Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2001 07:46:04 -0800 (PST) |
Subject: NSA article from CNN
Brave new world
Housed in a Maryland complex the size of a city, the National Security Agency keeps its budget and employee numbers classified.
By David Ensor CNN National Security Correspondent
FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- It was simpler during the Cold War when the National Security Agency had one major target -- the Soviet Union. Now there are many new targets and problems.
The NSA is the U.S. cryptology agency in charge of listening to the communications of other countries and enemies to produce intelligence information. It also helps create code and communications systems for the U.S. government that can resist eavesdropping by other countries. It is said to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States and perhaps the world.
The NSA is the nation's largest intelligence agency, and even its budget and the number of employees are classified. But the end of the Cold War and the rise of the information age are making the NSA's job harder. Technological tools once available to agencies like the NSA are now available to everyone -- other nations and terrorists alike.
"NSA is definitely an agency in crisis right now because the world has shifted under its foundation," said James Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets," a forthcoming book about the NSA. "This is not the Cold War anymore. We're facing brand new realities, and NSA has been very slow to move into this new world."
The agency is at the forefront of technological research and has long used highly technological methods in its mission. It listens to a vast amount of communications traffic worldwide, using listening posts around the world like Menwith Hill, a location in England with more than 20 satellite dishes.
"Its technological capabilities are really into science fiction," said Bamford, who also wrote "The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency." "I mean they can really listen to communication thousands of miles away from anybody being there. Somebody in NSA could be listening in real time to somebody making a phone call in China, for example."
The NSA has listening stations around the world, such as this one in Menwith Hill, England.
But technology is among the problems the NSA is facing. Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA director, said that during the Cold War, the NSA focused on the Soviet Union, which was producing technology inferior to the United States. But today, U.S. adversaries can turn to the commercial marketplace to get technology much better than what the Soviet Union provided.
"If we can't keep pace with the global level of technology, then we run the risk day in and day out that one of our adversaries reaps some of that technology, uses it to their own advantage and thereby puts us at a great disadvantage," he said.
One of the NSA's technological headaches is the increasing use of fiber-optic cables. Signals transmitted through the air can be listened to, but tapping into traffic transmitted via fiber-optic cables is much harder.
A fiber-optic cable is a thin glass cable a little thicker than a human hair surrounded by a plastic coating. Data is transmitted through the glass cable in light waves instead of electrical pulses through copper cables. Since fiber-optic cable passes electrically nonconducting photons through a glass medium, it is immune to electromagnetic interference and much harder to wiretap than traditional phone lines.
Another problem is the increasing use and sophistication of encryption software available to the general public. Public key encryption allows the sender of a message to scramble its text, and only the recipient who has an electronic key can unscramble the message and read it. If a third party such as the NSA intercepts the message, the encryption can theoretically be cracked. But depending on the level of encryption, decrypting the message could take a massive amount of computing power.
Hayden declined to say if there are publicly available encryption tools that the NSA cannot overcome.
"I can't talk about what we can and can't do, but I can say that the global availability to encryption products and services is one of the challenges that we have to face," he said.
The NSA's bank of supercomputers overloaded in 2000 from the amount of raw data coming into the system.
U.S. officials recently said that the group headed by accused terrorist Osama bin Laden has put encrypted messages to its members on Web sites. The United States used to classify encryption software as "munitions," unavailable for export to certain countries. Even today, some encryption software and Web browsers that use powerful encryption for e-commerce cannot be exported to countries such as Iran and Syria.
Hayden said encryption offers positive aspects because it helps protect individual privacy. "We see that as a virtue, but it's one of those states of nature out there now to which we have to accommodate if we are going to do the kind of things America expects us to do," he said.
But one of the NSA's biggest problems is simply the amount of communication traffic unleashed by the advances in technology over the past 30 years. The widespread use of cell phones, fax machines and the Internet has massively increased the volume of messages the agency must sift through, which makes finding valuable intelligence information more difficult. The agency is overwhelmed by the amount of data.
"Where we are today is that there is too much of it, and it is too hard to understand. So it is a volume, velocity and variety problem for us," said Maureen Baginski, director of the NSA's Signals Intelligence (SIGNIT) program.
