NSA warns it can't keep up with rapid changes in IT

Computerworld |  Tech & society, Tech & society

The National Security Agency (NSA), the signals intelligence arm of the Pentagon, is losing the race to keep up with technology, its director says. And the IT industry may be the only thing that can save it.

More than a year after the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, announced his "100 Days of Change" to revamp and revitalize an agency steeped in bureaucracy and outdated technology acquisition practices, the electronic spy chief went public with warnings of technological obsolescence. Hayden told a national television audience this week on CBS's 60 Minutes that the NSA remains behind the rest of the world in keeping up with IT development.

"We're behind the curve in keeping up with the global telecommunications revolution," said Hayden. "Our adversary communications are now based upon the developmental cycle of a global industry that is literally moving at the speed of light . . . cell phones, encryption, fiber-optic communications, digital communications," he said.

The NSA operates the world's largest pool of supercomputers and eavesdropping networks, designed to give senior government leaders such as the president real-time intelligence on the activities of terrorists and in world hot spots. However, the spread of encryption, fiber-optic cable and the sheer volume of communications to be intercepted and analyzed have overcome the NSA's ability to maintain the technical edge it once held.

The agency's self-proclaimed inability to keep up with commercial technology has led some to suggest that it might be time for the NSA to follow in the footsteps of the CIA and form its own private-sector research firm. In the spring of 1999, the CIA chartered In-Q-Tel Inc., a private, not-for-profit firm dedicated to tapping the private sector's ability to develop cutting-edge IT products that could enhance the agency's intelligence-gathering and -processing capabilities.

Jim Clapper, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now director of intelligence programs at SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va., said the In-Q-Tel model is a good idea for the NSA. Clapper even went so far as to say he thinks the In-Q-Tel concept should be expanded to the entire intelligence community as long as proper funding was made available. "The In-Q-Tel concept is a great one and would serve NSA well," said Clapper.

"It certainly couldn't hurt," said Allen Thomson, a former CIA scientist. An In-Q-Tel for the NSA would "allow innovators to make money without having to deal with the usual government procurement hassles" and would also act as a buffer to insulate the innovators from bureaucratic problems, he said.

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