Top-Secret Agency Breaks Code of Silence — Just a Little

Once, the National Security Agency insignia, a bald eagle perched on a skeleton key, surveyed a barren terrain of top-secret letterhead, its forbidding stare known only to a privileged few.

Now, it spreads its wings over teddy bears, tie-dye shirts and nail-trimmers sold to tourists, part of an effort to let Americans get a glimpse of what the nation's premier eavesdropping agency does.

Competing with a dozen other agencies for intelligence dollars, the largest and most secretive of them wants to spread the word about itself -- without revealing too much.

Most of its work -- absorbing intelligence gathered from spy-plane flights like those near China, for example -- is still plenty hush-hush.

But its openness around the edges is a departure for the 49-year-old organization jokingly called "No Such Agency" and perhaps best known for efforts not to be known at all.

"It's changed all right," said author James Bamford. Twenty years ago he faced threats of prosecution for publishing NSA-related documents; recently he faced a crowd of agents at his book launch on the NSA campus.

"Instead of putting me in jail," he said, "they're throwing me a book party."

The NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, accelerated the change after his 1999 appointment, perhaps most dramatically by making public two lacerating reports on agency deficiencies.

"There are some things that we can say, that we ought to say," he commented in an unusual interview with the History Channel.

The end of the Cold War led some to question the need for a national eavesdropper and subjected intelligence budgets generally to a harder look.

"Like everyone else in the intelligence community, the NSA is being forced to reveal more than it wants to about itself," said Norman Polmar, who wrote Spy Plane: The U2 History, an NSA-related exploit gone wrong.

The internal NSA reports released by Hayden said that "ineffective leadership" and "our insular, somewhat arrogant culture and position" had led Congress to cut money to the agency, which gets the largest share of the $30 billion intelligence budget.

Openness only goes so far. A European Union team angrily left the United States last week when NSA and CIA officials refused to meet with its members. The team is investigating whether the United States engages in economic espionage.

NSA agents were once what snoops called "top secret famous" -- nameless shadows celebrated only among the select few in the intelligence community.

Their coups were legion: Agency eavesdropping allowed President Kennedy to learn Soviet bluff lines during the Cuban missile crisis, and the NSA's Berber linguists linked Libyan agents to the 1986 bombing of a German discotheque that killed a U.S. soldier.

But in recent years, the progenitor of information technology in the 1950s has been lagging behind Silicon Valley.

In January 2000, the NSA's overtasked computers shut down for three days.

Hayden slashed staff -- the agency now has 38,000 -- and hired outside contractors. Last year, Congress increased intelligence funding by 7 percent.

To be sure, sleight-of-hand tics persist at the NSA. Gift shop purchases appear on credit card statements credited to a mysterious Civilian Welfare Fund.

The NSA museum, vaunted as the hallmark of its new openness, concentrates on World War II codebreaking.

"It's an outstanding tool in helping people understand what the NSA is about without getting into some of the problematic issues," said agency historian Patrick Weadon.

"It's too much about war," complained Sandro Dallaturca, a Belgian banking encryptologist who had been looking forward to learning about encoding techniques.

Missy Spiegl, 15, whose father works for the NSA, thought the museum might give her some family insights.

"I've been trying for years to get out of my dad what he does, but I can't," she said.

Inside the agency, change has been palpable.

The NSA has farmed out some research, allowed an ex-agent to publish an account of how he redesigned an internal communications system and cooperated on Bamford's book, a largely sympathetic history of the agency by an author who favors more spending on intelligence technology.

That may have been an astute move on the NSA director's part, Polmar said. "Honey catches more than a fly swatter."

Spreading suburbs have brought neighbors close to the agency's long-isolated campus. After a few mishaps -- including a SWAT-team swoop on a real estate photographer -- the NSA reached out to the community.

"They are the hidden powerhouse of the county," said Janet Owens, Anne Arundel County leader. She's thrilled the NSA recently enticed General Dynamics to build a local plant.

Staffers once forbidden to say where they worked now lead one of the nation's largest blood drives. NSA firemen train local volunteers in how to contain a chemical attack.

There's the after-school tutoring: Linguists monitor drug traffickers by day and teach Spanish by night; code-cracking mathematicians walk teens through logarithms.

And there's a 4-year-old park commemorating the 152 people who have died in service to the agency and country.

"I am military intelligence and I am always out front ... always," reads the plaque.