In early 2000, the flood of data overwhelmed the NSA's vast complex of supercomputers. For 3 1/2 days, the overloaded system simply shut down.
"The NSA is drowning in material. I mean, it has been since its beginning and even more so today because it's able to intercept so much more," Bamford said.
Hayden said the cause of the computer shutdown was the inability to create a system that could meet the agency's operational needs. He declined to characterize the agency as drowning in data but said it's a "far better metaphor than going deaf."
"It's a challenge for us to keep technological pace with the adversaries of the United States," he said.
The NSA said its computer problems are now fixed, but it is asking Congress for billions in new funding to create what it calls "Trailblazer" -- a computer system designed to better process and gain useful intelligence from the vast quantities of information the NSA collects around the world.
The agency says Trailblazer is one of its major modernization efforts to the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) programs. The agency is working on studies to research and create the system concepts and architectures for the Trailblazer initiative.
The secretive agency is headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland.
By David Ensor
FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- The National Security Agency eavesdrops on literally billions of communications worldwide on behalf of the U.S. government, garnering the secrets of other countries but raising fears that the agency may be abusing its power.
"It is secrets worth knowing; it is data no one else can get," said Maureen Baginski, director of the NSA's Signals Intelligence (SIGNIT) program.
But privacy advocates fear that the awesome power of the NSA's technology and its secrecy does not have enough outside oversight to prevent abuse of its tools and information.
"What's happening, of course, is that the NSA says, 'Trust us, we're the government. We won't abuse the law,'" said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Of course, what they're really saying is: 'Trust us, we're the government spies and we won't abuse the law,' but since there is no real check on them, there is no way to know that."
The 1998 movie "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman, portrayed the NSA as an evil Big Brother spying on Americans. The plot involves the NSA's deputy director, who oversees the murder of a congressman due to his opposition to a bill that the NSA official wants passed.
A Washington lawyer unwittingly comes into possession of evidence of the murder, and the NSA official turns the full force of the agency's eavesdropping capability on the lawyer's life. In reality, the NSA is prohibited from spying on U.S. citizens unless it can prove to a special court that there is probable cause to believe that a citizen is committing espionage or other crimes as an agent of another government.
Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA's director, saw the movie in a South Korean theater filled with other military personnel while he was under consideration for his current job. The movie did not paint a positive picture of the NSA, he said.
"I made the judgment that we couldn't survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie," Hayden said.
Hayden sensed an image problem. That recognition in part explains why the NSA decided to let CNN inside the agency to see where code breakers work to crack the secrets of other nations and where code makers protect U.S. secrets.
Hayden said he wants to ensure that the NSA isn't viewed as trampling on the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. He said the nature of the NSA's mission requires it to be a secretive agency. But he added that the agency is trying to make certain that Americans know it follows the law while enhancing U.S. liberty and security.
"Could there be abuses? Of course, there could, but I am looking you and the American people in the eye and saying there are not," Hayden said.
Director Michael Hayden set out to improve the NSA's public image.
Oversight reforms passed in the 1970s Hayden said the NSA has not spied on Americans since the 1970s. Congressional committees, led by U.S. Sen. Frank Church and U.S. Rep. Otis Pike, found that government agencies, including the NSA, had eavesdropped on actress Jane Fonda, Dr. Benjamin Spock and other anti-Vietnam War activists.
As a result, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which created a procedural structure with a special court for considering and approving certain surveillance activities that occur in the United States and involve rights guaranteed by the Constitution such as the ban on unreasonable search and seizure.
The House and Senate also established intelligence oversight committees, and then-President Gerald Ford issued an executive order establishing a formal system of intelligence oversight by the executive branch.
"After Church and Pike, on this question, the ball and strike count on the agency is no balls and two strikes," Hayden said. "We don't take any pitches that are close to the strike zone. We are very, very careful. We can't go back to the American people with, 'Oh, well, we're sorry for this one, too.' We don't get close to the Fourth Amendment."
But the ACLU's Steinhardt said the laws dealing with these issues need to be revised and congressional intelligence committees don't exercise much oversight.
