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Kinder, gentler NSA admits human frailties

Yuckk....we much preferred the hard-ass routine

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An admission by the US National Security Agency (NSA) that its computer networks were crippled for three days last week is a puzzling development for an organisation normally loath to admit so much as its own existence. Nevertheless, the agency issued a press release on Saturday admitting that its systems were down for three days, but hastening to add that they had since been repaired satisfactorily. The breakdown "did not affect intelligence collection, but did affect the processing of intelligence" at the NSA's Fort Meade, Maryland headquarters, the agency said. In other words, they were for a while unable to digest even a minute portion of the gargantuan torrents of data that some critics say have been overwhelming them and making them a paper tiger. Such a frank admission, coming as it does on the heels of a prior confession regarding dysfunctional spy satellites over the New Year's holiday (itself unprecedented), tempts one to foresee a trend here. But what might it mean? We think part of the answer is simple: we think the NSA is getting hip to public relations. And high time, too. It's been a rough twelve months for the agency. In addition to suffering routine, frantic denunciations by the usual gaggle of conspiracy paranoiacs, the legendary super-spooks have lately been ridiculed in the press over numerous suspected failures, threatened with oversight by Congress, sued by privacy advocates, and booed by Big Business which resents the software and technology export controls which the NSA helps to develop. It is perhaps the threat of Congressional oversight that offers the greatest inspiration for the NSA to smarten its image. It may be too little too late, however; Congress has been decidedly snippy with the agency since NSA officials snubbed the House Intelligence Committee last year. Further inspiration may be coming from the White House, which appears to be pressuring numerous military and quasi-military groups to come clean on a number of embarrassing open secrets. We note for example that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had a little revelation of his own this weekend, conceding for the first time what everyone with an ounce of common sense has always known, namely that workers in the nuclear energy and weapons industries die younger than the rest of us, and far more often of cancer. The Clinton Administration will at a minimum have approved these disclosures, and more likely have ordered them either directly, or indirectly as part of some sunshine policy. The strategy may be to elevate the agencies' credibility with a bit of old-fashioned humility and self-examination, and so boost their standing in the arena of public opinion. If so, this may be just the beginning of a slew of military and quasi-military agencies coming forward to show us just how human and vulnerable they really are. We are not looking forward to it. ®

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