29 November 1999. Thanks to The New Yorker and SH.
Source: Hardcopy The New Yorker, December 6, 1999, pp. 58-76.
ANNALS OF NATIONAL SECURITY
THE INTELLIGENCE GAP
How the digital age left our spies out in the cold.
BY SEYMOUR M. HERSH
THE National Security Agency, whose Cold War research into code breaking
and electronic eavesdropping spurred the American computer revolution, has
become a victim of the high-tech world it helped to create. Through
mismanagement, arrogance, and fear of the unknown, the senior military and
civilian bureaucrats who work at the agency's headquarters, in suburban Fort
Meade, Maryland, have failed to prepare fully for today's high-volume flow
of E-mail and fibre-optic transmissions -- even as nations throughout Europe,
Asia, and the Third World have begun exchanging diplomatic and national-security
messages encrypted in unbreakable digital code.
The N.S.A.'s failures don't make the headlines. In May, 1998, India's first
round of nuclear tests, which took place in Pokharan, southwest of New Delhi,
caught Washington by surprise, and provoked criticism of the Central Intelligence
Agency from the press and from Congress. But it was the N.S.A., in the days
and weeks before the detonations, that did not detect signs of increased
activity or increased communications at Pokharan. "It's a tough problem,"
one nuclear-intelligence expert told me, because India's nuclear-weapons
establishment now sends encrypted digital messages by satellite, using small
dishes that bounce signals beyond the stratosphere through a system known
as VSAT ("very small aperture terminal") -- a two-way version of the system
widely used for DirecTV.
Similarly, the North Koreans, with the help of funds from the United Nations,
according to one United States intelligence official, have bought encrypted
cell phones from Europe, high-speed switching gear from Britain, and up-to-date
dialling service from America -- a system that the N.S.A. cannot readily
read. The official said of the North Koreans,"All their military stuff went
off ether into fibre" -- from high-frequency radio transmission to fibre-optic
cable lines, which transmit a vast volume of digital data as a stream of
light. A former high-level Defense Department official told me, "It's a worldwide
problem. You could wire up all of Africa for less than two billion dollars."
This former official, like most of the two dozen signals-intelligence (SIGINT)
experts interviewed for this account, agreed to speak only after being assured
of anonymity. A 1951 federal law prohibits any discussion or publication
of communications intelligence.
The decline of the N.S.A. is widely known in Washington's national-security
community. "The dirty little secret is that fibre optics and encryption are
kicking Fort Meade in the nuts," a recently retired senior officer in the
C.I.A.'s Directorate of Operations told me. "It's over. Everywhere I went
in the Third World, I wanted to have someone named Ahmed, a backhoe driver,
on the payroll. And I wanted to know where the fibre-optic cable was hidden.
In a crisis, I wanted Ahmed to go and break up the cable, and force them
up in the air" -- that is, force communications to be broadcast by radio
signals. The number of daily satellite-telephone calls in the Arab world,
many of which are encrypted, is in the millions, creating severe difficulties
for eavesdroppers. The mobile-telephone system used by Saddam Hussein at
the height of Iraq's dispute last year with a United Nations arms-control
inspection team operated on more than nine hundred channels. Each channel
was separately encrypted, with multiple keys, and Saddam's conversations
bounced from channel to channel with each call. A U.N. intelligence team
eventually gained access to the telephone system's technical manuals and
other data, and was able to record the encrypted conversations, but without
these materials it could not have made sense of the intercepts. The code-makers
are leaving the code-breakers far behind.
IN its heyday, during the Cold War, the N.S.A. had nearly ninety-five thousand
employees, more than half of them military, monitoring communications from
hundreds of sites around the world. It played a dominant role in American
intelligence gathering behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere, producing by
the end of the nineteen-sixties more than a thousand intelligence reports
a day. The N.S.A.'s intercepts were the government's most reliable and important
sources of intelligence on the Soviet Union -- far outstripping the intelligence
collected by the C.I.A. and its agents abroad. In Western Europe, N.S.A.