"Unfortunately, the Congress -- which is the only entity that can really ask these questions, has not so far asked them ... in an aggressively satisfactory way," he said.
The technological advances that have increased the ability for people to communicate also increase the possibility that the NSA may run across more U.S. citizens while performing its mission. When eavesdropping on a drug ring in Colombia, separating other countries' nationals -- who can legally be bugged -- from U.S. citizens or residents is not always easy.
Domestic law enforcement agencies also pressure the NSA to help out with issues such as drug trafficking.
"Increasingly, intelligence agencies are becoming domestic law enforcement agencies," Steinhardt said. "The excuse for that is that some law enforcement issues are international, like the drug trade, for example."
The NSA's listening station in England sparked controversy, with allegations that the United States engaged in economic espionage to help U.S. companies against European competitors.
Staying on the safe side of the law Hayden acknowledges the U.S. status as a leader in telecommunications and business increases the odds that the NSA will come up against what he called "protected communication." But he said the agency has clear rules dealing with this issue and it can use technology to help do its job legally.
"It gives us the ability to filter very early in the process, and so the same technology that creates problems is the technology that allows us to stay on the safe side of the law," he said.
In certain cases, the NSA can look into the activities of U.S. citizens or residents if it believes they are acting as agents for another country. The agency must first get the permission of a special court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and then get the U.S. attorney general's consent.
Hayden said the burden of proof is on the NSA when seeking such authorization. He declined to say whether the agency had ever been turned down.
"It's hard for me to get into operation matters," he said. "Let me just say that we are very careful about what we ask for, that we have to be very confident that we have a very strong case, and therefore, when we go forward, we think we have very powerful arguments, and our track record reflects that."
Economic espionage? In Europe, the debate about the NSA and privacy centers on the surveillance facilities in Menwith Hill, England. A 1999 European Parliament report suggested the United States might have conducted economic espionage to help American companies against European competitors. Hayden dismissed the allegation.
"That is absolutely not true," he said. "Everything we do is for a foreign intelligence purpose, and everything we produce is handed to an official agency of the U.S. government that is authorized to receive that information. We do nothing on behalf of American enterprise; we do nothing to gain advantage for American industry."
However, Hayden said if the NSA detects criminal activity, it is required by law to pass the information to other U.S. agencies such as the State Department. If the NSA learns that an overseas company is offering bribes to get a contract, that information does not remain a secret.
No matter what the scenario is, however, the issue of balancing privacy with the need to garner intelligence is unlikely to go away for the agency.
"It's a battle that goes on behind the lines in a great deal of secrecy, and how close they get to the line or whether they slip over sometimes is a matter that has to be watched closely," said James Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets," a forthcoming book on the NSA.
The National Security Agency puts a secure telephone in every senior U.S. official's office around the world.
By David Ensor
FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- At its headquarters outside Washington, the National Security Agency creates codes and secure communications systems for the U.S. government from the president on down.
The NSA puts a secure telephone in every senior U.S. official's office -- all over the world. Speaking on a secured line results in a slightly delayed, compressed signal but with a clear voice. Anyone trying to tap into the line would hear garbage.
"They hear noise. It's random information being sent, and it's unintelligible," said Jon Rolf, an NSA engineer.
But when it comes to protecting government computer systems, the NSA's communications guardians have their work cut out for them. Many are not secure from hackers, who could be U.S. teen-agers or agents from other nations trying to steal national security secrets.
"We see hundreds of probes -- perhaps thousands on a daily basis. So it's a constant game, if you will, of moving as quickly as your potential adversary, staying current on the technologies that are necessary to maintain the security and integrity of the networks," said Michael Jacobs, the NSA's director of information assurance.
A fingerprint scanner may take the place of a password for logging on to a computer.
Passwords of the future At the NSA's biometrics lab, scientists test the next generation of security tools to keep unauthorized people out of computers and top-secret areas. Use of fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition is likely to replace passwords as a way to get into NSA computer systems that access top-secret information.
The NSA is testing systems that can match a person to a fingerprint without ever using a user name and that can go through 2,000 fingerprints in less than a half-second. The latest version is so small it can fit on a card that attaches to a laptop computer.
