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By Scott Shane
Baltimore Sun National Staff
August 8, 2004
Last year, long before CIA Director George J. Tenet resigned in advance of a series of damning reports on intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the chief of an even larger spy agency was quietly asked to extend his term.
Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, was asked by Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to stay on as director until at least September 2005. The 6 1/2 -year term will make the three-star Air Force general by far the longest-serving NSA boss in the agency's 52-year history.
Hayden's survival amid the harsh assessment of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence may reflect his ability to turn around the gargantuan eavesdropping agency in an era of shifting technology and threats.
Even as stateless terrorists have replaced Soviet missile bases as the agency's prime target, so the boom in cell phones, the Internet and the spread of fiber-optic cable and computerized encryption have forced it to reinvent eavesdropping technology.
"The whole ballgame of where and how you collect signals intelligence changed," says Charles G. Boyd, a retired Air Force general who was executive director of the Hart-Rudman Commission on national security in the late 1990s and now heads Business Executives for National Security.
"And that's where [Hayden] has moved this institution. To do that, he's not only changed technologies and processes. He's had to move the culture itself, and that's very difficult to do."
Boyd knows Hayden well from their Air Force service and has followed his work at NSA closely. "As a manager of change and a manager of intelligence overall, I think Mike Hayden is the best we have," he says.
Matthew M. Aid, a respected intelligence historian in Washington who is writing a book on the NSA, says the changes under Hayden appear to be producing results.
"The al-Qaida operatives who are being tracked down and caught - that's largely the result of signals intelligence," which is spy lingo for the intercept of phone calls, e-mail and other messages that is NSA's turf, Aid says. "NSA is flush with cash. It's hiring thousands of new people. It's clearly an agency that's going places."
Some NSA veterans complain that Hayden "brought in corporate types who gave him Harvard Business School models" that "don't work for an intelligence agency," Aid says.
But the people at the CIA, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon who receive NSA's reports see a difference, he says: NSA "has a lot more respect from intelligence consumers than it had when Hayden arrived in 1999."
The changes at NSA have been wrenching, with large numbers of veterans taking early retirement and contractors brought in to handle much of the agency's retooling. More than 22 percent of the agency's civilian work force has been hired since 2000, with more than 1,300 new employees expected to come on board this year, agency officials say.
Aid estimates that 25,000 civilian and military employees work on NSA's sprawling Fort Meade campus off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, although the exact number is classified. At least an additional 10,000 eavesdroppers are scattered elsewhere in the United States and around the world, he says.
Many agency old-timers aren't happy, says retiree Mike Levin, who worked at the agency from 1947 to 1993. "I have a very negative view of General Hayden. Before he had a chance to know what was going on, he announced he was going to clean the place out," Levin says.
But others say the NSA was in need of radical surgery well before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"NSA was set up to monitor an enormous country, the Soviet Union, that didn't go anywhere," says James Bamford, author of two books on the agency. "It was never set up to follow individual terrorists around the world using phone cards, disposable cell phones and e-mail."
Of Hayden, Bamford says, "I think he's done about as good a job as anyone could do given the limitations."
In fact, the author says, the cerebral 59-year-old intelligence veteran, a Bulgarian linguist early in his career, might emerge as a candidate for the post of national intelligence director proposed by the Sept. 11 commission.
When Hayden arrived in March 1999, the agency was by all accounts hurting. Its budget had been cut by about a third since the height of the Cold War, but it had to devise new intercept systems to keep up with what Hayden calls "the greatest revolution in communications since Gutenberg discovered movable type."
The shift of international communications traffic from satellites and microwave links to hard-to-tap fiber-optic cables posed a major challenge. Encryption described by NSA officials as impossible to break was spreading. National magazine stories on the secret agency began to ask: Is the NSA going deaf?
Then, in January 2000, a huge computer crash took the agency offline for days, dramatizing the need for an updated infrastructure.
Russian linguists were in oversupply, while there was an extreme shortage of speakers of Arabic and other languages more relevant to terrorism. Older employees who had mastered radio and microwave intercepts were not so adept at monitoring cellular networks and the Internet.