linguists and Army G.I.s sat in unmarked vans monitoring the daily conversations
of Soviet tank units on the other side of the Berlin Wall. In the Pacific,
Air Force radiomen and N.S.A. technicians, in specially configured Boeing
707s, flew huge figure eights over the ocean, copying Morse-code transmissions
from North Korea and the Soviet Far East. In the Mediterranean, Navy signalmen
worked hectic shifts with their N.S.A. colleagues, eavesdropping on government
communications in the Middle East. Many of the most sophisticated Soviet
codes were broken, including the diplomatic traffic to Moscow from its Embassy
in Washington. By the time President Nixon was in office, the agency was
listening to telephone conversations of Soviet leaders as they were driven
in limousines to and from the Kremlin. In the upper reaches of the United
States government, access to the agency's daily top-secret "take" was a sign
of importance and success. Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon's national-security
adviser, went as far as to order the agency to scan the diplomatic traffic
from Washington, isolate references to him, and deliver the cables to his
office, without any further distribution inside the government. Many of his
successors have received the same service.
These successes were the payoff for years of painstaking technical research.
In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the N.S.A.'s engineers, working closely
with the American computer industry, coordinated and financed much of the
early work in telecommunications, underwriting research on semiconductors,
high-speed circuitry, and transistorized computers. With its research into
microelectronics, the agency also helped to develop the early guidance systems
for intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. And the agency's team of
mathematicians -- aided by outside advisers, many of whom were tenured at
places such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton -- steadily tore through
the Soviet cipher systems.
By the mid-seventies, as the world began routinely communicating by microwave,
the agency maintained its edge with innovative use of satellite intelligence,
and its mathematicians and computer experts were sometimes able to thwart
the Russians' attempts to scramble their signals. Even undersea and underground
coaxial cables -- the most secure means then of relaying telephone conversations
and electronic communications -- could be intercepted. Books and newspaper
articles have described the penetration of Soviet cables at sea by N.S.A.
units aboard Navy submarines as some of the most daring intelligence operations
of the Cold War.
The collapse of Communism, in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union,
in 1991, led to a revised mission for the N.S.A., with more focus on
international terrorism and drug dealing -- both highly elusive targets.
The agency's budget was cut back. In the early nineties, as more nations
turned to fibre optics, the N.S.A. shut down twenty of its forty-two radio
listening posts around the world. (In some cases, equipment was left behind
to be monitored remotely.) The agency's overseas military personnel have
been reduced by half.
The N.S.A.'s status within the government has also been diminished. Last
year, Richard Lardner, a reporter for the Washington newsletter Inside
the Pentagon, revealed that the agency had been "reined in" and would
no longer be authorized to report directly to the Secretary of Defense. The
N.S.A. was ordered instead to report through an Assistant Secretary. In recent
years, according to a congressional study, the N.S.A.'s contribution to the
President's daily intelligence brief -- a secret summary prepared at the
C.I.A. every morning for the White House -- has fallen by nearly twenty per
cent. The N.S.A. was being jarred by the difficulties of tracking terrorism,
and by the rapid spread of unbreakable codes. The agency also discovered
that it had few advocates in the White House and among those officials at
the Office of Management and Budget who control the flow of money to the
top-secret world. The agency was not allowed to keep the funds it had saved
by reducing manpower and drastically cutting overseas stations.
The N.S.A. is also getting very little help from its colleagues in the American
intelligence community. One legislative aide told me that George Tenet, the
director of Central Intelligence, who has nominal responsibility for all
intelligence gathering, had expressed alarm upon taking office about the
N.S.A.'s weakness, and told congressmen of his desire to rescue the agency
from what appeared to be a "precipitous calamity." But, the aide added,"
he didn't do it."
The N.S.A.'s strongest supporters -- the members and staffs of the Senate
and House intelligence committees -- are also its most vocal critics. The
agency is now facing the most caustic congressional scrutiny in its history,
amid much pessimism that it can right itself without major changes in its
management. Staff members of the intelligence-oversight committees traditionally
prefer not to be quoted by name, but John Millis, a former C.I.A. officer
who is staff director of the House intelligence committee, openly discussed
the N.S.A.'s problems in the fall of 1998 at a luncheon meeting with a group
of retired C.I.A. officers. "Signals intelligence is in a crisis," Millis
told his former colleagues, who reprinted the
speech in a newsletter.
