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Sunday Morning News

"Inside the NSA: The Secret World of Electronic Spying"

Aired March 25, 2001 - 9:35 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, now to our special series. Recent episodes of espionage involving Russia and the United States have directed attention to America's so-called spy agencies. CNN national security correspondent David Ensor went behind closed doors inside the most secretive of America's secret agencies, the National Security Agency.

He brings us five reports this morning from the super secret organization. David, this was definitely an unprecedented opportunity. Let's talk about why you? How did you get selected for this?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, frankly, I think it was CNN that was selected and the reason probably was it's the only television that has a correspondent, myself, assigned to covering national security matters exclusively and focusing quite a lot of attention on the intelligence community.

So, the people over there knew that it's a subject I'm interested in, I cover steadily, the network is interested in, and perhaps they felt that this would be a useful window for them as they kind of very gingerly peek out that the world a little bit.

PHILLIPS: The first piece is entitled "Codebreakers." Why don't you just give a little set-up and we'll go right to it.

ENSOR: Well, codebreaking is the key mission of the National Security Agency. Their main job is to be the big ear of the U.S. government, to listen in on the communications of would-be adversaries and rivals around the world to crack their codes, if need be, because so much of communication nowadays is encrypted.

So, it's the key mission of the NSA, putting that intelligence on the president's table in the morning each morning, and I guess we should roll and take a look at how they go about it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): From its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, America's largest spy agency eavesdrops on literally billions of communications worldwide using radar and microwave receptors around the world, military intelligence satellites, strategically placed bugging equipment, and the biggest accumulation of computer power in any one building on Earth to crack adversary's secret codes.

MAUREEN BAGINSKI, DIRECTOR, NSA SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE: We are about secrets worth knowing, foreign intelligence.

JAMES BAMFORD, AUTHOR, "BODY OF SECRETS": The NSA is an enormously powerful agency. It's far more powerful than anybody really realizes.

ENSOR: The headquarters is a vast, city-sized complex, reported to have over 38,000 employees, more than twice the size of the CIA, a secret world where much of the trash is classified and has to be pulped on site before it can return to the unclassified world outside. With sophisticated technology, NSA listens in on terrorists, Iraqi scientists, or Russian generals, and then delivers intelligence to decision makers from the president in the White House, down to the pilot in the cockpit of an F-15.

RICHARD BERARDINO, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY OPERATIONS CENTER: The ops tempo can be very high. We can be dealing with more than one crisis at a time.

ENSOR: When a crisis hits, the blue lights go on in the NSA's Operations Center, the nerve center of its worldwide network. A red, flashing light warns of the presence of visitors from CNN without security clearance. Sound recording in the room is forbidden. This is where the call went out to the White House that the USS Cole had been hit by a terrorist bomb in Yemen.

In time of war, military units rush to set up remote intelligence points like this one, for ground commanders. NSA sends them targeting and other intelligence.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: It's hard for me to talk about it in detail, but in the last air operation, over Kosovo, for example, we were as much in the operational fight as any aspect of America's armed forces.

ENSOR: It was simpler during the Cold War when NSA had one major target, the Soviet Union. Now, there are many new targets and problems. Encryption, secret codes that can be bought by anybody, or downloaded off the Internet, fiber-optic cable that cannot easily be tapped -- they threaten NSA's ability to eavesdrop on adversaries from Saddam Hussein to Colombian drug lords. U.S. officials say, for example, that the group headed by accused terrorist Osama bin Laden has put encrypted messages to its members on public Web sites.

But the NSA's biggest problem? In the information age, it is drowning in data.

BAGINSKI: Where we are today is there's too much of it, and it's too hard to understand. So it is a volume, velocity and variety problem for us.

BAMFORD: NSA is definitely an agency in crisis right now because the world has shifted under its foundation. ENSOR: In early 2000, the flood of data overwhelmed NSA's vast complex of supercomputers. For 3 1/2 days, the overloaded system simply shut down.

(on camera): How did that happen? Why did that happen?

HAYDEN: The computer system went down. We lost the ability to process. The real cause was this inability to grow a system that could meet our true operational needs.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: David, another interesting tidbit when I was reading through your research is the NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians.

