NSA seeks signal analysis partners

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The National Security Agency wants the United States and allied agencies to become more involved in processing and analyzing foreign communications intercepts, the military's top intelligence officer said.

The groundbreaking announcement marks NSA Director Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden's third initiative in four years to transform NSA from an agency entrenched in collecting intelligence — referred to as "signals" in the intelligence community — from Warsaw Pact countries' land-based systems to the modern task of collecting intercepts transmitted by al-Qaida's Internet, fiber and satellite systems.

The challenge is "how we take the people who consume signals intelligence and make them players in the creation of signals intelligence," Hayden said, speaking yesterday at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Montgomery chapter's award banquet held during the Air Force information technology conference here.

NSA's new signals intelligence processing vision builds on the multibillion-dollar Projects Groundbreaker and Trailblazer programs started in 2000 to update the agency's IT business and signals-intelligence eavesdropping systems. Hayden said they are now producing more than a pound of output for each pound of input.

NSA Transformation 2.0 aims to get agency personnel to work together more closely and to team with other Defense Department, State Department and allied government agencies, Hayden said.

The ultra-secret intelligence agency uses land, air and space-based systems worldwide to intercept foreign communications, and then goes through a meticulous process of translating, analyzing, tagging, processing and distributing the final intelligence product.

NSA will open its signals intelligence databases occasionally to some U.S. and allied government agencies, Hayden said. The goal is to speed the delivery and analysis of foreign communications intercepts, he said.

The agency did this successfully on a small scale in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hayden said. "Marines in High Mobility Multipurpose Vehicles working on laptops tapped into the most sensitive NSA databases," he said.

The Marines accessed NSA computers down to the regiment level, while the Army did so at the division echelon and the Air Force at theater command centers, Hayden said. But Air Force spy planes could not take part because of bandwidth limits, he said.

NSA's new intelligence processing vision presents educational, technological and legal hurdles, Hayden said. The first challenge is finding top-notch translators and analysts who can quickly push raw signals intelligence to DOD, State and other government agencies, he said.

The second task is easing federal laws that say NSA is the only agency that can produce signals intelligence. Hayden said technology can help, through new systems that act as filters could perform signals intelligence translation and analysis.

The new NSA initiative is more an act of external pressure than internal ingenuity, the author of two books on the agency said.

"NSA was told to do it. NSA fought for decades to hold onto it," said James Bamford, author of the "The Puzzle Palace" and follow up "Body of Secrets" books.

Congress's investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks said NSA obtained a number of communications intercepts in 1999 connecting individuals to terrorism who were identified after Sept. 11 as participants in the attacks that day.

"Prior to Sept. 11, the intelligence community's ability to produce significant and timely signals intelligence was limited by NSA's failure to address modern communications technology aggressively, continuing conflict between intelligence community agencies,

NSA's cautious approach to any collection of intelligence relating to activities in the United States, and insufficient collaboration between NSA and the FBI regarding the potential for terrorist attacks within the United States," said the December 2002 "Congressional Report: Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001."

Hayden said he disagreed with the report's use of the word failure. He said NSA databases collected blips of information on certain individuals, but not enough to throw up red flag.

By swimming signals intelligence upstream, NSA hopes the U.S. intelligence community's collective efforts can detect patterns that prevent future terrorist attacks, Hayden said.

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