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Biggest U.S. spy agency choking on too much information

The NSA has 38,000 employees whose job is to listen for threats to U.S. national security  

November 25, 1999
Web posted at: 1:24 a.m. EST (0624 GMT)

By Correspondent David Ensor

FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) -- The largest U.S. spy agency -- the National Security Agency -- is in crisis, overwhelmed by too many targets, too much information and the challenges created by increasingly sophisticated technologies.

The NSA is headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, about halfway between Washington and Baltimore. With its 38,000 employees, it is more than twice the size of the CIA, and at least twice as secretive.

"It produces, probably produces, 80 percent of the intelligence the United States uses," said James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace."

The agency's mission is to listen for threats to U.S. national security and it faces an increasingly daunting task.

"The nation cannot navigate with an impaired sense of hearing," declared Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia) on the floor of the House of Representatives on November 9.

The agency used to have just one target -- the Soviets. But now it has dozens of targets.

"The international drug cartels that bring poison into our cities, the elusive conspiracies that put the pieces of nuclear weapons into the hands of rogue leaders and the shadowy networks that want to bomb our buildings," are the threats to U.S. security listed by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Porter Goss (R-Florida).

And even the sophisticated eavesdropping equipment strategically placed around the world and the staff of crack codebreakers with the world's largest array of supercomputers is not enough to handle the current load of information.

Critics point to one well-known example where the NSA may have dropped the ball.

While NSA focused resources on the North Korean missile program, some say the agency missed preparations by India to test a nuclear weapon.

Difficulties posed by new technologies also threaten to make the NSA's "big ears" increasingly deaf. Among the changes and the problems they present:

  • The worldwide move to digital, rather than analog phones makes eavesdropping tougher.

  • Fax machines and fiber optic cables are a much harder to tap.

  • The increasing availability of good encryption software lets even drug lords and terrorists scramble their signals.

  • The Internet creates mountains of public -- not secret -- data that needs to be analyzed -- a job for which expensive eavesdropping equipment is of no use.

"They are having a really hard time coming to grips with the fact that a $199 piece of software in the private sector can do better at some things than their enormously expensive systems," said Robert Steele of Open Source Solutions.

Intelligence regulars joke that NSA stands for "no such agency" or "never say anything."

Informed sources say the NSA's new director is considering a major reorganization in coming months.

Agency officials declined to be interviewed for this report.

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The National Security Agency
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Central Intelligence Agency
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