ENSOR: Well, that's right. They need a lot of mathematicians to break codes, and they attract a very high caliber of mathematicians because the world's most complex and advanced computer capabilities. So, there's a lot to work with there. They attract a very caliber and large quantity of top-flight mathematicians.

PHILLIPS: And you were saying you were talking to these mathematicians and the reason why they take the job is because they love these huge problems?

ENSOR: Well, there's a boys and their toys aspect. You know, you've got better computers and the other thing is these are real life issues, can we crack such and such a code of the Chinese or the Russians or the North Koreans, it's fun. It's a puzzle, but it's a very, very high stakes puzzle.

PHILLIPS: All right, the next piece that you're going to set up for us, "Spying on You."

ENSOR: Well, that's right. One of the key questions about the NSA as far as many Americans are concerned is, OK, we have this powerful spy agency trying to avert threats against the United States, but could those tremendous powers ever be turned on us, and it is a question that the NSA knows it needs to answer.

So, here is the question: Are they spying on us?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): From its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the super secret National Security Agency eavesdrops on literally billions of communications worldwide.

BAGINSKI: Secrets worth knowing, data that no one else can get.

ENSOR: But for some, the awesome power of NSA's technology and its secrecy are a source of concern.

BARRY STEINHARDT, ACLU: What's happening, of course, is that the NSA says: "Trust us, we're the government. We won't abuse the law." Of course, what they're really saying is: "Trust us, we're the government spies, and we won't abuse the law." But since there is no real check on them, there's no way to know that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Satellite imagery coming through.,.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Request keyhole visual tasking, maximum resolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ENSOR: In the 1998 movie, "Enemy of the State, " NSA was portrayed by Hollywood as an evil big brother spying on Americans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Let's get into his life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The government's been in bed with the entire telecommunications business since the '40s. They have infected everything. They can get into your bank statements, computer files, e- mail, listen to your phone calls.

WILL SMITH, ACTOR: My wife's been saying that for years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HAYDEN: I made the judgment that we couldn't survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie.

ENSOR: When General Michael Hayden saw the movie, he saw a problem -- an image problem. That is in part why the NSA decided to let CNN inside the NSA to see where code breakers gather, and code makers protect the nation's secrets. Above all, Hayden knows NSA cannot afford to be seen as trampling on the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

HAYDEN: It has to be somewhat a secretive agency, and right in the middle of a political culture that just trusts two things most of all: power and secrecy. That's a challenge for us, and that's why, frankly, we're trying to explain what it is we do for America, how it is we follow the law. Could there be abuses? Of course. Would there be? I am looking you and the American people in the eye and saying: there are not.

ENSOR: Hayden says NSA has not spied on Americans since the '70s, after it was found to be eavesdropping on Jane Fonda, Doctor Benjamin Spock, and other anti-Vietnam war activists. At that time the law was tightened up.

But when, for example, eavesdropping on a drug ring in Colombia, separating the foreigners, who can be legally bugged, from the U.S. citizens or residents who cannot, is not always easy. And the NSA gets pressure from law enforcement agencies to help out with such cases.

BAMFORD: It's a battle that goes on behind the lines in a great deal of secrecy. And how close they get to the line, or whether they slip over sometimes is a matter that has to be watched closely.

ENSOR: In Europe, the debate about the NSA and privacy centers around these surveillance facilities in Menwithill, England. A European Parliament report suggested there may have been economic espionage by the U.S. to help American companies against European competitors.

(on camera): Is that true?

HAYDEN: No, and I really welcome the opportunity, I'm glad you asked the question. That is absolutely not true.

ENSOR: However, Hayden says if the NSA detects law-breaking, by law, it must report that to other U.S. agencies, like the State Department. So if, for example, it learns that a foreign company is using bribery to try to obtain a contract, that information does not remain a secret.

David Ensor, CNN, Fort Meade, Maryland.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: More from the National Security Agency straight ahead, including: Are America's secret's safe?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL JACOBS, NSA INFORMATION ASSURANCE: If it were happening, you can be sure it would one of the most closely guarded secrets of any government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: What you don't know can't hurt you, right? The NSA seems to think so. Our series continues when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PHILLIPS: Welcome back to CNN SUNDAY MORNING. We continue now with "Behind Closed Doors: An Inside Look at the National Security Agency." Joining me again is CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor to talk about "The Code Makers."

