The National Security Agency (NSA) is the nation’s only codemaking and codebreaking organization. It is responsible for the production of intelligence information from its collection of signals intelligence as well as information security. The exploits of its predecessors are credited with shortening World War II by at least a year. The NSA played a significant, if largely unknown, role in America’s victory in the Cold War. But the agency has fallen on hard times, thanks largely to its inability to overcome the consequences of disastrous decisions that date back to the early 1990s.
In 1999, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published the first expos? of NSA’s troubles, in the New Yorker magazine. Hersh warned that a combination of “mismanagement, arrogance, and fear of the unknown” has left NSA unprepared for the communications revolution. NSA’s problems were well-known inside the U.S. Intelligence Community and on Capitol Hill, but efforts to fix those problems were repeatedly thwarted by the bureaucrats in the Office of Management and Budget and inside the community itself.
NSA’s critics took heart when Air Force Lieutenant General Michael Hayden became NSA’s new director in 1999. Hayden launched a major reform effort to fix NSA’s problems, which he labeled “one hundred days of change.” Inevitably, Hayden encountered fierce resistance from entrenched NSA bureaucrats, and the recently released congressional Joint Inquiry report on the nine-eleven disaster depicts the consequences of the agency’s failure to reform.
Media attention has been devoted primarily to NSA’s failure to translate and report intercepted terrorist communications until two days after the nine-eleven disaster. But the Joint Inquiry report portrays an agency that is in serious decline and seems unable to right itself.
For example, NSA’s most basic mission is the collection and translation of foreign-language communications for the production of intelligence information. But the report says that NSA admits that it is operating at only about 30% effectiveness against counter-terrorism targets. Much of this part of the report was withheld from public release, but NSA did acknowledge that “very few” of its Arabic linguists have advanced degrees or real world experience. Consequently, there were significant backlogs of material awaiting translation and therefore unavailable to intelligence consumers.
The Joint Inquiry determined that NSA has yet to solve its program-management and systems-engineering problems. Its says that as late as 2002, NSA was still unable to formulate and provide to the Joint Inquiry concrete plans to solve its current technological shortfalls against counter-terrorism targets. An Associated Press report indicates that Capitol Hill has seen enough. After years of unfulfilled promises from the Agency, Congress now proposes to strip NSA of its power to sign multimillion-dollar technology contracts. A fed-up Congress has finally decided to hit the bureaucrats where it hurts the most?in the pocket book.