will never go out of style as long as nation-based threats such as North Korea and Iran exist, they say. But it is far less vital against an enemy that sleeps in caves and cellars, and communicates in whispers.

"I wouldn't want to suggest that electronic signals intelligence isn't important. It is," said Michael Kenney, a Pennsylvania State University professor who specializes in research on terrorist groups and drug cartels. "But when the government squeezes a terrorist group or a drug-trafficking group, these guys are aware of it, and they're aware of the sophisticated techniques being used. They know they have to stop using their cell phones or satellite phones, and they might switch to couriers. Then you need human intelligence to stay on their trail."

During the recent national debates over reforming the federal intelligence system, which culminated yesterday in the passage of legislation to create a national intelligence director, only the more conspicuous CIA received public calls for increased support. President Bush ordered the CIA last month to increase its staff of agents and analysts by half to "meet the intelligence challenges presented by international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other critical national security issues." The Maryland-based NSA, which is thought to employ about 16,000 people in and around its Fort Meade headquarters and an equal number elsewhere in the world, was never mentioned.

Some wonder whether the NSA is getting second-string treatment from government leaders. During the Cold War, when the NSA grew into the nation's largest intelligence operation and claimed victories such as tapping a Soviet communications cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, the agency's electronic eavesdropping was regarded as spying's next generation. Today's era of terrorism requires more "human intelligence" gathered through face-to-face dealings, the primary responsibility of the CIA.

"The NSA is a collecting agency, and it gathers information that is immensely useful," said Arthur Hulnick, a former CIA employee and the author of two books about reforming the American intelligence networks. "But when it comes to fighting terrorism, people think first about the CIA."

The utility of electronic intelligence is apparent from any survey of counterterrorism operations. In September 2000, for instance, the CIA began flying unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan, twice beaming back video of a tall man in a white robe, surrounded by security guards. Analysts later determined that the "man in white" was probably Osama bin Laden.

And the usefulness of the type of electronic eavesdropping that is the NSA's specialty is equally apparent. Jordanian intelligence agents, for instance, intercepted a phone call in late 1999 between a bin Laden associate and a Palestinian extremist, and overheard one exclaim, "The time for training is over." Convinced that a terrorist attack had been ordered, they arrested more than a dozen suspects linked to the two and found detonators, forged passports, a terrorist manual and 71 drums of acid.

Days before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA intercepted phone calls between bin Laden and his stepmother, according to published reports. Agency employees were among the few government agents spying on the future hijackers in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks. After FBI agents stumbled across a Yemeni telephone number during an investigation of two U.S. Embassy bombings in 1998, the NSA was able to eavesdrop on the small ring and track members to a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000. The men slipped through the CIA's grasp in Thailand.

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