"We have been living in the glory days of SIGINT over the last fifty years,
since World War II." He went on, "Technology has been the friend of the N.S.A.,
but in the last four or five years technology has moved from being the friend
to being the enemy." Millis also made it clear that any significant increase
in the agency's budget was made more difficult by the fact that"there is
no management of the intelligence community. There is no one in a position
to make the tradeoffs within the intelligence community that will make a
coherent, efficient organization that will function as a whole. So we end
up doing it on Capitol Hill. And I've got to tell you, if you are depending
on Capitol Hill to do something as important as this, you're in trouble."
SENATOR ROBERT KERREY, of Nebraska, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's
intelligence committee, told me that there was little he could add to Millis's
assessment, because most information dealing with the agency and its work
is highly classified. Kerrey also pointed out that secrecy "does not equal
security," and can be self-defeating. For example, the agency is in desperate
need of more money to get started on information-retrieval programs for the
Internet which should have been under way years ago. "But I can't tell you
how much they need," Kerrey said, "and I can't tell you how much they have.
The public doesn't know about the N.S.A., or what it is. There are no editorials
in the New York Times, no advocates. Does the public know that the nation
might be more secure if more was invested? Out of sight, out of mind."
Last July, during a little-noticed
Senate colloquy on an
intelligence-spending bill, Kerrey hinted at the N.S.A.'s problems. "The
signals are becoming more complex and difficult to process," he said. "And
they are becoming more and more encrypted." Because of the sophistication
of current encryption systems for E-mail and other communications," he said,
"we will find our people on the intelligence side coming back and saying,
'Look, I know something bad happened . . . I couldn't make sense of the signal.
We intercept, and all we get is a buzz and background noise. We cannot interpret.
We can't convert it.' "
Kerrey says that his concern was heightened by a report on the N.S.A. that
was filed last year by an unusual study group that he and Senator Richard
C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the committee's chairman, had put together.
Secret congressional studies are routine, but the Senate team, known as the
Technical Advisory Group, included a number of prominent outsiders -- men
who were in charge of re search and technology for major American high-tech
corporations, such as George Spix, of Microsoft, Bran Ferren, of the Walt
Disney Company, and a nuclear-weapons physicist, Dr. Lowell Wood, of the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The outsiders were given full clearance
and access to many of the most sensitive areas at the Fort Meade headquarters.
Their conclusions were devastating. "We told them that unless you totally
change your intelligence-collection systems you will go deaf," one involved
official told me. "You've got ten years."
The advisory group put much of the blame for the agency's problems on the
stagnation and rigidity of the senior civilian management. "The N.S.A.'s
party line to Congress is 'We're fine. We don't need to change,' " the official
told me. "It's like a real Communist organization. Free thought is not
encouraged" among the managers. Referring to the senior bureaucracy, the
official said that the agency would "have to fire almost everyone." This
official and others singled out Barbara A. McNamara, the current N.S.A. deputy
director, as someone especially resistant to change. "She's leading a cohort
of thirty-year veterans who go back to radio" -- a reference to high-frequency
radio transmissions -- "and think nothing is needed," the official said.
In secret testimony this fall before Congress, he added, McNamara talked
about "how good the N.S.A. is -- how it caught this and that drug guy. They
got a whole bunch of horseshit from Barbara."
In subsequent interviews, many former N.S.A. managers endorsed the advisory
group's findings. One former official described the civilian leadership as
"a self-licking ice-cream cone," with little tolerance for dissent or information
it did not wish to hear. "If you didn't support their position, you weren't
considered a team player," this person told me. "You couldn't go into a meeting,
put your best ideas on the table, have it out, get the best idea, and then
go have a beer." McNamara's authority stems from her longevity: the admirals
and generals who serve the agency director remain on the job for an average
of three years before retiring or going on to other military assignments.
