America’s NSA spy agency is losing elite hackers over low pay and flagging morale

The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analysing the intelligence that goes into the US president’s daily briefing, sources say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 10:06pm

The National Security Agency is losing its top talent at a worrisome rate as highly skilled personnel, some disillusioned with the spy service’s leadership and an unpopular reorganisation, take higher-paying, more flexible jobs in the private sector.

Since 2015, the NSA has lost several hundred hackers, engineers and data scientists, according to current and former US officials with knowledge of the matter. The potential impact on national security is significant, they said.

Headquartered at Fort Meade in Maryland, the NSA employs a civilian workforce of about 21,000 there and is the largest producer of intelligence among the nation’s 17 spy agencies.

The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analysing the intelligence that goes into the president’s daily briefing.

Their work also included monitoring a broad array of subjects including Islamic State, Russian and North Korean hackers, and analysing the intentions of foreign governments, and they were responsible for protecting the classified networks that carry such sensitive information.

“Some synonym of the word ‘epidemic’ is the best way to describe it,” said Ellison Anne Williams, a former senior researcher at the NSA who left in 2016 to start her own data-security firm, Enveil.

More than 10 of her employees also came from the NSA, she said.

“The agency is losing an amazing amount of its strongest technical talent, and to lose your best and brightest staff is a huge hit.”

The NSA would not disclose how many job vacancies it has. Agency officials said there is a 5.6 per cent attrition rate among personnel who specialise in science, technology and maths.

The attrition rate is closer to 8 or 9 per cent among hackers and those who staff the agency’s always-operating watch centre monitoring for cyberattacks, a trend that has spanned the Obama and Trump administrations.

Although the departure rates are low, compared with attrition levels in the civilian technology industry, and although the agency is filling its vacancies, most new personnel lack the experience of those who have left, said one senior intelligence official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid insights about the secretive organisation.

That experience deficit can impede the NSA’s core mission of collecting and analysing the masses of data the agency lifts from foreign networks.

Some groups within the NSA have lost almost half of their staff, one former official said. As a result, projects to make intelligence collection more effective have been cut or slowed.

It is a turbulent moment in the NSA’s 65-year history.

The agency continues to face public distrust after revelations, made by former contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, about the scope of its surveillance of American citizens.

Morale dipped in the aftermath of those disclosures and has not fully recovered. More recently, the workforce was rattled by a series of breaches targeting the agency’s highly sensitive hacking tools.

A series of breaches beginning with Snowden and including the arrest of former contractor Harold Martin III in 2016 have led to new security precautions.

Such restrictions on accessing data have made work more difficult, and the internal hunt for would-be leakers has contributed to an environment of suspicion, said a number of current and former employees.

“It comes down to death by a thousand cuts,” said a former employee, adding that people “tend to quit in packs. One person hits their breaking point, and once they leave, the dominoes start falling.”

The brain drain has been so pronounced that at one gathering in 2016 of the agency’s elite hacking division, one individual raised the concern with NSA Director Michael Rogers directly.

According to several people familiar with the exchange, Rogers disputed that there was any increase in attrition and told his employees that they should stop complaining and get back to work.

An NSA spokesman, Tommy Groves, did not challenge the account, saying that employees’ concerns about high attrition rates have led to changes, including increased pay, increased promotions and greater opportunities to work at all NSA sites.

Rogers has told colleagues he plans to retire in the spring, ending a four-year tenure that has been rocky at times. At one point in 2016, the defence secretary and director of national intelligence wanted him removed over various leadership concerns.

It is not clear whom US President Donald Trump will nominate to succeed him, but whoever steps into the role will face a variety of challenges.

Skilled personnel have always left the NSA, in particular to work for defence contractors that support its work, said Deputy Director George Barnes, who has been at the agency for 31 years.

“The big change these days is there’s a supply-demand imbalance between the outside and the inside,” he said.

Barnes also noted the allure of Silicon Valley and other cities that tech start-ups call home. The US private sector is struggling to fill more than 270,000 jobs in cybersecurity, according to Burning Glass Technologies, a labour analytics firm.

Total compensation for those jobs can reach US$200,000 or more, meaning even relatively junior cyber professionals in the industry can make more than top officials at the NSA.