"I have four fingers enrolled so if I actually have a bandage on one finger, you can go to an alternate finger to gain access or you could require two fingers to gain access for the added security," said Bob Rahikka, the NSA's lead researcher on fingerprint scanning.
Iris recognition is also a possibility as the human iris is a unique identifier for each person. NSA engineer Bob Kirchner said the agency's systems scan an image of the iris, convert it into a template and compare it against a stored template in a database.
"Iris has some very unique advantages," he said. "One, we believe it is more accurate than fingerprints. Two, it has the flexibility of not having to contact the sensor or surface like fingerprints."
One benefit of an iris recognition system for computers is that no direct contact is necessary. Even workers in full biohazard gear, for example, can use it.
Facial identification may be the wave of the future for places such as the NSA, which already is testing systems that are keyed to recognize people by face.
A silicon rubber model, similar to one used in the 1996 movie "Mission: Impossible," also doesn't fool the system. Dave Murley, the NSA's biometrics technical director, had an exact physical reproduction of his face made, but the system rejected the mask. "That's good news because we wouldn't like people to be able to use a model like this to get into our system," Murley said.
The system is also keyed to recognize Rahikka, who has a twin brother named Doug, also an NSA employee. When Doug tries to pose as Bob Rahikka, the system rejects him, but scientists said this system still isn't good enough. It has problems, for example, with new mustaches, long bangs or a new nose ring. The researchers are testing another version that captures a three-dimensional image of a person's face and coloring.
The NSA has long been one of the most highly technological agencies in the federal government, and a building at NSA headquarters contains the world's largest collection of supercomputers in one place. A Cray Triton supercomputer used by the agency can handle 64 billion instructions per second. Machines such as the Cray are used for making as well as breaking codes.
Though spies have given some U.S. secret codes to adversaries like the former Soviet Union, NSA officials said they know of no critical American code system that has ever been broken.
The NSA already is testing face recognition systems for future use.
"That said, if it were happening, you can be sure it would be one of the most closely guarded secrets of any government," Jacobs said.
The NSA's headquarters also includes an anechoic chamber -- a massive cathedral of fire retardant plastic foam spikes -- where scientists test signals from transmitters and antennae of every kind. Even as the agency works to make sure that U.S. signals cannot be decoded, it never stops trying to gather and decipher the signals of others.
The NSA also recently released a prototype of a security-enhanced version of the Linux computer operating system as a part of its mission to assure that the United States has secure computer systems.
Linux is a version of the Unix operating system, which is used to run many of the server computers that operate the Internet. Linux, created by Finnish programmer Linux Torvalds in the early 1990s, is an open-source operating system, meaning its source code is open to all, unlike a proprietary operating system such as Microsoft's Windows.
"Open-source software plays an increasingly important role in federal information technology systems. I'm delighted the NSA's security experts are making this valuable contribution to the open-source community," said Jeffery Hunker, senior director for critical infrastructure at the National Security Council, when the announcement was made in January.
The NSA's version is aimed at strengthening the operating system's security and preventing unauthorized users from gaining access to government computers. The NSA released its version under the same general public license as most other versions of Linux in hopes of attracting more development from computer programmers who work on open-source software.
Linguist Everette Jordan listens to taped conversations for the National Security Agency.
By David Ensor
FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- It could be any office building, but Everette Jordan's workplace is one of the most unusual in the country. He cannot take his office keys home as he must punch in a code to get them each morning.
Jordan is a spy -- but not in the way you probably imagine. He is a "listener."
Jordan, 41, is a longtime linguist for the National Security Agency, which is in charge of eavesdropping on behalf of the U.S. government. He is fluent in Russian, Spanish, French, German and Arabic and spends his days listening to tapes of conversations the NSA has acquired via its worldwide array of powerful surveillance technology.
As he listens, Jordan must not only translate but pay attention to the subtleties of the spoken word, no matter what language.
"You have to listen for irony, for sarcasm, for tension," he said. "You have to listen for rhetorical statements being made. You also have to listen for humor."