The agency's top civilians have worked together, in many cases, for nearly
thirty years, and inevitably share the same insular points of view. Another
recently retired official told me that the N.S.A. has become a dynastic
bureaucracy, in which the fathers have made room for their sons, with the
wives and mothers of favored employees hired as mid-level staff in the
human-resources office. "The place is full of warlords and fiefdoms," the
former official said. "Now we're getting to the grandchildren." Such insider
hiring has led to the quip, which I heard from a number of officials, that
the N.S.A. functions as a "Glen Burnie W.P.A. project." Glen Burnie is a
nearby suburb, and home to many N.S.A. employees. Questions also were raised
during my interviews about the effectiveness of many of the senior military
officers who are routinely assigned to the N.S.A. for two-, three-, or four-year
tours of duty. Some perform brilliantly, but far too many find themselves
put in charge of units for which they are unqualified, and end up relying
extensively on their civilian staffs. "We call them the summer help," a former
manager told me, adding that the smart ones generally seek to get reassigned
as soon as possible.
The Technical Advisory Group urged that the agency immediately begin a major
reorganization, and start planning for the recruitment of several thousand
skilled computer scientists. One of their missions would be to devise software
and write information-retrieval programs that would enable the agency to
make sense of the data routinely sucked up by satellite and other interception
devices. The vast majority of telephone calls, E-mails, and faxes are not
encrypted -- almost all are sent as plain text -- but the N.S.A. has been
overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the intercepted data, much of which is
irrelevant. "They're still collecting a lot of digital," one of the agency's
consultants told me,"and can't do anything with it." The consultant added
that agency managers recently estimated that Fort Meade had three years'
worth of storage capacity for intercepted Internet traffic. "They filled
it in eleven months," he said.
"The bottom line is they've got to retool," the advisory-group official said.
"It will take a lot of money and effort -- like starting the N.S.A. again."
Far from being able to retool, the agency has suffered a severe brain drain
in recent years, losing mid-career managers to the high pay and upward mobility
of private industry. One former senior official described the process as
self-defeating: the agency's recognized need for more outside contact with,
and stimulation by, the computer world is offset by the fact that its budding
young experts "meet new people and then get hired away by them."
THE N.S.A.'s current alienation from the computer gurus in industry and academia
might not have occurred if two Californians with a fascination for the
mathematics of cryptoanalysis hadn't decided to compare notes more than two
decades ago. A 1951 law gave the government the right to classify as secret
any invention considered potentially harmful to national security, but in
November, 1976, Whitfield Diffie, a computer scientist, and Martin E. Hellman,
a Stanford University electrical engineer, published a revolutionary technical
paper on what has become known as public key cryptography Before their work,
an encrypted message could be understood only if the sender and receiver
had the same key, or decoder, to turn the scrambled letters into readable
text. The beauty of the Diffie-Hellman breakthrough was its simplicity: the
message would have two keys -- one could be registered in a public directory
(today it might be on the Internet) and the other would be known only to
the intended recipient. One key would be used to encipher the message and
the other to decipher it. A senior N.S.A. official has described the
Diffie-Hellman concept as a series of computations that are easy to do but
hard to reverse, like breaking a window.
To the agency's dismay, the world now had access to a sophisticated level
of cryptography that had not been previously fully understood even by N.S.A.
analysts. In 1978, when George I. Davida, a computer scientist at the University
of Wisconsin, tried to patent an encryption device he had invented, the N.S.A.
invoked the 1951 secrecy law. Davida took his case to the media, and the
agency, prodded by attorneys in the Carter Administration, eventually backed
down, but the message was clear -- the agency would do all it could to prevent
public access to encryption techniques.
By the early nineties, the telephone system had been deregulated, the computer
market was booming, and the Internet was beginning its ride, but the N.S.A.'s
policy remained static: encryption was defined as a a weapons system whose
export was controlled by the government. The debate over encryption was now
a public controversy, with the government arrayed against privacy advocates,
academics, and a computer industry that was bemoaning the annual loss of
billions of dollars to foreign manufacturers whose computers included
In 1993, law-enforcement officials further infuriated the computer industry
by beginning a criminal investigation of Philip R. Zimmermann, a software
engineer then living in Boulder, Colorado. Zimmermann's crime was being a
free-spirited hacker; he cobbled together a cryptography program called P.G.P.
