Chief of NSA urges `action'

Alexander wants new approach, to fix systemic woes

Sun Exclusive

March 10, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- In what he described as "a call to action," the director of the National Security Agency has urged the nation's largest intelligence agency to transform the way it carries out its mission and speed the development of new spy technology, according to an internal NSA document.

A blunt memorandum by Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the NSA's director, said the agency must totally rethink its approach to spying and fix "systemic problems" identified after the Sept. 11 attacks. With the NSA expected to face more intense scrutiny from a Congress led by Democrats, Alexander has launched an internal review to chart a new course.

"We need to do more faster: we are still A NATION AT WAR," he said in a Feb. 21 memorandum to NSA employees. The Sun confirmed the text of unclassified portions of the memo, titled "My Appeal to You - A Call to Action," with two sources familiar with it.

Current and former intelligence officials described Alexander's internal review as a back-to-basics effort aimed at managing programs better and delivering tangible results. But some said the agency was studying well-understood problems when it should be fixing them.

Some of the problems facing the NSA are relatively basic, while others are highly complex. According to Alexander's memo, they include obtaining enough electric power to run the high-tech networks at its Fort Meade headquarters, fixing an ailing computer infrastructure, and overcoming difficulties in building a system to uncover threat information in the vast volume of data that the NSA captures every day.

Congress frustrated

Those issues will be on the agenda when Congress holds closed-door hearings on the NSA's budget this month, lawmakers said.

The agency will "have to justify the money" it is requesting, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the NSA. He plans to ask independent experts to evaluate the NSA's budget, because "there have been some failures in the past," including a troubled, multibillion-dollar computer upgrade called Trailblazer.

Lawmakers have been frustrated by "ill-defined" programs at the NSA, especially efforts to modernize its espionage activities to capitalize on the Internet era, said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat.

Reyes said he wants to "make sure that [the NSA has] a focused strategy" for eavesdropping in an age when phone calls race across the Internet, and the caller's identity can be masked.

The top Republican on the intelligence panel, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, said his priority is to assess whether the NSA is keeping pace with technological developments.

"We need them to be at the leading edge," he said.

Alexander is seeking a nearly $1 billion boost in the NSA's estimated $8 billion budget, according to current and former intelligence officials. In his memo, he pointed out that the NSA must fix its problems to back up its budget request.

His 45-day internal review will evaluate the NSA's latest modernization efforts from three perspectives - the adequacy of its technology, its management, and how it will deliver results.

The NSA declined to comment on the memo or the review under way.

"The information is essentially embedded in a classified, privileged communication meant solely for the consumption of cleared NSA personnel," said spokesman Ken White. "Communications detailing the agency's classified internal preparations to modernize our cryptologic enterprise are strictly limited to the properly authorized venues afforded by our congressional oversight committees."

One former NSA official said the review sounds like those that Alexander's predecessor, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, conducted when he came to the agency in 1999.

"Studying it again, I'm just not sure what it gives you," the former official said, noting that the recommendations from a 1999 panel went largely unfulfilled.

The review comes 1 1/2 years into an initiative by Alexander to collect and quickly analyze threat information from digital communications in cyberspace. Known as Turbulence, progress on that effort has been sluggish.

An intelligence official said Alexander is re-evaluating now because Turbulence has hit a make-or-break point and has little to show for it.

"A direction was begun, and then they stopped and got stuck," said the former senior NSA official. "They're taking a step back and re-examining what they're doing."

In the Feb. 21 memo to his work force, Alexander said the NSA must pick up the pace.

The agency cannot do "more of what we've been doing" but instead must "change the way we think about - and do - our cryptologic mission," he continued. Alexander said the agency has "made great strides in the past five years," but "we still have a long road ahead of us, especially in terms of addressing systemic problems - some of which were identified immediately after 9/11."

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