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Security Agency Transitions From Backer to Participant

October 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

An organization designed to support military campaigns now finds itself in the thick of information operations.

The National Security Agency is reorganizing its structure and activities to serve as a full-fledged participant in military operations. This break from its traditional role of providing support to decision makers and warfighters reflects the growing magnitude of information in military operations.

The security organization is already positioned at the heart of the information revolution. Its longtime collection expertise involves data detection, acquisition, processing and dissemination. Its global reach also enables it to access a number of diverse sources and deliver information to customers in widely disparate locations.

The agency, however, also faces potential changes in personnel recruitment and retention policies. This could involve greater reliance on external expertise and more pragmatic security standards as well as greater flexibility in staffing and consulting. Exponentially increasing data from diverse sources increasingly must be processed and disseminated in real time. And, new technologies erupting in the international commercial marketplace are taxing the government organization’s ability to stay ahead of potential adversaries.

These developments are occurring against the backdrop of an emerging global information grid. Traditional lines of information demarcation are giving way as knowledge becomes ubiquitous. Accordingly, the National Security Agency (NSA) is working to change its collection philosophy as well as its techniques.

“This agency has an offensive and defensive mission generally described as providing vital information and protecting vital information,” Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, USAF, NSA director, maintains. “In the past, we provided vital information by working on someone else’s network. We protected vital information by working on our own network. Now, more and more, we are discovering that they are the same networks.”

The general continues that, just as the advent of air power created a new combat arena in the air, the information age has created a new battlespace. This information domain is proving to be a vital realm for land, sea and air combatants. Now, he offers, this information space may be where the decisive battle takes place, with the other arenas serving supporting roles. And, as with airspace, the information domain is shared.

“We have spent most of our time saying ‘we support the decision maker, we support the policy maker, and we support the warfighter,’” Gen. Hayden observes. “Now, ‘support’ as a verb no longer works. We have to view ourselves as participants in the fight.

“This implies a far greater degree of responsibility for the final outcome than simply producing a good intelligence product and throwing it over the transom,” he states. “We need to take more ownership of the final outcome than our older model would have us do.”

The general describes the new information domain in terms of a technological opportunity that opens up a whole new arena where the United States “is particularly well suited to go out and dominate” for the security of the Free World. Just as the U.S. Air Force is “the military expression” of the U.S. aerospace industry, the NSA is the security expression of the U.S. information technologies industry.

Having taken the reins of the NSA in March, Gen. Hayden describes the agency’s biggest challenge as transferring 50 years of expertise to a new security world. The bipolar world of the Cold War is over, and the bipolar security focus has gone along with it. Threats can come from virtually any direction, and this unpredictability is compounded by the ongoing revolution in information technologies.

The fundamental core issue is the agency’s ability to adjust to this new era, the general states. And, the key to that success is agility. “We have come from an era in which target focus and continuity were the greatest of virtues,” he explains. “We are now in an era where, although those are still important, the ability to be agile and to move from one area of focus to another quickly, fully and competently has a greater premium.”

Achieving this agility will require changing the NSA’s internal way of thinking, its technologies and its processes, the director declares. Related issues include cryptography, export controls, training, work force retention and new skill sets. Gen. Hayden emphasizes that he is not shifting the NSA away from the direction established by his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Kenneth A. Minihan, USAF.

The NSA already has taken steps in its new direction with the Kosovo operation. The agency was part of the operational team with the forces waging the air campaign. Gen. Hayden states that the NSA’s activities comprised military operations as much as the combat forces engaged during the conflict.

“In Kosovo, we saw a glimpse of the future,” he says. The information battle frequently turned “inside the loop” of the munitions battle in ways previously unattainable. U.S. forces were able to move operational information at great speeds. For example, the two downed U.S. aircraft were geolocated in real time by national systems far away from the theater of battle.

While both technology and mindset play significant roles enabling these advances, the mindset of U.S. military forces is more important, the general offers. “The thought that you could be so involved in the fight was unimaginable 15 years ago. We [then] viewed intelligence in a linear fashion. Now, we have become less hierarchical and more networked, with information shared. We moved information in a networked nodal fashion in this war, and that gave us the agility to move the standards,” he observes.

The transition from support element to provider may be further along in combat operations than in other areas. A noteworthy change is that the old dividing line between red data and blue data—friendly force information and intelligence on the enemy—has been eroded to virtual nonexistence. This type of battlefield information now comes under the umbrella of situational awareness. As a result, the NSA is more involved in compiling friendly force data to serve its role as an operational contributor.

