NSA has higher profile, new problems

Its post-9/11 ascent yields more power, more controversy

September 11 Remembered

September 08, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- For its first 50 years, the National Security Agency was known to few beyond the insular world of intelligence. The agency's analysts, mathematicians and engineers rarely spoke of their work, even to their families, and were horrified when "NSA" was added to exit signs on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Sept. 11 changed all that. Since then, the NSA has been thrust to center stage, a blessing and a curse for the formerly low-profile agency.

After Sept. 11, "there was a real thirst for NSA information," said John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, "because that could mean the difference between stopping the next Sept. 11 attack or not."

The NSA's ascent inside the new U.S. war machine earned it looser legal restrictions and purse strings. But freedom brought with it new problems.

The intense debate after the disclosure of the NSA's warrantless surveillance program is still reverberating in Congress, the courts and the agency. And as NSA's budget doubled over five years, some expensive national security initiatives were allowed to fail without consequence.

"Right after Sept. 11 and the ensuing period, I think NSA could have gotten anything they wanted," a former NSA official said. "They lost the support because they didn't handle it properly."

Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the NSA director, recently unveiled a new strategic plan for the agency, which he described as "dramatically different" in an Aug. 9 memo obtained by The Sun.

Intelligence officials say it is the first such plan to focus on post-Sept. 11 threats. It places significant emphasis on networked communications and the agency's need to support Pentagon war-fighting demands. It also calls for ambitious changes in the NSA's tools for analysis and management and in its technology infrastructure.

The full plan is classified, but Alexander had an unclassified summary printed as a marketing-type brochure. A sales offensive might be required as he executes it amid the controversy over NSA's post-Sept. 11 activities.

In the wake of the 2001 attacks, Alexander's predecessor, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, marshaled a surge in support from the White House and Congress to quietly expand his agency's role.

As the nation's 16 intelligence agencies shuffled their responsibilities under the direction of a new spymaster, the 35,000-person NSA - for years the largest but least-known of the agencies - became one of the most influential.

Hayden made frequent trips to the White House to update top officials on the warrantless surveillance program, one of the most secret counterterrorism initiatives after Sept. 11. He also strengthened his reputation among members of Congress, who dispensed NSA's budget, by providing clear and cogent briefings.

Congress responded by vastly increasing NSA's annual budget, the size of which is classified, to about $8 billion, twice the size of its 2001 budget, an intelligence official said.

At the same time, NSA earned more credibility with other intelligence agencies as officials at the CIA, the FBI, and the Defense Intelligence Agency focused on what terrorist groups were up to.

Some intelligence experts argue that NSA not only gained a seat at the table but sat at the head of the table after intelligence reforms took effect in 2005.

"Part of the importance here is the inability of other sources to provide critically needed information," said former NSA Director Bobby R. Inman.

President Bush has expanded NSA's surveillance powers to cast a wider net for such information. In October 2001, he authorized the NSA to begin listening to conversations in the United States involving people suspected of links to the al-Qaida terrorist group without a court order so long as one end of the conversation was overseas.

He also allowed the NSA to gather records of phone and e-mail communications inside the country.

The program's effectiveness is a matter of dispute among intelligence insiders. Administration officials say it has provided crucial information that has helped disrupt plots, but intelligence officials say privately that there haven't been as many leads as there should have been, given the millions of phone records the NSA analyzes and the thousands of calls it reportedly has monitored.

"This isn't just about NSA," said former NSA Director Bill Studeman, a retired admiral who condemned the leak of the warrantless surveillance program. "We need to figure out what the limits of legality are to successfully live in this world and fight this threat."

Negative publicity about the program has seriously damaged the agency's image, some NSA veterans said.

"Bush did a tremendous disservice to the agency and the people who work there" by failing to ask Congress to authorize the warrantless program, said a former top NSA official. "It creates a very negative and fearful image in the media for the American public, which is totally undeserved."

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