- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2016

President Clinton left the National Security Agency, the nation’s electronic eavesdropper, in shambles at the very moment al Qaeda was in the final planning stages of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

Retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the NSA director at the time, describes the decline in a memoir, writing an insider’s view of an agency that the government at one time refused to acknowledge even existed.

One day in January 2000, the NSA’s clunky, aging computer network became so overburdened that it crashed. The NSA, he says, was “brain dead.”

The “coma” crisis lasted for several days as new computer hardware was flown into Fort Meade, Maryland, and techies shut down every node in order to reboot the nation’s largest spy machine.

But it was a symptom of something far more serious at the NSA, and for the country.

“The outside world had passed it by in many areas,” Mr. Hayden says in “Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.” “It was going deaf.”

“The computer crash was the perfect metaphor for an agency desperately in need of change,” he writes. “Antiquated computers were a problem. But the reality was actually worse. NSA was in desperate need of reinvention.”

In a dawning age of encrypted, fiber optic and mass communications, coupled with rising global Islamic terrorism, the NSA was losing a game called SIGINT, or signals intelligence.

“NSA had experienced years of declining budgets, a shrinking workforce, an aging infrastructure and little new hiring,” the agency’s former director says. “Running hard just to keep up, we had let the network become so tangled that no one really seemed to know how it worked. There was no real wiring diagram anyone could consult.”

Mr. Hayden, who went on to become CIA director under President George W. Bush, is the second top intelligence official to write about the Clinton 1990s as a dark age for American spying.

Mr. Hayden does not directly criticize Mr. Clinton, or any other politician, for the NSA’s fall into disrepair.

But not so George J. Tenet, who was Mr. Clinton’s CIA director. He stayed on in the early Bush administration, during the Sept. 11 attacks, and began rebuilding operations at Langley, Virginia, while jousting with critics who blamed the agency for not penetrating the plot beforehand.

Mr. Tenet’s memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” stated that the CIA was in “Chapter 11” by the end of the 1990s and the White House refused to help.

“You can’t toss spies at al Qaeda when you don’t have them, especially when you lack the recruiting and training infrastructure to get them and grow them,” he wrote. “The fact is that by the mid- to late 1990s American intelligence was in Chapter 11, and neither Congress nor the executive branch did much about it.”

Of the NSA under Mr. Clinton, Mr. Tenet said: “You don’t simply tell NSA to give you more signals intelligence when their capabilities are crumbling and they are ‘going deaf,’ unable to monitor critical voice communications.”

Who is to blame for Sept. 11 is back in the public square, compliments of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. On the campaign trail, he has blamed Mr. Bush for failing to stop al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The other side of the story is the sorry state of U.S. intelligence. In the 1990s, the CIA greatly reduced the number of officers overseas — spies who recruit spies — from 1,600 to 1,200, and closed bases from which to run operations.

‘Omnipotence and incompetence’

Mr. Hayden’s book picks up that story line at Fort Meade’s NSA.

“For a signals intelligence agency, we had surprisingly antiquated IT systems, both for ourselves and to target our adversaries,” he wrote. “Shortly after I arrived, I asked, ‘How do I send an email to everybody?’ ‘Oh, we can’t actually do that,’ was the response.”

Mr. Hayden’s book puts his spin on a series of publicly known events, such as British translator Katherine Gun’s leaking of intelligence documents from inside the supersecret Government Communications Headquarters.

He says it signaled a new breed — unpredictable analysts who saw themselves as citizens of the world as opposed to their country — toiling deep inside intelligence agencies. She was a precursor to former contractor Edward Snowden, who divulged an unprecedented mound of NSA secrets.

Mr. Hayden notes that left-wing activists were accusing the NSA of intercepting all communications while critics in Congress said it wasn’t doing enough to blow up every terrorist plot.

“The irony was powerful: NSA was an agency that was simultaneously being accused of omnipotence and incompetence. It was going deaf and it was reading all of your emails,” he says.

But he abandoned such wry observations when he wrote of the NSA’s bleak budgets of the 1990s. The number of cellphones in the country had ballooned from 16 million to 741 million. The Internet exploded from a few million users to 361 million. Yet on that day in 2000, the NSA crashed.

“Now all those pillars were crumbling,” he said. “Still one of the largest employers in the state of Maryland, NSA had lost 30 percent of its budget and an equivalent slice of its workforce during the 1990s. And instead of one backward, oligarchic, technologically inferior, slow-moving adversary, the agency found itself trying to deploy against elusive terrorist groups, drug cartels, and rogue states, all using cellphones, the Internet and modern communications technology. And that was in addition to the full slate of traditional targets like Russia and China and North Korea.”

He further describes the chaos: “Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT, is a continuous process, a kind of espionage production line where communications are collected, processed, analyzed and reported 24 hours a day. At that moment satellites and earthbound collection points around the world were still intercepting communications, their vast take — telephone calls, faxes, radio signals — still pouring into memory buffers. But once in hand, the data froze. We couldn’t move it. Nobody could access it. Nobody could analyze it.”

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