But the focus of his eavesdropping is to listen for any threats made against the United States. And in his NSA career, he's heard items that were of critical importance to U.S. national security.
"There have been many cases, and that's one of the fun things about being a linguist, knowing that the work you have done has gone right downtown to the president of the United States or the United States Congress, or any of the decision- and policymakers that would provide them with the information they need to make a very critical decision," he said.
As a child, Jordan enjoyed languages and ended up at the NSA after joining the U.S. Army. He heard about the agency needing linguists, applied and got a job.
The agency has a variety of linguists, some who are listeners such as Jordan, while others focus on reading and translating written material. Given that Jordan is unlikely to travel to Russia because of his job as an intelligence officer, he keeps his language skills sharp in a variety of ways.
Security is so tight at the NSA that Jordan must enter a code just to get keys to his office.
"We take as many courses as we possibly can," he said. "We have other avenues of trying to keep our language skills up. We have a lot of foreign films we listen to or watch at the agency."
Nevertheless, he admits to wanting to travel to Russia, having spent so much time learning about the language and listening to native speakers. "There will always be a soft spot in my heart," he said.
In all the conversations and other material that Jordan has heard, however, he said he's never listened to a tape of a U.S. citizen. The NSA is banned by law from eavesdropping on conversations of U.S. citizens.
"We have very strict protocols toward handling that, those sorts of situations and really we erase the thing," he said. "But we also report that such and such a thing has happened. It's an incident report, but we are enjoined by law to, against, you know, listening to Americans."
The possibility also exists that the NSA might record the conversations of U.S. citizens speaking other languages while living and working abroad.
"But there are places you don't expect Americans to be, and in the pursuit of our business, we try to focus on places Americans are not expected to be," he said.
While Jordan works in a serious business, he also comes across the humorous in his job, such as trying to discern what a drunk is saying or a person who is missing their false teeth. Jordan said he must gauge whether a drunk's conversation is more or less true because of his or her inebriated condition.
"It depends on what kind of drunk they are," he said, laughing. "But we have to know the language to a degree that we can understand when this person is drunk and you're ... really trying to pay attention to get through it all without laughing."
Because of its trafficking in secrets, the NSA remains a very closed agency. Its budget is classified and an old joke is that NSA really stands for "No Such Agency." For many years, its headquarters at Fort Meade did not have a sign.
Jordan is limited to what he can say to his family and anyone else outside the NSA. He said that NSA employees accept these restrictions when they take the oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.
"It's enough satisfaction to know that you made a difference," he said. "It doesn't matter that you're never going to be able to tell anybody."
To say that NSA employees are security-conscious is putting it mildly. Jordan is the first NSA listener ever to give a television interview. As CNN toured NSA headquarters to film its special report, employees were warned ahead of time so they would not discuss anything classified.
Years of listening to surveillance tapes may have given Jordan some minor hearing loss. He now says he hopes to move into management.
Asked if most of his colleagues would be unwilling to give an interview, Jordan quickly replied, "You got that right." The NSA's secretive culture doesn't encourage employees to talk to the media.
"One of the ways we're very successful is the work we do is very quiet, and in some cases, in many cases, our work force has been indoctrinated not to draw attention to themselves because in some cases they would be traveling on official government business, and to sit here in front of the camera as an NSA employee is something like killing one's career," he said.
But Jordan is not living in the secret world anymore, appearing at job fairs and recruitment drives for the NSA. The agency is looking to hire 600 workers with experience or education in computer science, mathematics, engineering, signal analysis, data collection, cryptanalysis and intelligence analysis.
"My name is open; my face is out there," he said. "And I have no career aspirations in the areas that are more, you could say, quiet. So I can basically do this with the understanding that my face may go all around the world, but my body will have to stay here at Fort Meade, Maryland."
Jordan, however, is starting to pay a physical price for listening to pops and screeches of surveillance tapes. The frequent tests that Jordan undergoes have started to show a high-frequency hearing loss in high decibels.
Though he hopes soon to move into management, Jordan said he wouldn't have wanted any other career up to this point -- protecting the nation with his ears and his gift for languages.
