6 December 1999: Add report on Newsweek story.
5 December 1999. Thanks to The New York Times, JR and MM.
The New York Times, December 5, 1999
By JAMES RISEN
WASHINGTON -- No government organization has been better insulated from public scrutiny than the National Security Agency. Its very existence as America's premier eavesdropper and code-breaker was classified for decades, and the NSA -- also known as "No Such Agency" -- has been able to keep the press and Congress largely at bay even as the CIA has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of its Cold War excesses and failures.
But the NSA's isolation may be finally coming to an end. Critics on one side are now complaining that the NSA has become obsolete in the Internet age, while critics on the other flank are attacking the agency for emerging from the Cold War as a Big Brother without a cause, listening to everything around the globe for no good reason.
"NSA's problems are people and management problems," said one agency consultant. "They just haven't been willing to change the way they have always done things."
Some of its failings were on display last week, when the government announced that a Navy code expert had been charged with passing secrets to Russia five years ago while working at the NSA
But NSA's problems go far deeper. In effect, the agency is under attack today both for incompetence and omnipotence. Its predicament suggests that its own obsession with secrecy has left it prey to conspiracy theorists, while at the same time making it difficult for the agency to seek the help it needs to fix its real problems.
Some current and former U.S. intelligence officials argue that the agency has become overly bureaucratic and outdated, a Cold War relic that is no longer able to lure the best young computer wizards to its headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. They warn that the NSA is struggling to keep up in an era in which the daily volume of e-mail messages and cell phone calls threatens to overwhelm it.
At the same time, sophisticated, commercially available encryption technology is making it much tougher for the agency to sift through that mountain of intercepted communications and decipher the few messages that are actually important to the nation's security.
Still other critics complain that a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the NSA is still vacuuming telephone, fax, e-mail and other Internet traffic as if the Soviet Union still existed. To them, the agency is not a Cold War relic but a Cold War beast in need of taming.
Created in 1952 to consolidate the nation's far-flung communications intelligence and code-breaking operations into one agency within the Defense Department, the NSA quickly became the crown jewel of the intelligence community. Its code breakers enabled American presidents to regularly read the mail of America's enemies -- and its friends. The agency's high-tech collection efforts were so highly prized that it grew into the country's biggest intelligence agency.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Congress and the White House have reduced the NSA's budget. But those cutbacks have come just as the Internet has exploded, revolutionizing communications technology. The use of telephone and computer encryption is also certain to expand sharply over the coming years, as Washington moves to open up the export of advanced encryption software.
As Seymour M. Hersh wrote in the Dec. 6 New Yorker, the spread of such technology has already crippled the agency's collection efforts. In a speech last year, John Millis, the staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, warned that while the NSA had traditionally been at the cutting edge of technology, "in the last four or five years technology has moved from being the friend to being the enemy" of the agency.
But the NSA has also been attacked for accumulating far more power than it needs. Its huge international communications collection and monitoring operation, called Echelon, which is conducted jointly with the agency's counterparts in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is criticized both in this country and overseas as an excessive intrusion into the private communications of Americans and their allies.
As James Bamford, the author of the classic study of the agency, "The Puzzle Palace" (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), recently noted in The Washington Post, the Echelon system relies on satellites and ground stations to intercept and then sort global communications, searching for specific names, words or phrases. The NSA's computers can then sort out intercepted communications that include names of drug dealers or political leaders or references to espionage or terrorist actions. The agency is prohibited from intercepting strictly domestic communications unless it gets a special court order.
The NSA, in a prepared statement, said that its new director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, is trying to address the technological and management problems facing the agency by launching a restructuring program this winter that he calls "100 days of change." The program is designed to "provide the momentum for the workforce to shape the agency, so that it can thrive in the years to come."
© Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
Thanks to DH.
Date: Sun, 05 Dec 1999 22:28:01 -0800
Subject: NSA to spy on americans
Given recent results, the part about Osama's GSM is pure stupidity.
NEW YORK, Dec. 5 /PRNewswire/ -- The National Security Agency is now drafting "memoranda of understanding" to clarify ways in which it can help the FBI track terrorists and criminals in the United States, territory in which it is generally off-limits, Newsweek has learned. The FBI, never known for its technical know-how, welcomes the help from the high-tech NSA, but some senators are uneasy about letting the NSA eavesdrop more in the United States, report Washington Correspondent Gregory Vistica and Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas in the current issue of Newsweek.
While a secret court must approve any national-security wiretaps on U.S. citizens, there is still the risk of abuse. Under pressure to perform better, the NSA and CIA could overreach. Under the existing rules, the NSA and CIA are supposed to spy on foreign threats while the FBI tends to crime at home. But the Internet has blurred boundaries, and as the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 demonstrated, foreign terrorists have targeted the United States.
But the NSA may be losing its grip on the technology front. "The agency has got to make some changes," because "by standing still, we are going to fall behind very quickly," concedes Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden, the new chief of the NSA, in an interview with Newsweek. The old tools, such as spy satellites and global-listening stations to pick up broadcast transmissions and massive computers to sort and decipher them, are relatively ineffective on the new Info Highway. The agency's problems have already been costly. The intelligence community's failure to predict that India would test a nuclear weapon in 1998 suggests that the NSA is becoming hard of hearing. Some intelligence experts speculate that Washington has had difficulty finding its most-wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, because Islamic extremists use European-made encrypted mobile phones, reports Newsweek in the December 13 issue (on newsstands Monday, December 6).