-- for Pretty Good Privacy -- and gave it away. P.G.P. was the agency's nightmare
-- it offered the average computer user a nontechnical and nonthreatening
entry into easy, daily use of cryptography. P.G.P. soon found its way to
the Internet, and it quickly spread around the world -- making Zimmermann,
in the government's view, an exporter of munitions. A grand jury inquiry
began. The computer industry rallied around Zimmermann, and after three years
the case was dropped. Zimmermann eventually explained to a Senate committee,
"I wrote P.G.P. from information in the open literature.... This technology
belongs to everybody." By the mid-nineteen-nineties, the Software Publishers
Association was telling journalists that the number of cryptographic products
being sold by foreign companies had reached three hundred and forty.
President Clinton and his senior advisers, under pressure from the
law-enforcement and national-security communities, tried to compromise on
the issue. The export of encryption for computers could go forward, the
government said, if the industry agreed to install a government-approved
encryption chip, known as the Clipper Chip, that could be directly accessed
by law-enforcement officers. Under another proposal, American computer
manufacturers would have been permitted to export new encryption products
if a spare set of decoding keys were accessible to the government. The proposals,
known as key recovery or key escrow, were assailed by privacy proponents,
who demanded to know whether the Clinton Administration would have dared
to advocate that citizens be required to give the keys to their house or
safety-deposit box to a third person.
The cultural divide between Fort Meade and Silicon Valley was widening. The
agency's senior managers were unable to comprehend what every programmer
and researcher in academia and industry intuitively understood: encryption
could not be stopped. The managers had ample warning. In 1991, a secret study
predicted that the use of encryption would grow exponentially -- a prediction
largely ignored by the agency's senior management. A former N.S.A. director
recalled that in the early nineties he had had a series of conversations
with the civilian managers, urging them not to insist on their version of
key recovery. "I couldn't believe their proposals," he said, adding that
he had warned the managers that, given the public's attitude toward privacy,
key recovery "could not work if the government held the key. They were so
arrogant. They knew all there was to know."
"Export control is a legitimate concern to the agency," one former senior
official told me, but the issue made the top managers "paralyzed and afraid
to move into the future." He and many colleagues had argued for a two-prong
approach -- continuing to do all that was possible to maintain export controls
while also planning for a fully encrypted world. The agency's long fight
against encryption delayed its widespread use by many years, but the agency's
senior managers spent those years "holding on to what we have today" instead
of seeking ways to lessen encryption's impact. The official lamented, "We
were squandering time" while continuing to make more enemies inside the computer
Today, the encryption fight is all but over. The Commerce Department is scheduled
to issue new export regulations on December 15th that, many experts believe,
will permit American computer companies to include advanced cryptography,
with fewer restrictions, on equipment sold worldwide. "We've won," Phil
Zimmermann told me, jubilantly. "And they tried to put me in prison! Now
we can export strong crypto and they can't stop us. We can do whatever we
N.S.A.'s short-term solution to the encryption dilemma has been to urge the
C.I.A. to go back to the world of dirty tricks and surreptitious entry. According
to a 1996 congressional staff study, the next century will require a clandestine
agency that "breaks into or otherwise gains access to the contents of secured
facilities, safes and computers" and "steals, compromises and influences
foreign cryptographic capabilities so as to make them exploitable" by the
Such information theoretically could help Washington policymakers disrupt
future terrorist activity, intercept illicit shipments of nuclear arms, or
uncover acts of espionage against American defense corporations. Unfortunately,
several C.I.A. officers I spoke with found the proposal too ambitious. One
retired case officer told me that while he was on a clandestine assignment
years ago in the Third World, "I was designated to get a certain black box.
I worked on it for three and a half years, and I got nowhere. If I had worked
on it for ten years, and with a true stroke of luck, I might have gotten
within ten feet of it." Another retired operations officer, similarly skeptical
of the C.I.A.'s chances of obtaining cryptological intelligence, told me
that sometimes the clandestine operatives in the field have to report back,
"This is too hard. "
Many Americans, of course, are deeply distrustful of the N.S.A. -- a view
reflected in recent Hollywood movies like "Enemy of the State" and "Mercury
Rising." The traditional American belief in privacy and constitutional protection
is at odds with a superspy agency capable of monitoring unencrypted telephone
conversations and E-mail exchanges anywhere in the world. Abuses have occurred.