Now David, before we get to "The Code Makers," "Spying on You," real quickly, the last piece we just saw, you were mentioning an interesting incident with regard to a freedom of information request. Will you tell our viewers about that?

ENSOR: Well, I was talking to the American Civil Liberties Union, who are somewhat concerned about the NSA, and they pointed out an FOIA request, a freedom of information request had gotten an internal NSA document in which the leadership of the NSA was saying if the subject of Hillary Clinton comes up in surveillance, here's how you deal with it. A similar thing came up with Princess Diana.

Now, agency officials say, look, famous people get discussed by the people we're eavesdropping. They get discussed by everybody. No big deal. But the ACLU asks, you know do you ever listen in on Senator Clinton? And, of course, the NSA says we don't listen to Americans. But it raises questions among civil liberties people, people who worry about those issues.

PHILLIPS: All right, onto "Code Makers." Set us up for this piece.

ENSOR: Well, this is the other major mission of the NSA. In addition to trying to listen in on potential threats to the United States, it's supposed to supply a communications system for the president and the other leaders of the United States, the military leadership, that can't be listened into by others.

So, elaborate codes have to be devised and elaborate communications systems and that's what this piece is about.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): At its headquarters outside Washington, the National Security Agency creates codes and secure communications systems for the U.S. government from the president on down. The NSA puts a secure telephone in every senior U.S. official's office all over the world.

(on camera): So, while I'm talking to you, everybody is hearing this slightly delayed, slightly compressed, but clear enough voice, but if anyone tries to tap into the line, they hear.

JON ROLF, NSA ENGINEERING SPECIALIST: They hear noise. It's random information being sent and it's unintelligible.

ENSOR (voice-over): But when it comes to protecting government computer systems...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are sorry, you are not identified.

ENSOR: The NSA's communications guardians have their work cut out for them. Many are not secure from hackers, who could be American teenagers or could be foreign agents trying to steal national security secrets.

JACOBS: We see hundreds of probes, perhaps thousands, on a daily basis. So, it's a constant game, if you will, of moving as quickly as your potential adversary, staying current on the technologies that are necessary to maintain the security and integrity of the networks.

ENSOR: At the NSA's biometrics lab, scientists are testing the next generation of security tools to keep unauthorized people out of computers and top secret areas. Fingerprint identification...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please move forward a little. ENSOR: ... and iris identification are likely to replace passwords. Face identification may be the wave of the future. This system is keyed to recognize scientist Dave Murley.

DAVID MURLEY, NSA BIOMETRICS DIRECTOR: Boom, I'm into the system.

ENSOR: But can the system be fooled by a silicon rubber model?

(on camera): It doesn't seem to like it, Dave.

MURLEY: And that's good news, David, because we wouldn't like people to be able to use a model like this to get into our system.

ENSOR (voice-over): The system is also keyed to recognize scientist Bob Rahikka.

MURLEY: The circle indicated that it found Bob's face and now at the top of the screen you can see it has recognized Bob.

ENSOR: All well and good, but Bob has a twin brother named Doug who also works at the NSA.

MURLEY: Let's see if the impostor can get in now.

ENSOR: Playing the role of the evil twin, Doug is rejected, but the scientists say the system still isn't good enough. It has problems, for example, with new mustaches, long bangs or a new nose ring.

MURLEY: A red laser is actually scanning your face, but it's absolutely eye-safe. You have nothing to worry about.

ENSOR: They are also testing something that may be even better: a 3-dimensional system.

(on camera): That is incredible.

(voice-over): But so is this: the world's largest collection of supercomputers in one building, used for making as well as breaking codes. This Cray Triton supercomputer alone can handle 64 billion instructions per second.

(on camera): Though some U.S. secret codes have been given by spies to adversaries like the Soviet Union, NSA officials say they know of no critical American code systems that have ever been broken.

JACOBS: That said, if it were happening, you can be sure it would be one of the most closely guarded secrets of any government.

ENSOR (voice-over): In NSA's anechoic chamber, a massive cathedral of fire-retardant, foam rubber spikes, scientists test signals from transmitters and antennae of every kind. Even as the agency works to make sure U.S. signals cannot be decoded, it never stops trying to gather and decipher the signals of others.

