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[infowar.de] WPO 29.7.01: Überholung der NSA?
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Test of Strength
For two years, Air Force general Michael Hayden has waged a secret struggle to overhaul the world's most powerful spy agency. Nothing's riding on his success but the future of America's national secur
By Vernon Loeb
Sunday, July 29, 2001; Page W08
The call came after dinner on a Monday night, as the general was watching the TV news at home. There was a computer problem back at the agency. A software failure had knocked out the network.
"Give me a sense," the general commanded the duty officer over the secure phone line. "What are we talking about?"
"The whole system is down," the duty officer said. A result of overloading. Plus, the network had become so tangled that no one really seemed to know how it worked. There was no wiring diagram anyone could consult.
It was January 24, 2000. Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden was still new on the job -- just finishing his 10th month as director of the National Security Agency -- but he did not need a duty officer to explain the implications of his computer problem. The agency's constellation of spy satellites and its giant listening stations on five continents were still vacuuming communications out of the ether. Their vast electronic "take" -- intercepted telephone calls, e-mails, faxes and radio signals -- still poured into memory buffers capable of storing 5 trillion pages of data at agency headquarters at Fort Meade. But once in house, the data froze. Nobody could access it, nobody could analyze it.
The NSA -- the largest and most powerful spy agency in the world -- was brain-dead.
Hayden called George J. Tenet on a secure phone and broke the news to the director of central intelligence. The nation's two top spymasters knew there was nothing they could do but get out of the way and let the technicians try to figure out what was wrong. The keepers of the nation's secrets now had another one to keep -- a secret Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or some other enemy of the state could have surely used to great advantage.
The next morning, the only consolation Hayden had was the snow: A blizzard had blasted Washington and shut down the federal government, giving his gathering army of computer engineers and techies some time -- without the workforce around -- to bring the agency out of its coma. Hayden's despair deepened as two full days passed without progress. The mathematicians and linguists reported back for duty Thursday morning, only to find a handwritten message taped to doors and computer terminals: "Our network is experiencing intermittent difficulties. Consult your supervisor before you log on."
The crash had now become a security crisis. By noon, at a hastily called "town meeting," Hayden walked onto the stage of the agency's Friedman Auditorium and told thousands of employees -- in person and on closed-circuit television -- what had happened.
"We are the keeper of the nation's secrets," he said at the end of his grim presentation. "If word of this gets out, we significantly increase the likelihood that Americans will get hurt. Those who would intend our nation and our citizens harm will be emboldened. So this is not the back half of a sentence tonight that begins, 'Honey, you won't believe what happened to me at work.' This is secret. It does not leave the building."
Could all 30,000 employees live by the code of secrecy they'd grown up with?
To Hayden, a career intelligence officer who had served in the first Bush White House and had run the Air Force's cyberwar center, the computer crash seemed the perfect metaphor for an agency desperately in need of new technology. But the reality, he would quickly see, was actually worse. Antiquated computers were the least of the NSA's problems.
By virtue of its magnitude and complexity, the NSA invites superlatives and outsize comparisons. Its collections systems scoop up enough data every three hours to fill the Library of Congress. It employs the world's largest collection of linguists and mathematicians and owns the world's largest array of supercomputers. To power the supercomputers, it uses as much electricity as the city of Annapolis. To cool them, it maintains 8,000 tons of chilled water capacity. One of its most powerful computers generates so much heat it operates while immersed in a nonconducting liquid called Flourinert.
But beyond the gee-whiz factor lies an agency in need of reinvention.
Heir to America's World War II code-breaking heroics, the agency was created in secret by President Harry Truman in 1952. Signals intelligence -- SIGINT, in spy parlance -- has long been considered even more valuable than human intelligence or satellite imagery, because the quantity and quality of the potential take is so much greater. The NSA was intended to be the world's premier SIGINT agency, encoding American secret communications while stealing and decoding other nations'. Soon after its founding, the agency started growing into a juggernaut that would put listening posts around the globe, spy ships and submarines out to sea, and reconnaissance planes and satellites in the heavens.
The NSA rose to dominance in what were, in telecommunications terms, simpler times. Radio signals and microwaves were ripe for the taking as they bounced off the ionosphere or traveled straight out into space; to intercept them, one simply needed to get in their path. And the NSA did this better than anyone else, using everything from portable receivers that picked up vibrations off windowpanes to geosynchronous satellites 22,000 miles above Earth.
It was the NSA that first reported the presence of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba in 1962. It was the NSA that first warned of the Tet offensive -- five days before the attacks commenced across South Vietnam in January 1968. All told, the NSA broke the codes of 40 nations during the Cold War and, through an operation code-named Gamma Guppy, intercepted personal conversations of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan went so far as to bomb Col. Moammar Gaddafi's Tripoli headquarters after NSA intercepts revealed Libya's role in a terrorist attack on a Berlin discotheque that had killed two U.S. servicemen and a Turkish woman.
Making and breaking codes requires absolute secrecy, and the NSA took secrecy to extremes. Most Americans had never even heard of the agency for decades after it was established. In 1975, a Senate select committee headed by Sen. Frank Church revealed that the NSA had far exceeded the foreign intelligence mission envisioned by Truman and had been spying domestically on the likes of Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Benjamin Spock and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The revelations led to laws and regulations that strictly prohibit the NSA from spying on U.S. soil -- laws and regulations, agency officials say, they now strictly follow. But the agency's cult of secrecy proved far more resilient. Even after the Church committee's revelations, it was a standing joke at Fort Meade that NSA stood for No Such Agency or Never Say Anything. In 1982, when author James Bamford was writing his groundbreaking first book about the agency, The Puzzle Palace, the Reagan administration threatened to prosecute him for espionage if he did not return sensitive documents he had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The administration ultimately backed down, but its treatment of Bamford was a sign of how secretive and arrogant the NSA had become. (By contrast, Hayden cooperated with Bamford on his second book about the NSA, Body of Secrets, which was published in May.)
The agency's high opinion of itself was backed up by its success throughout the Cold War, success that rested on three pillars: massive budgets, superior technology and the luxury of having a single main adversary -- the Soviet Union -- that enjoyed neither of those first two advantages.
Now, all those pillars have crumbled.
The NSA is still one of the largest employers in the state of Maryland, but it lost 30 percent of its budget and an equivalent slice of its workforce during the 1990s. And instead of one backward adversary, the agency found itself trying to deploy against elusive terrorist groups, drug cartels and rogue states, in addition to a full slate of traditional targets ranging from Russia to China to India to Pakistan. In 1980, the NSA focused about 60 percent of its budget on the Soviet Union. By 1993, less than 15 percent was fixed on Russia.
But if the end of the Cold War was hard on the NSA, the onset of the digital age was harder. More and more communications were moving through hard-to-tap fiber-optic cable. More and more were encoded with powerful new encryption software that was proving virtually impossible to break. By the late 1990s, NSA officials had given up a futile effort to limit the spread of encryption software, but they were left fearful of how their agency's capabilities could wither if, say, Microsoft started building powerful encryption algorithms into its operating systems.
More immediately, the NSA had to confront the exploding volume of global communications. In the 1950s, there were 5,000 computers in the world and not a single fax machine or cell phone. Today, there are more than 100 million hosts on the Internet serving hundreds of millions of networked computers, not to mention 650 million cell phones in use worldwide. And with broadband fiber-
optic cable being laid around the world at the rate of hundreds of miles an hour (virtually the speed of sound), the speed for moving digital data down these slender pipes more than doubles annually -- faster even than computing power, which doubles every year and a half.
With more and more digital data moving across the Internet and bouncing off communications satellites, SIGINT has become more important than ever. Yet the interceptible data stream has threatened to drown the NSA's analysts in a roiling sea of 1s and 0s.
In this new context, private industry suddenly controls the technology that the NSA needs to keep pace. But the NSA has been isolated from the dynamism of the market by its own cult of secrecy. The agency has fallen farther and farther behind, unable to sort through a torrent of information streaming back into Fort Meade's computers and, to some extent, incapable of replacing its Cold War troops trained in radio intercepts and Russian with Internet engineers and Arabic speakers.
In 1999, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence declared that the NSA was "in serious trouble," desperately short of capital and leadership. Civil libertarians, Internet privacy activists and encryption entrepreneurs -- not to mention the European Parliament and thousands, perhaps millions, of ordinary Europeans -- question the continuing need for such an agency, describing the NSA as an "extreme threat to the privacy of people all over the world," in the words of an American Civil Liberties Union Web site.
But the U.S. government considers SIGINT so essential that one senior intelligence official recently called the NSA's possible demise the greatest single threat to U.S. national security. So, three years ago, when the House and Senate intelligence committees began sounding the alarm, the director of central intelligence began an all-out search for somebody to fill the NSA's leadership void. George Tenet turned to a man who lacked the innate spookiness normally associated with this spookiest of agencies. A small man with a crew cut and a bald pate. A man with a scholarly interest in history. A man who would show no fear of either the public or the agency he would have to overhaul.
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55250-2001Jul26.html>Continue to Page 2 of 3
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