In the nineteen-seventies, the Senate intelligence committee revealed that
the agency had systematically violated the law by surveilling American citizens,
including more than twelve hundred anti-war and civil-rights activists. The
revelations led to a public outcry and to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, which made monitoring of American targets illegal without
a warrant from a special federal court. (The court rarely turns down such
requests from the government.) The act, and a supporting executive order,
set rules for the handling of intercepts or other intelligence involving
Americans who were overheard or picked up in the course of legitimate foreign
The N.S.A.'s bitter fight over encryption, with its tell-all computer chips
and key-recovery proposals, has renewed long-standing fears that one of the
agency's satellite-data collection programs, code-named ECHELON, is routinely
collecting and analyzing unencrypted telephone conversations and Internet
chatter around the world. ECHELON was launched, in the mid-nineteen-seventies,
to spy on Soviet satellite communications. "Imagine," the BBC exclaimed last
month -- one of hundreds of such reports in the past ten years -- "a global
spying network that can eavesdrop on every single phone call, fax, or E-mail,
anywhere on the planet. It sounds like science fiction, but it's true." The
agency does routinely collect vast amounts of digital data, and it is capable
of targeting an individual telephone line or computer terminal in many places
around the world. But active and retired N.S.A. officials have repeatedly
told me that the agency does not yet have the software to make sense out
of more than a tiny fraction of the huge array of random communications that
are collected. If the agency were able to filter through the traffic, the
officials noted, international terrorists like Osama bin Laden would not
be able to remain in hiding.
The fact is that ECHELON, far from being one of the N.S.A.'s secret weapons,
as some believe, is viewed as a fiscal black hole by the Senate and House
intelligence committees. John Millis, in his private talk to the retired
C.I.A agents, complained that the United States was spending "incredible
amounts of money" on satellite collection. "It threatens to overwhelm the
intelligence budget." Using satellites to sweep up communications
indiscriminately, he said, "doesn't make a lot of sense.... You shouldn't
be spending one more dollar than we do to try and intercept communications
from space." Millis's point was that the data collected from satellites,
like the data collected from the Internet, cannot be sorted or analyzed in
any meaningful way.
THE agency's critics, in and out of the government, told me that they see
a glimmer of hope for the N.S.A. in the appointment, last May, of Lieutenant
General Michael Hayden as its new director. Hayden, who joined the Air Force
after earning a master's degree in American history at Duquesne University,
in Pittsburgh, has been praised for his intelligence and open-mindedness.
"Hayden gets it," one intelligence-committee aide told me. "But he's parachuted
in there, and faced with a deputy director whose job is to foil what the
director wants to do. There's no question that it's the hardest job in the
intelligence community. He's got to manage a multibillion-dollar corporation
that has a blue-collar mentality."
General Hayden's initial goal will be to convince Congress and the White
House that he can do what his predecessors did not -- develop a specific
management plan and a budget for analyzing intelligence from the Internet
and other digital sources. "We've criticized the N.S.A. for not having a
well-coordinated strategy," one legislative aide told me, "but we're not
in a position to tell them where to go." The issues, of course, are highly
technical, and it's not clear that more money -- even billions of dollars
-- will get the job done. The amount of data flowing through the Internet
is growing exponentially, and skilled computer scientists are at a premium.
The agency's war against encryption has left a legacy of bitterness throughout
the computer industry, and today's technical advances are taking place not
at Fort Meade but on university campuses and in corporation laboratories
across America. Those computer whizzes who might have been attracted to
high-level government work are instead being attracted by the far higher
pay scales offered by private industry.
There also is little evidence that President Clinton and his national-security
team view the agency's signals-intelligence plight as significant. This year's
classified Defense Department budget request included a boost of nearly two
hundred million dollars for the agency, with the funds ear-marked for long-range
research into signals intelligence. The money never made it through the White
House's Office of Management and Budget, however. "George Tenet didn't support
it," a former congressional aide explained. A similar secret request, for
four hundred million dollars or more to modify the Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf-class
nuclear submarine, for top-secret agency intelligence work, was approved
-- evidence that the White House believes that more covert operations will
solve the nation's coming intelligence problems.
