What's that again?

May 20, 2007

The National Security Agency likes to present itself rather dramatically as the nation's code-breaker - though in the warrantless wiretapping program that it conducts on behalf of the Bush administration, it's mostly the legal code that gets broken. Still, it has a big legitimate task to perform, intercepting and reading the electronic traffic of the world's malefactors. The problem, as Siobhan Gorman of The Sun has revealed, is that an agency that longs for an air of derring-do mostly has a culture of derring-don't.

An internal task force took a look at the agency and found a lack of vision, an inability to set objectives or meet them, and a lack of trust and cooperation within the organization.

Alarmingly, these are the same problems that were identified by a similar study in 1999. The world has changed a great deal in the past eight years - but not, we fear, the NSA, despite its protestations to the contrary. Or at least it hasn't changed in the right direction.

Ms. Gorman obtained a copy of the unclassified sections of the report, and officials at the agency were not at all happy about it. Neither Congress nor the Pentagon knew that this assessment had been carried out; now, people who should have been kept in the loop want to know what this is all about - and what the NSA is doing about it.

It's the nature of any large human organization to become bureaucratic and hierarchical, and it's the nature of most humans who toil away within such an organization to become jaded and cautious. When the organization is as secretive and as closeted as the NSA is, these tendencies can become especially dangerous because there's not much chance to let a little healthy air in every once in a while.

If the leaders of the NSA can act on this latest self-evaluation, and address the cultural issues it identified to the satisfaction of the agency's overseers in Congress and the executive branch - good. If not, someone from the outside will have to do it for them. At a time of increasing worldwide antipathy toward the United States, there can be no tolerating the dysfunction of what should be a vitally important intelligence-gatherer.

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