NSA playing IT catch-up
- By Bob Brewin, Dan Verton, William Matthews
- Dec 05, 1999
The director of the National Security Agency has called for a sweeping overhaul of the super-secret agency's management and information systems to bring it up-to-date with the exploding pace of change in telecommunications and information technology.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden is calling for "100 Days of Change" after he received a scathing report from a group of NSA managers in October that depicts an agency mired in bureaucratic conflict, suffering from poor leadership and losing touch with the government clients it serves.
"We have to keep up with how this planet communicates," Hayden said in an interview at his office in Fort Meade, Md.
The agency's problems already may have resulted in notable intelligence failures, sources say, including the lack of advance warning of attacks last year on two U.S. embassies in Africa, India's 1998 nuclear weapons tests and the inability to track down terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.
The report states that NSA "has failed to begin the organizational transformation necessary for success in the Information Age." NSA requires "profound change [or] the nation will lose a powerful weapon in its arsenal."
Hayden, who has headed NSA for eight months, told FCW that "technology has now become a two-edged sword.... On the dark days, it has become the enemy.''
The challenges posed by encryption, fiber-optic cable and the sheer volume of communication to be intercepted and analyzed is swamping NSA, which operates the world's largest pool of supercomputers and once held the technological edge.
Hayden said that NSA needs to change because, like many other DOD organizations, "it is a child of the Cold War...[and] developed habits and patterns based on the Cold War [that] became a culture.... We had a fairly steady funding stream, and we knew who the enemy was."
Chief among the October report's recommendations are calls for sweeping change in how the agency manages itself.
The 19 managers who made up the New Enterprise Team studied their agency for 60 days and urged Hayden to install a new executive leadership team, create strategic business plans, develop an agencywide management information system and hire a financial management officer.
Hayden said the NSA staffers who wrote the report were midlevel personnel, who he described as "responsible anarchists." Besides the internal report, Hayden also commissioned a similar report conducted by five individuals who he said worked for telecommunications companies.
The report states that a failure of leadership at NSA has compromised the agency's working relationships with the White House, the Defense Department and the military services. It also described "an organization ripe for divestiture [whose] individual capabilities are of greater value than is the organization as a whole."
"NSA has been in a leadership crisis for the better part of a decade," the report concludes. "It is the lack of leadership that is responsible...for NSA's failure to create...a single corporate strategy...[and] is also at the heart of unfortunate organizational behaviors that have created a perception among customers that NSA places higher value on its tradecraft than it does on outcomes for the nation."
The enterprise team believes those problems have imperiled NSA's ability to modernize its information systems, which include the world's largest collection of supercomputers, to meet the challenges of a new communications era.
"Systems development is out of control," according to a copy of the report obtained by FCW. "Duplicative efforts flourish because we have no single point of control for reviewing development across organizations."
Despite its heralded computer security expertise, NSA also lacks a single corporate information management system to track and align budgets, missions and personnel, according to the report. Consequently, "critical data required by decision-makers...are often unavailable or difficult to retrieve, [and] decisions on financial resources, human resources and customer engagement are often late or fatally flawed.''
The report, which one former NSA insider described as a "harsh but honest assessment," is part of Hayden's strategy to overhaul the agency, starting with a sweeping "100 Days of Change" initiative begun Nov. 15.
Hayden said technology would be a key piece of NSA's reorganization. "We need to keep up with the technology" and focus on the missions of signals intelligence and information security, he said.
Among other changes, Hayden said, "We need to get better at systems engineering," which he said had been hobbled by NSA's insular, compartmentalized culture, which is necessary for security.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, now head of Business Executives for National Security, agreed with the report, saying NSA has no choice but to move "at Internet speed'" to realign itself to meet the security challenges posed by the Internet.
McInerney, who served as Vice President Al Gore's point man for the National Performance Review in the Defense Department, said the report should carry great weight "because it's an insiders' report...and when you re-invent an organization, it is the people inside who do it."
Lt. Gen. James Clapper, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Mark Lowenthal, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence, both of whom now work for SRA International Inc., in a joint statement called the report a "very bold, brave and stark self-assessment" written by some "young turks" at the agency.
"The paper reflects what many people, both inside NSA and beyond, are saying that the technological environment in which NSA has been so successful for the last 50 years has changed dramatically," Clapper and Lowenthal said. "The issue is how NSA deals with this change."
Clapper and Lowenthal added that despite Hayden's willingness to commission and embrace such a revolutionary study, "he is under several watchful eyes as he does this."
Technology and the nations that NSA watches have changed, but it has not kept up, a former White House official said. The agency that made its reputation tapping into copper cables and intercepting broadcast transmissions cannot deal with fiber-optic cables and modern encryption. "They're spending more money and working harder and getting less and less information out of sources," he said.
Hayden's "100 Days of Change" initiative has roiled the agency, according to one former insider. While praising Hayden's initiative, the official cautioned that "the NSA bureaucracy has learned how to 'play' directors, who only have a three-year tour, while [the bureaucrats are] in forever."