By David Ensor
FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- For a secret intelligence agency that didn't even have a sign outside its headquarters until a few years ago, holding its first on-site job fair and inviting thousands for interviews is a radical break with the past.
The environment at the National Security Agency is a subculture apart in a nation that values openness and has never been that comfortable with spying. People at the NSA snoop and keep secrets in the name of freedoms Americans hold dear.
To keep doing that job, the NSA must recruit smart young computer scientists, mathematicians and linguists to collect other nations' secrets in the information age. But there's a catch.
"We're going to put them through a process no other employer is going to put them through -- background investigation and that polygraph -- before they can even come work for us," said Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA's director.
The questions start simply enough, but they get more than a little personal, with queries about debt or possible crimes. While the NSA no longer asks about sexual orientation, the agency will inquire if a job applicant has a sexual partner who is not a U.S. citizen and if there is anything another nation's intelligence service could use as blackmail.
"This is a bill that our employees pay in order to come work here that most Americans are absolutely unaware of," Hayden said. "And so these Americans who are protecting American security and protecting American liberty come here and voluntarily allow some intrusiveness into their personal lives, into their personal liberty, so that we can have the confidence that we need to have in our overall enterprise that we are keeping America's secrets."
Polygraphs and precautions
Though NSA officials call the lie-detector test a useful tool, it is clearly not perfect. While he was spying for Russia, former CIA officer Aldrich Ames passed two polygraph tests. But the stakes can be high without such tests.
After all, the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies are still assessing the damage done by the alleged espionage of the FBI's Robert Hanssen. Hanssen was arrested February 18, 2001, and is accused of spying for the former Soviet Union and Russia since 1985.
U.S. officials say Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran who never underwent a polygraph test, provided information that betrayed U.S. agents and other U.S. operations, including a tunnel built underneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington for eavesdropping purposes.
Unlike the NSA and CIA, the FBI didn't have a policy requiring all employees to undergo polygraph tests after they are hired. Since Hanssen's arrest, the FBI has changed its policy and is starting to make all employees undergo random polygraph tests.
"Everyone who works here has gone through a polygraph," Hayden said. "Everyone who works here has gone through an extended background investigation. I can tell you as one that has gone through it. I don't like either one of them."
NSA officials also haven't forgotten Ronald Pelton, a former employee convicted in 1986 of spying for the Soviet Union. Pelton was a low-level communications specialist at the NSA for 14 years before leaving in 1980. He was arrested in 1985 and accused of selling secrets to the Soviets. He was convicted of two counts of espionage and one count of conspiracy and sentenced to three concurrent life sentences.
One of the secrets Pelton passed to the Soviets was information that compromised "Operation Ivy Bells," a top-secret operation in which a listening device was attached to Soviet undersea communication lines.
Asked if he was confident now that the NSA did not have a spy among its employees, Hayden said he was not worried.
"Is it something I'm worried about? Is it on my front burner? The answer is no," he said. "I mean, would I ever say with absolute certitude that, 'No, we're safe?' Equally no. We work hard on this. It's an important part of our culture -- the way we live."
Secrecy -- and a dose of what many would call paranoia -- is indeed part of the culture at the NSA. The agency's budget and number of employees are classified. An old joke is that NSA actually stands for "No Such Agency."
Linguist Everette Jordan is one of the employees who listen to conversations obtained by the NSA. His job prohibits him from going home and discussing the day with his family.
"If you're going to be traveling, your family is going to know where you're going. But that's about it," he said. "What you're going to be doing, where you're going, that's not the issues, and the family, your children grow up knowing either Mom or Dad or both are working a job they really can't talk about. And so they're pretty accepting about those kinds of things."
And the price exacted on private lives doesn't end there. NSA employees are told to report close, ongoing relationships with non-U.S. citizens. They need permission to marry a non-American and stay at the NSA. If a close relative marries a person without U.S. citizenship, the agency must be notified. If an NSA employee takes an overseas vacation, the agency must be notified in advance.
"It's a sacrifice that doesn't show up in paychecks and doesn't show up in awards and doesn't frequently show up in the press," Hayden said. "But it's something that we expect all of our people to do."
last updated: 03.23.2001