Hayden also will have to contend with those, in and out of the government,
who remain dubious about the N.S.A. One firm skeptic is the encryption expert
Whitfield Diffie, who is now at Sun Microsystems. Diffie, a leading advocate
of computer privacy, was quick to suggest that the current alarm in the N.S.A.
may be a self-interested ruse. When I brought up the N.S.A.'s problems with
new technology, he replied, "What bothers me is that you are saying what
the agency wants us to believe -- they used to be great, but these days they
have trouble reading the newspaper, the Internet is too complicated for them,
there is so much traffic and they can't find what they want. It may be true,
but it is what they have been 'saying' for years. It's convenient for N.S.A.
to have its targets believe it is in trouble. That doesn't mean it isn't
in trouble, but it is a reason to view what spooky inside informants say
Shortly after his appointment, Hayden assembled a group of highly regarded
mid-level managers and gave them free rein to evaluate the agency. He also
began a series of meetings, outside Fort Meade, to get independent advice.
The evaluations were consistently "brutal," according to one official, in
terms of the ongoing management problems. On November 15th, Hayden announced
to the N.S.A. workforce that he was beginning what he called One Hundred
Days of Change. The next day, he made his move against the establishment.
He dissolved the agency's leadership structure, despite a bitter protest
from Barbara McNamara, and announced the formation of a five-member executive
group, under his leadership, which would be responsible for decision-making.
LAST month, General Hayden agreed to speak to me, at his unpretentious top-floor
offices at Ops 2, the N.S.A. headquarters building. He is an affable spymaster,
who laughs easily, offers no slogans, and promises no quick fixes for the
agency's problems. He seemed to understand that his new troops -- computer
gurus and mathematicians -- are unlike any others he had commanded before.
When I brought up the agency's long-standing war against the export of
encryption, Hayden quickly dismissed it as yesterday's lost battle. He also
took issue with those who criticized Barbara McNamara and other civilian
managers for their failure to anticipate the communications upheaval. "Barbara
McNamara has been a good deputy to me," he said. "But I make the decisions."
Hayden emphasized that the personnel problems are far less significant than
the technological ones: "The issue is not people but external changes. For
the N.S.A., technology is a two-edged sword. If technology in the outside
world races away from us -- at breakneck speed -- our mission is more difficult.
It can be our enemy."
When I asked Hayden about the agency's capability for unwarranted spying
on private citizens -- in the unlikely event, of course, that the agency
could somehow get the funding, the computer scientists, and the knowledge
to begin making sense out of the Internet -- his response was heated. "I'm
a kid from Pittsburgh with two sons and a daughter who are closet libertarians,"
he said. "I am not interested in doing anything that threatens the American
people, and threatens the future of this agency. I can't emphasize enough
to you how careful we are. We have to be so careful -- to make sure that
America is never distrustful of the power and security we can provide."
General Hayden made no effort to minimize his agency's plight. During the
Cold War, he said, the N.S.A. was "technologically more adept than our adversary.
Now it's harder to predict where America!s interests will need to be in the
future." His goal in the near future, he added, speaking carefully, is to
determine which of the agency's past practices are applicable to today's
high-tech world -- "and which of them may be counterproductive."
"A lot of the choices are Sophie's choices," he said. "The trade-off is between
modernizations (recruiting computer scientists and beginning long-range programs
to tackle the Internet) "and readiness" -- that is, meeting the hectic
operational needs of the Defense Department and the White House for immediate
intelligence. "We have a high ops tempo," he added, "but choices have to
be made." In other words, he made clear, some ongoing N.S.A.
intelligence-collection programs will have to be curtailed, or eliminated,
so that funds are available for futuristic research.
"In its forty-year struggle against Soviet Communism," Hayden noted, "the
N.S.A. was thorough, stable, and focussed." Then he asked "What's changed?"
and he answered, "All of that."
© The New Yorker 1999
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