David Ensor, CNN, Fort Meade, Maryland.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: Our series continues. Next on CNN SUNDAY MORNING, "searching for secrets.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EVERETTE JORDAN, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY LINGUIST: You have to listen for irony and you have to listen for sarcasm, for tension.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: How the National Security Agency keeps tabs on the world when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PHILLIPS: And we're back to CNN SUNDAY MORNING and our special report on the NSA continues. David Ensor is joining us. David, we were talking about face identification in your last piece. This was used at the Miami Super Bowl, right?

ENSOR: On an experimental basis, Kyra. Apparently, Florida law enforcement put in some cameras at the Super Bowl just to see if they could find any wanted criminals who might be attending the game, and they didn't arrest anybody, but they say that they found about two dozen petty criminals who were watching the Super Bowl.

PHILLIPS: Wow.

ENSOR: So, the technology has a lot of different uses.

PHILLIPS: OK, the next piece, "The Listeners." Set us up for this.

ENSOR: Everette Jordan listens for a living. He is an extraordinary linguist, and I think this piece pretty much speaks for itself, but it's just a very, very unusual job for a government employee.

Let's see what he says.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): It could be any office building, but Everette Jordan's workplace is one of the most unusual in the country. He cannot take his office keys home. He must punch in a code to get them each morning.

Everette Jordan is a spy, but not in the way you probably imagine. Everette Jordan listens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN)

JORDAN: That particular style is called "rocking," called rocking on a word. And so you'll hear a word that you don't quite get, and you go back and forth over it a couple of times until you get it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN)

ENSOR: He demonstrates with a Russian news broadcast, but the conversations he listens to, picked up by the NSA's worldwide array of powerful surveillance technology, could involve a Russian general, an Iraqi nuclear scientist or a terrorist.

JORDAN: You have to listen for -- for irony. You have to listen for sarcasm, for tension. You have to listen for rhetorical statements being made. You also have to listen for humor.

ENSOR: He is a gifted linguist: fluent in Russian, Spanish, French, German, Arabic.

JORDAN: (SPEAKING IN ARABIC), which means the name of God, the merciful and compassionate, in Arabic.

ENSOR: What does he listen for? First and foremost, for threats to the U.S.

(on camera): Have you ever had the sense that you translated something that was of critical importance to U.S. national security?

JORDAN: Absolutely. There have been many cases, and that's one of the fun things about being a linguist, knowing that the work that you have done has gone right downtown to the president of the United States.

ENSOR: Have you ever found yourself listening to an American, a U.S. person, on a tape?

JORDAN: No.

ENSOR: And what do you do, what are the instructions -- you never have?

JORDAN: No, I haven't.

ENSOR: What are your instructions in the event you should find yourself listening to an American, a U.S. person on a tape?

JORDAN: We have very strict protocols toward handling that -- those sorts of situations, and really we erase the thing, but we also report that thus and such has happened.

ENSOR (voice-over): To say NSA employees are security conscious is putting it mildly. Everette Jordan is the first NSA listener ever to give a television interview.

Everywhere we filmed in the vast NSA complex, employees were warned. Most heeded the warning.

(on camera): Most of your colleagues would probably not be willing to give an interview like this.

JORDAN: You got that right.

ENSOR: Tell us why not. What would be the downside for them?

JORDAN: One of the ways that we're very successful is that the work that we do is very quiet, and in some cases, actually in many cases, our work force has been indoctrinated not to draw attention to themselves, because in some cases they would have -- they would be travelling on official U.S. government business, and to sit here in front of a camera as an NSA employee is -- is something like killing one's career.

ENSOR (voice-over): But after appearing at job fairs and recruitment drives for the NSA, Everette Jordan is not living in the secret world anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have noticed a high-frequency hearing loss in the high decibels.

ENSOR: The price of years of listening past the pops and screeches on surveillance tapes is frequent hearing checks, and some minor hearing loss, but Everette Jordan, though he hopes soon to move into management, says he wouldn't have wanted any other career up to this point: protecting the nation with his ears and his gift for languages.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: Wow, what a neat guy, David.

ENSOR: He's very, very interesting.

