6 December 1999. Thanks to DB.

Newsweek, December 13, 1999

Hard of Hearing

The National Security Agency has Fallen Behind in the High-Tech Battle Against Terrorists, Hackers and Other Threats.

By Gregory Vistica and Evan Thomas

In the 1998 movie "Enemy of the State," rogue operators from the supersecret National Security Agency (NSA; sometimes known as No Such Agency) assassinate a U.S. congressman who's trying to limit the NSA's electronic spooks' ability to listen in on ordinary Americans. The film plays to the "Big Brother is watching you" paranoia of people who assume that the government can, and routinely does, eavesdrop on innocent conversations. Watching the movie one night last winter at his local cineplex, Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden, the new chief of the NSA, slunk down in his seat as the audience jeered the bad-guy spies.  By the end of the film, Hayden recently recalled, he was practically hiding in his seat.

Hayden, who says privacy should be protected from government snooping, worries about his once invisible spy outfit's poor public image.  The public may take an even dimmer view when it learns of a new alliance between the NSA and the FBI.  Newsweek has learned that the NSA is now drafting "memoranda of understanding" to clarify ways in which the NSA can help the FBI track terrorists and criminals in the United States.  In their zeal, will the crimefighters and electronic sleuths illegally spy on U.S. citizens?  It has happened before, during the civil unrest of the 1960s.  Still, if Americans really want to be afraid, they should consider the present-day woes of the NSA: the half-century-old agency runs a real risk of going deaf.  As Hayden conceded in an interview with Newsweek, "the agency has got to make some changes," because "by standing still, we are going to fall behind very quickly."

The timing could not be worse.  Technology, America's ally in the cold war, has become the nation's greatest national-security vulnerability. Weapons of mass destruction may soon fall into the hands of terrorists, if they haven't already.  Clever hackers, backed by outlaw states, could disrupt, if not crash, the vast global communications network that's the lifeblood of the U.S. economy in the Information Age.

The NSA is supposed to be the sentinel against these threats.  During the cold war it was able to spy on the Kremlin, but since then the bureaucrats at the NSA were slow to see the coming of the cyberrevolution.  They failed to recognize that eavesdropping on the Internet and new modes of telecommunication would require tremendous scientific breakthroughs.  The old tools of the NSA -- 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 Highways.

Digital transmissions, used for most mobile phones and soon for almost all telecommunications, are harder to intercept than the old analog signals. Whereas analog signals are transmitted in a continuous stream, digital signals are broken into small, hard-to-track packets.  E-mail and telephone calls that use the Internet are almost impossible to intercept.  While digital packets can be snatched in bulk, reassembling them is very difficult.  The sheer volume of global information makes it hard to sort out key words and phrases. Encryption, once rare in everyday commerce and communication, has been made commonplace by software programs that anyone -- terrorists included -- can get.  Ciphers can still be cracked by the NSA's smart mathematicians and acres of underground, high-powered supercomputers, but not always in time to stop a crime. New technology poses obstacles to eavesdropping that may be virtually insuperable. Buried beneath the ground, shielded from the prying of satellite monitors, are new high-speed, high-volume fiber-optic cables.

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, and 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.  Predictably, intelligence officials blame Congress for cutting the NSA's budget (indeed, some congressional critics suspect the NSA is now crying wolf to shake more money out of the lawmakers).  The agency's staff has shrunk by a third since the end of the cold war, and some of the best government code breakers and cybersleuths have fled to cash in at high-tech companies.

General Hayden, a genial, slightly wonkish intelligence analyst, knows that he has to reform the insular, hidebound culture at the NSA.  Old NSA hands grumbled when a sign identifying the agency was posted outside their secret headquarters in Maryland, which bristles with antennas that can be easily spotted from the highway.  For years the NSA has been wary of working with other agencies, including its cousin in the spy business, the CIA. Technology and the threat of terrorism at home as well as abroad have forced the intelligence community to share.

Under the existing rules, the NSA and the 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.  The FBI, never known for its technical know-how, welcomes help from the high-tech NSA, but some senators are uneasy about letting the NSA eavesdrop more in the United States.  A secret court must approve any national-security wiretaps on U.S. citizens, but there is still the risk of abuse.  Under pressure to perform better, the NSA and the CIA could overreach.  The NSA, for instance, wanted the CIA to do more "black-bag jobs" -- illegal break-ins -- to steal European technology for encrypting mobile phones.  It is remotely possible that the kind of fiction imagined by "Enemy of the State" could become reality.  But for now, the greater problem is the NSA's failure to keep up with modern communications in a dangerously interconnected world.