The National Security Agency could be adding thousands of jobs as it revs up plans to build a new complex near its Anne Arundel County headquarters - or possibly just relocating the thousands of people working clandestinely in unmarked office buildings around the region.
The tight-lipped agency, which said little in response to requests for comment Friday, has notified the federal government that it wants to build 5.8 million square feet over 20 years. The land it has in mind is elsewhere on the Fort Meade base it already calls home.
As many as 11,000 employees would work there, according to the government filing, but the NSA did not reveal how many of the jobs would be new.
Anne Arundel County officials are expecting growth. Robert C. Leib, County Executive John R. Leopold's special assistant for the military's base relocation plan, said he was anticipating that the NSA would add about 4,000 jobs in the next four or five years, based on informal discussions with the agency. This plan suggests to Leib that more might be coming.
"We had rumblings that NSA was going to ... begin the move, but we didn't know exactly when," he said. "Now the cards are - sort of - on the table." He added with a chuckle, "I don't know how many are hidden yet."
But intelligence historian Matthew M. Aid, author of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency, thinks the NSA plans signal relocation more than expansion. The agency employs some 5,000 people in offices near Fort Meade but off the Army post, a security concern and a leasing expense, he said. He thinks the agency's priority will be to move workers onto its campus - bad news for the companies that own offices in the area. The NSA also has 50-year-old buildings at its headquarters that it will probably want to replace, he said.
That doesn't mean the NSA won't hire new people. But it will have to do that just to keep up with the rapid number of retirements, Aid said.
"I just don't see that there's any way NSA can add 11,000 new personnel," said Aid, who has kept tabs on the agency for years. "I think this is a consolidation of existing personnel and taking into account personnel they may intend to hire 10 or 20 years down the pike."
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a security-information Web site, is of the same opinion. He said it's not hard to find NSA's off-campus offices - just look for buildings circled by tall black fencing and no name on the facades, and "the odds are pretty good that there are spooks inside." The government wants intelligence workers moved into secure areas where average folks can't drive right up to the front door, he said.
The NSA headquarters are in plain sight of commuters on Routes 32 and 295. It confirmed in 2005 that it wanted to move some of its most sensitive surveillance operations to the center of the Army post for security's sake.
It quietly revealed some details of its plans in a notice published in the Federal Register last month, reported Friday by the Baltimore Business Journal. The agency's notice says it needs new buildings to "meet mission growth requirements" and also to "consolidate." Asked for comment, it said in a statement that the notice includes all its current information on the effort.
The NSA employs more than 25,000 in and around its headquarters, Aid said. It's been on a hiring spree for several years, though much of that was aimed at replacing retirees.
Growth at the NSA comes on top of the expected influx of government workers and contractors to Fort Meade as part of BRAC, the military base realignment and closure process.