PHILLIPS: Well, we're going to have one more piece coming up. Will you stand by? We'll be right back.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILLIPS: Terrific. Coming up, new developments in our top stories and the emergency stopover in Alaska that had two world colliding. Plus, in six minutes, the final part of our series with David Ensor, "Behind Closed Doors." This isn't your average job interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is your middle name Frances?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: What potential NSA employees should know before they fill out the application next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (NEWS BREAK)

PHILLIPS: And now, the final segment of our special NSA series. As the National Security Agency begins to look for new hires, the risk that a traitor might infiltrate the organization increases. So, the agency has developed a very strict screening and interviewing process.

CNN national security correspondent David Ensor is in Washington with more on that. David, let's talk about this traitor problem.

ENSOR: Well, it's serious. As we know from the Hanssen case we've been hearing about in the last few weeks, there, now you see Russia and the United States tossing out a number of diplomats who both sides believe have been acting as intelligence agents.

And those intelligence agents are trying to recruit people in places like the NSA. So, that is why you see what you're going to see here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): For a super-secret agency that didn't even have a sign outside its headquarters until a few years ago, holding a job fair on-site, inviting thousands of perfect strangers to lineup for interviews, is a radical break with the past.

The National Security Agency needs smart, young computer scientists, mathematicians, linguists if it is to keep collecting other nation's secrets in the information age. But, there is a catch.

HAYDEN: If any of these young folks decide to come work for us, we're going to put them through a process that no other employer is going to put them through, that background investigation and that polygraph, before they can come and actually work for us.

ENSOR: The questions start simply enough.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is your middle name Frances?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

ENSOR: But they can soon get more than a little personal. Are you in debt? Have you ever committed a crime? Does your sexual behavior reflect lack of judgment or discretion? The questioner no longer asks are you a homosexual, but NSA does want to know if an employee has a sexual partner who is not a U.S. citizen and anything a hostile intelligence agency might use for blackmail.

Though NSA officials call the lie-detector test a useful tool, it is clearly not perfect. While he was spying for Russia, CIA official Aldrich Ames passed twice.

But the stakes are high. After all, the damage done by the alleged spying of the FBI's Robert Hanssen is much on the minds of U.S. intelligence officials. They also haven't forgotten Ronald Pelton at the NSA, their former employee, convicted in 1986 of spying for the Soviet Union.

HAYDEN: Everyone who works here has gone through a polygraph. Everyone who works here has gone through an extended background investigation. I can tell you, as one who has gone through it, I don't like either of them.

ENSOR (on camera): Are you confident, as you sit here now, that there is no serious spy working here in this agency?

HAYDEN: Is it something I'm worried about, is it on my front- burner? The answer is no. I mean, would I ever say with absolute, you know, 1.0 certitude that no, we're safe? Equally, no. We work hard on this. It's an important part of our culture, the way we live.

ENSOR (voice-over): Secrecy and a dose of what many would call paranoia are indeed part of the culture at NSA, the intelligence agency that eavesdrops on potential rivals and adversaries of the United States.

Linguist Everette Jordan is one of the listeners.

(on camera): What can you tell your family about what you do? Can you tell your family more than your able to tell me?

JORDAN: There are -- not too much more, actually. If you're going to be traveling, your family needs to know where you're going. But that's about it. Your children grow up with you, knowing that either mom or dad or both work in a job that they really can't talk about.

ENSOR (voice-over): And the price exacted on private lives doesn't end there. NSA employees are told to report close, ongoing relationships with non-Americans. They need permission to marry a foreigner and stay at the NSA. If a close relative marries one, NSA is to be notified.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: David, you mentioned the Robert Hanssen case in your piece, and that whole case really revealed some issues about security, quite different from the traditions at the NSA.

ENSOR: Well, that's right. The FBI had a sense that they were a trusted group of highly professional people, and I think they still believe that, but they've now decided they must use the polygraph test, even on their own people, the ones that are handling intelligence matters. That wasn't the case before the Hanssen case came to light. He, apparently, did not have to pass a polygraph test.

At the NSA it is routine. They believe in the polygraph. They believe they do it very well. And they are, employees there are regularly polygraphed, so, it's an integral part of life over there.

PHILLIPS: David Ensor. Fascinating series. Thanks so much for getting up early and joining us to share it all with us, too. Alright, David Ensor. And if you want to learn more about the NSA, go to CNN.com for an in-depth companion piece to David Ensor's series. You can click on "In-depth" from the main page and then go to "Inside the NSA: The Secret World of Electronic Spying."

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