NSA: 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
Dec. 5 — 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
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.
© 1999 Newsweek, Inc.
Life is learning to live with us. Now we must learn to live with life.
-- Shane A. Saylor, 11.99
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