Inside the NSA: The secret world of electronic spying

Agency's challenges more complex in post-Cold War era

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.

National Security Agency complex
Housed in a Marlyand complex the size of
a city, the National Security Agency keeps
its budget and employee numbers classified.

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."

Menwith Hill listening station
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.

NSA supercomputer
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.

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