Dents shown in NSA armor

Revelations in trial of ex-employee offer look at security issues

December 15, 2005|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

GREENBELT -- At the National Security Agency, removing classified material from its secured Maryland complex may not be as hard as it should be.

The surprising revelation from federal prosecutors came as the government brought to trial a former agency employee accused of illegally storing highly sensitive NSA computer manuals in the kitchen of his home, which was raided by the FBI in January 2004.

The employee, Kenneth W. Ford Jr., 34, of Waldorf, was charged in U.S. District Court with possessing classified information and making a false statement on a job application for a government contractor. Attorneys made their closing arguments to the jury yesterday afternoon. Jury deliberations are expected to resume this morning.

Given the secretive nature of the nation's largest intelligence agency, the trial has provided a rare look inside NSA's Anne Arundel County complex at Fort Meade.

Evidence showed surveillance cameras that didn't record, a lack of security guards and a policy of less-than-routine searches of employees' cars. The accused, a former Secret Service agent who once guarded the White House, was reported by a woman he met on an Internet dating site who turned out to have an extensive criminal record.

NSA is one of the state's largest employers, with an estimated work force of 15,000 people. The exact number is classified. Analysts focus on eavesdropping, tapping into electronic communications around the world. They live in a closed society where secrecy is a way of life. The acronym has been laughingly referred to as No Such Agency.

"It's not called the National Security Agency for nothing," Assistant U.S. Attorney David I. Salem told jurors, adding that the agency held "some of the most sensitive secrets of the United States of America."

Like pages torn from a spy novel, testimony showcased the cloak-and-dagger nature of the agency. Some NSA witnesses testified anonymously, using their first name and initial of their last name.

Heavily edited documents were shown to jurors, who then had to swear they would keep mum about them. Ford worked for the agency for more than two years, but the exact nature of his job was not revealed yesterday.

But two weeks of testimony in open court has shed some light on some alleged gaps in NSA security procedures.

At least one witness testified there were no security guards at the "tech" building where Ford is accused of removing the classified documents, according to federal prosecutors. The surveillance video cameras at the building didn't work either, according to court testimony.

Vehicles leaving the secured NSA compound are searched randomly but rarely, one witnesses said. And it was entirely possible, prosecutors said, for an employee to have a key to open a gate to a rear loading dock, carry boxes of classified documents into a waiting pickup truck and drive the material home unnoticed.

"There isn't enough [security] to stop you from taking out [documents] if you want to," Salem said. Ultimately, the NSA has to trust in the integrity of its employees, he added.

But Ford's attorney, Spencer M. Hecht, balked at the idea that it was relatively easy for an NSA employee to sneak mounds of classified papers out of the complex.

"Trust? It's a joke," Hecht said.

The defense attorney described a highly watched world of background checks, polygraphs, video cameras, searches, security protocols and severe penalties - all designed to ensure proper security at NSA.

"There is no way that [Ford] would be able to remove those boxes," Hecht said.

Prosecutors did not offer a definitive reason why Ford might have taken the documents home after he left the NSA for good in December 2003.

He told some officials he considered them reference material, according to evidence at trial. Ford told others he didn't know he couldn't keep them, the evidence showed.

"For all we know, he intended to be a spy," Salem said. "And we caught him before he could do it."

But Hecht told the jury there would be no reason for Ford to take the documents because they would be of no use to him in any future job.

The investigation started with a tip for Ford's then-girlfriend, Tanya Tucker, who called NSA officials Jan. 9 saying that she had seen confidential material in Ford's home. He planned to sell the documents the next day, she told intelligence officials.

But the FBI waited days to act on her information and approached Ford in his home.

Then, as many as 20 agents searched his house and car, finding reams of classified documents mixed in with his name tags. One taken by Tucker and placed in her suitcase had Ford's fingerprint on it, prosecutors said.

Ford spoke to FBI agents for more than seven hours and signed a statement in which he acknowledged that he took the documents but denied he was a spy, prosecutors said.

Hecht said the confession was false and made under duress.

According to trial testimony, Ford met Tucker through an online dating site nine weeks before the raid. His mother has said she suspects that Tucker was involved in a plot to snare her son.

During the trial, evidence revealed that Tucker had a substantial criminal record, including passing false documents. Acknowledging her credibility problems, Salem asked jurors yesterday to view her role in the trial solely as a critical tipster.

Ford's attorney saw her role more sinisterly.

"She manipulated Mr. Ford's life and set him up," Hecht told jurors. "And she wasn't charged with anything."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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