After Sept. 11, 2001 - when most of NSA was evacuated for fear it might be the hijackers' next target - it became obvious that the agency would be permitted to expand. But Hayden decided to go forward the next month with a final early-retirement program, watching 765 employees leave even as the agency geared up to hire.
"It was not because anyone was dumb, incompetent, lazy or calcified or anything else," Hayden said in an interview last week in his whisper-quiet office at the top of one of NSA's massive glass towers at Fort Meade. "It was just a work force that historically did not change over very much. ... So if we were going to get new skills, we were going to have to get new people."
The old Soviet target, Hayden said, was "exceptionally slow-moving, oligarchic and technologically inferior," and what NSA was then interested in was "big things. You wanted to know where their nuclear missile submarines were. You wanted to know about Soviet forces in Germany - were they in garrison or in the field? You wanted to know if there were bombers at Arctic staging bases."
By contrast, he said, "in the current war, you're looking for infinitely more granular information. You want to know where this human being is. And it's not good enough to say he's in Afghanistan. In terms of our current ops [operations] tempo, it's not even good enough to know what city. You have to know what building he's in."
Rather than the special communications systems used by foreign militaries, "al-Qaida rides on the global [commercial] communications structure." To listen in, "you're putting yourself into their communication pattern. If your pattern doesn't match their pattern ... you don't hear."
Given the dire assessments a few years ago, it is notable that Hayden says the communications revolution has on the whole been a plus, not a minus, for the NSA.
The NSA director declines to elaborate. But interviews with outside experts suggest that the agency has managed to overcome the challenges posed by fiber-optic cable and encryption.
"My opinion is that at this point, those are little more than a speed bump to NSA," says Steve Uhrig, president of SWS Security, a Harford County firm that builds eavesdropping and counter-eavesdropping systems for U.S. and foreign police agencies. "They have a virtually unlimited budget, and they can put amazing resources to work on a problem."
Several sources who regularly speak with NSA officials say they believe Uhrig is right. Although they do not know the details, they say the agency has almost certainly managed to tap fiber cables on a large-scale basis, making access to the information inside less of a problem than its overwhelming volume.
The NSA has also found a silver lining to the use of encrypted e-mail: Even if a particular message cannot be read, the very use of encryption can flag it for NSA's attention. By tracking the relatively few Internet users in a certain country or region who take such security measures, NSA analysts might be able to sketch a picture of a terrorist network.
Information 'in motion'
And by focusing their electronic tricks on messages as they are first typed on a computer or when they are read on the other end - what security experts call "information at rest" - NSA technical experts might be able to bypass otherwise-unbreakable encryption used when the information is "in motion."
Meanwhile, the popularity of e-mail and particularly of cell phones has worked to the NSA's advantage in the battle against terrorism.
The NSA's computers can track and sort huge volumes of e-mail far more easily than they can manage telephone intercepts, because text is consistently represented in digital code.
And cell phones - as handy for terrorist plotters as for everyone else - provide not just an eavesdropping target but also a way to physically track the user.
Uhrig, who has installed cellular intercept systems in several countries, says that as cell phones have proliferated, the "cells" served by a tower or other antenna have correspondingly grown smaller. "A big hotel may have a cell for every other floor. Every big office building is its own cell," he says.
By following a switched-on cell phone as it shifts from cell to cell, "you can watch the person move," Uhrig says. "You can tell the direction he's moving. If he's moving slow, he's walking. If he's moving fast, he's in a car. The tracking is sometimes of much more interest than the contents of a call."
But Hayden will say nothing about reports in the news media and from outside specialists that NSA telephone intercepts led to the recent series of arrests of suspected terrorists in Pakistan. Confirming the agencies' victories would only warn future targets to take precautions against eavesdropping.
The most devastating such loss in recent years came in 1998, when al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden stopped using the satellite phone the NSA had used for years to track him and his plans.
Whether he was tipped off by press reports - as the Sept. 11 commission has claimed - or by the United States' cruise missile attack on his camp in Afghanistan remains unclear.
"This is the most fragile of all intelligence disciplines," Hayden said. "We would not want many of our successes broadcast."
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun