Men in black struggle to keep pace at Crypto City

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2001, 12:00am

DRIVING ALONG the highway between Washington DC and Baltimore you come across a relatively innocuous sign marking the turn-off to Fort Meade.

If you follow it over a rise and behind some woods, you will not get much further. A vast network of fences looms ahead. Fort Meade is the ultra-secret heart of the United States' intelligence community - home of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Most people have heard of the more famous parts of the US spy troika - the domestic Federal Bureau of Investigation and the external Criminal Intelligence Agency. But the NSA has long lurked in even darker shadows as it monitors electronic communications across the globe.

When then-president Harry Truman issued an executive order for its creation in 1952, even the founding document remained a state secret for years - leading to its own staffers creating their own acronym 'No Such Agency'.

But various espionage scandals threw the spotlight upon the Cold War excesses of the intelligence community back in the 1970s, from coup plotting to surveillance of American civil-rights workers and rock stars.

And now, the NSA is back in the news again. The 24 crew members of the US Navy EP-3E spy plane recently detained on Hainan Island were running an NSA electronic eavesdropping operation. The European Parliament is currently investigating claims that the US is misusing its international NSA network to listen to ordinary Europeans' phone calls to supply commercial intelligence to American firms.

It is a great moment for a new book that is considered the definitive work on the agency's shadowy past and uncertain future role. James Bamford, a former lawyer turned investigative reporter, has produced Body of Secrets, billed as the hottest investigative work to come out of Washington in years.

In a detailed but balanced account, Bamford describes Fort Meade as 'Crypto City'. '[It is] home to the largest collection of hyper-powerful computers, advanced mathematicians and language experts on the planet . . . Time is measured by the billionth of a second and scientists work in secret to develop computers capable of performing one septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) operations every second.'

He describes an agency with less government and congressional oversight than any other government branch. Many of its employees will not even inform their spouses of their real day-to-day work, even after retirement.

Bamford outlines years of frustrating effort to break codes masking the communications of the Soviet Union's top leadership, and unearths plenty of fresh scandals.

He has found documents showing the Pentagon was considering mounting acts of domestic terrorism to be blamed on Communist Cuba to incite hatred against Fidel Castro.

As to the future, the NSA must grapple with the new problems posed by fibre-optic communications, e-mail traffic and digital cell phones. Even drug traffickers now routinely encrypt their calls. The NSA's failure to detect early warning of India's controversial nuclear tests in May 1998 has been linked to digitally encrypted phone calls used by Indian generals.

Bamford and other intelligence experts have claimed that cuts have reduced the NSA's scale from a post Vietnam War high of 90,000 personnel to an estimated 50,000. It remains bigger in size and budget than the CIA. It has listening stations across the globe, as well as its own force of ships, planes and, most importantly, satellites. Its stations can monitor one million telecommunications messages - phone calls, e-mails and radio signals - every 30 minutes.

'Signals intelligence' is its stock-in-trade - electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking, compared to the more human assets exploited and analysed by the CIA.

The need to attract top people to keep pace with an exploding private-sector technology industry as well as recent scandals have forced a new degree of openness. The NSA now has a Web site, for example. Given its cutting-edge computer minds, it is ironically more than a little flat - not to say brief. There is a 'kid's page' and press releases devoted to such hot issues as occupational safety and health.

It does contain some rare congressional testimony from its current director General Michael Hayden. The air-force general denies his agency spies on US citizens or provides intelligence to US firms.

'The regulatory and oversight structure, in place now for a quarter of a century, has ensured that the imperatives of national security are balanced with democratic values,' General Hayden notes.

Bamford asks whether two congressional committees meeting in secret can ever provide enough scrutiny of such a giant and complex organisation, but he has questioned European fears.

He recently testified before highly suspicious European parliamentarians, saying that even the CIA struggled to get what it wanted from the secretive NSA. 'The NSA cannot manage even to do the critical intelligence work it is supposed to be doing . . . there is a lot of things they are missing because they can't be listening to everyone, everywhere, all the time,' he said.

His book suggests, however, that it is still having fair crack at it.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent