National Security Agency retools its image

National Security Agency retools its image

Here's a happy oxymoron made possible by the West's victory in the Cold War: Family Day at the supersecret National Security Agency.

The great day came on Saturday, Sept. 23, after weeks of preparation, during which the [number classified] NSA employees removed all [classified] material from view, filed away documents pertaining to its [classified] budget, and locked the door to its [classified] computers in the [classified] control center at its home at Fort Meade, Md.

About 16,000 family members, preceded by a gaggle of curious journalists, then trooped through the agency's headquarters building, restaurant, printing plant, antenna-testing chamber, security center and other once-hidden facilities. It was a day to "celebrate who we are," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA's director. It was also a day to mark the agency's first internal reorganization since the Cold War, and an occasion to reshape the agency's secretive image, Hayden said in a brief chat with journalists in his corner office.

Still, if it wants to succeed, the agency responsible for what is known in the business as "signals intelligence"-namely, eavesdropping-can't reveal its most important technical and spy secrets, which are hidden inside safes and bolted buildings. Those secrets include the technologies that search the world's airwaves for whispered conversations and scrambled e-mails among foreign generals and politicians, spies and soldiers, terrorists and bomb throwers and bribers and smugglers. Just as important, the agency also hides from visitors the secret design of the encryption technology used to prevent foreign eavesdroppers from listening in on White House and Pentagon conversations.

This secrecy is the NSA's blessing and curse. It is a blessing because it has allowed the agency (and its predecessors) to gather extraordinarily sensitive intelligence-for example, the combat strengths of Nazi divisions down to the last rifle, and what the Soviet premier was saying on the telephone in his limousine during arms control talks. But the most obvious price for this secrecy is the continuous suspicion, in many quarters, that the NSA could simply go too far. This fear comes from major companies wary of government regulation and privacy advocates and reporters who worry about civil liberties.

Overseas, suspicions have begun to crystallize around the NSA's "Echelon" system, which reportedly collects information beamed through commercial communications satellites. European journalists, as well as politicians in the British, German, and pan-European parliaments, allege that Echelon steals business secrets on behalf of U.S. companies, allowing them to snatch jobs away from European workers. U.S. officials deny any such information-sharing, which is illegal under U.S. law, and the NSA recently invited German legislators to tour its eavesdropping center in Bad Aibling, Germany. But it is hard to prove a negative, so the NSA may never be able to kill the Echelon story.

There's another cost to secrecy: inflexibility in the face of rapid political and technological change. During the many decades of the Cold War, the NSA performed secretly, brilliantly, and nearly always without domestic complaint. But it has had great difficulty reorienting itself to the post-Cold War world, where commercial companies sell NSA-defeating, data-scrambling gear to any and all buyers, hire away promising employees, and lobby against NSA-backed laws before a Congress increasingly sympathetic to business concerns. The most obvious example of this congressional sympathy came in the fight over data-scrambling encryption technology, when U.S. companies persuaded the Congress and the White House to dismantle the Cold War rules that barred the export of U.S. encryption products.

The agency now is putting more emphasis on hacking into other countries' computers-and on the corresponding defense of U.S. computers from other countries' hackers. But this new emphasis irks many legislators, companies and privacy advocates who are very reluctant to give the NSA any major role in defending the nation's critical computer-controlled networks-telephone, banking, oil distribution, transportation, air traffic control, and so on.

Another symptom of the NSA's problems came in January, when the agency's central computer systems crashed after what inside and outside critics said was years of inadequate management and investment. In response, the NSA asked for help from its stepchild, the U.S. computer industry, which was nurtured on billions of dollars in Cold War research grants, many of them funneled through the NSA. Thus, the NSA hired an outside manager from SSDS Enterprise Network Systems to reorganize and upgrade its computer networks, and brought on a new finance manager from Legg Mason, a financial services company, to run its accounting system. The agency has also stepped up its efforts to hire and keep the very best technical experts, countering the private sector's efforts to lure away talented employees by offering higher salaries.

Hayden said that change at NSA is vital and that holding Family Day was the right thing to do. "The American people need an image of this agency so there is not a vacuum" that, he said, could be filled by bad press and unrealistic movies.