Most of the agency’s technology needs are driven by information access, the general states. However, being able to manipulate and move the accessed data is of vital importance. This mandates an information technology backbone that the agency does not yet have, he says. For example, during the Kosovo operation, the agency had to minimize all routine data traffic to ensure that vital mission-essential information reached Kosovo forces, even though it was not a major theater war.

This backbone could take a number of different forms or consist of a variety of media, the general predicts. The agency is studying its own nonmission-essential backbone to define requirements and potential architectures for the future. This study is scheduled to be completed next year.

For the NSA, staying on top of communications technology extends beyond internal use. The security agency continues to seek new methods of collecting information from among the new telecommunications technologies and systems proliferating around the globe. The world’s telecommunications system is moving toward networks, and this shift must be reflected in the agency’s collection methods.

Overall, the key to meeting information delivery needs is processing. Gen. Hayden allows that the NSA currently collects far more data than it processes, and it processes more data than it reports. Adding more collection capabilities and assets only exacerbates the problem if processing limitations cannot handle the increased data flow.

For sorting data, the agency seeks to exploit “anything that allows us to automate this overwhelming mass of data coming at us and to filter it into items in which we are interested,” Gen. Hayden says. This would include moving this information to the first human interface after it is filtered.

The general also emphasizes the need for a “living SIGINT [signals intelligence] system.” This would be an intelligent system capable of absorbing almost any data but also capable of focusing on timely items of interest through SIGINT mission management. It would have a “brain-like function” enabling it to respond to the environment in a human manner—“to take this massive data, to ratchet it up through the taxonomy from data to information, from knowledge to wisdom, and to act wisely,” Gen. Hayden declares.

Technology alone is not the solution to the data processing problem, however. The agency needs to add more analysts and linguists to its staff, Gen. Hayden states, and obtaining quality people in booming economic times is of prime concern to agency planners.

“It would not be unfair to describe our work force as simultaneously graying and greening,” the general says. The agency’s hiring bulge from the early 1980s is aging, while a subsequent downsizing eliminated many positions and reduced the amount of fresh blood entering the organization. Meanwhile, most of the newer staffers “are green in experience and are green in what they wear to work every day—they are a military work force,” Gen. Hayden states. He adds that the agency comprises “a relatively inexperienced junior military work force and a very experienced civilian work force approaching retirement age.”

Meeting expert personnel needs could require revamping longtime staffing practices. Traditionally, the goal was to hire people who would remain in the work force potentially for 30 years. However, conventional hiring and promotion approaches might not be realistic in the future. Gen. Hayden suggests that alternative ideas, such as different definitions of a career in the agency as well as new kinds of partnerships with industry and academia, may be necessary.

He cites linguists as an example. During the Cold War, promising personnel would be taught Russian and assimilated into the agency for a career of translation. Now, no one can predict the expertise in which of the world’s many languages will be needed at the first sign of crisis. The agency no longer can afford the two-year lead time needed to generate a trained linguist.

One possible solution might be a linguistic version of the Defense Department’s civil reserve air fleet, known as CRAF. This program taps civilian pilots and hardware to serve military needs in times of crisis without maintaining a surge capacity in the active duty roster. A linguistic equivalent might tap specific language expertise only when needed.

Gen. Hayden relates that the NSA already has its own equivalents in alternative staffing. “We have a rich and deep relationship with the Utah National Guard—Mormon missionaries,” he notes. One solution to the language problem would be to recruit more extensively among ethnic communities in the United States. However, this also would require rewriting security clearance standards that currently preclude most ethnic foreign language speakers from serving in sensitive NSA positions.

The general admits that this is “lowering the bar” to an extent. However, the agency as a whole must adapt to its new mission by adopting more realistic security measures. “We are departing the old model, which was to avoid risk, and we are embracing the new model, which is to manage risk,” he warrants. By opting for managing instead of merely avoiding risk, the NSA hopes to open new vistas in capabilities and operations.

A related challenge involves curbing an agency capability. Gen. Hayden observes that the NSA long has maintained a “can do” attitude when faced with new requests. However, this has led to a SIGINT system that is “badly stretched” while accruing new missions and challenges without allowing older ones to fade into the background. “If we fail to make the tough decisions to stop doing some things and just keep accruing new duties, we will be stretched so thin that we will not have graceful degradation—we will have a catastrophic failure,” he warns. “We need to learn to say no sometimes.”