REORG: How Not to Fix American Intelligence

It would be wise for our sprawling, seventeen-agency Intelligence Community to be cautious about sweeping reorganizations

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A workstation inside the Threat Operations Center in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

With an unusual degree of public fanfare, the super-secret National Security Agency has just announced its first significant reorganization since the 1990s. While NSA’s core missions, which include providing Washington, D.C. with the lion’s share of the intelligence in our Federal government, are not changing, how the agency is structured is about to undergo profound change.

Termed NSA21, this two-year recasting will dramatically shift how the agency does business. In particular, the core missions of signals intelligence and information assurance will be blended in a new organization termed the Directorate of Operations. Since NSA’s birth in 1952, SIGINT has been the main business out at Fort Meade, the agency headquarters nested in the Maryland suburbs between Baltimore and the nation’s capital.

Cracking foreign codes has always taken up the majority of NSA’s budget and resources while the information assurance mission, which tries to prevent foreign intelligence from cracking our codes, including our nuclear command and control, has been something of an also-ran, bureaucratically speaking, despites its enormous importance to our national security.

NSA’s press release on the reorganization employs the usual buzzwords about ‘innovation’ and ‘integration,’ which are of course ‘forward-leaning.’

Combining these missions is sure to be controversial, however, and not just for internal agency reasons (SIGINT and information assurance are not even located at the same NSA facility, but actually live about ten miles apart). The latter, termed the Information Assurance Directorate, has close ties with private industry, particularly in the realm of cybersecurity, while the much bigger Signals Intelligence Directorate is largely walled off from the private sector due to its highly classified electronic espionage mission. There is reason to be concerned that some of IAD’s critical relationships with outside industry could be harmed by this new tight association with SIGINT.

NSA’s press release on the reorganization employs the usual buzzwords about “innovation” and “integration,” which are of course “forward-leaning.” In truth, the SID and IAD missions have been getting closer over the last decade, as the Internet has blurred once clear lines between offensive and defensive operations in the ether. Certainly forging closer ties between them is a wise idea. But will fully blending them in a single Directorate of Operations improve NSA’s efficiency?

There’s room for doubt here. The last agency “REORG” nearly two decades ago created at least as many problems as it solved. Throughout the Cold War, the SIGINT mission resided in the Directorate of Operations, which was divided into various groups, mostly geographic in focus (e.g. A Group tracked the Soviet Bloc while B Group monitored East Asia). When he took over NSA in the spring of 1999, the new director General Mike Hayden didn’t like what he saw. In particular, the agency’s legacy organization seemed a poor fit for a new century, and NSA’s IT infrastructure was a chaotic mess.

To fix all that, Director Hayden implemented sweeping changes that did away with the entire Cold War structure, shutting the traditional directorates while creating SID and IAD. This birthed bureaucratic churn, with new offices being stood up while old ones evaporated. NSA analysts did not fail to note that the reorganization created a lot of cushy senior staff jobs for favorites of the director, while unleashing chaos at the division level, where the agency’s real work got done.

This “creative destruction” left months of confusion in its wake, not least because every division in the agency changed its secret internal designation too, many of which had existed for decades. Comical phone conversations like this happened hundreds of times per day at NSA:

“Good morning, S2H5 front office.”

“Uh, is this the shop that does….?”

“We’re…um [whispered] A135.”

“Cool, that’s who I was looking for.”

That NSA dysfunction around 2000 and 2001, which included dropped SIGINT balls in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, can’t be expressly blamed on Gen. Hayden’s big “REORG,” but neither did all that needless chaos help agency efficiency in that critical period.

The belief that moving organizational boxes around will fix deep-seated bureaucratic problems is a very American trait, and nobody doubts that it’s easier to rename things than actually to repair defects in missions, relationships, and personnel policies. What really annoyed the NSA workforce about Gen. Hayden’s recasting of the agency was how it was the handiwork of highly paid outside management consultants who did not have to implement the sweeping changes they advocated, which sounded impressive, plus impressively simple, in PowerPoint. “We’re a Top Secret Office Space” was a common NSA joke around the turn of the millennium, referring to the infamous Mike Judge black comedy movie.

Now, seventeen years later, another big “REORG” is in the works. The current director, Admiral Mike Rogers, who took the job in spring 2014, is putting his stamp on NSA by remaking it yet again. This is a dismantling of Gen. Hayden’s big recasting, with the Directorate of Operations being reborn, in modified form, to house the SIGINT and information assurance missions under one roof.

This promises to be easier to propose than to make work efficiently, and teething problems ought to be expected. “Blending offense and defense sounds great when you brief it downtown,” explained a senior agency official, “but it will be at least months before everybody ‘gets it’ at the working level. I’m not sure this is well timed.” With serious problems mounting around the world in President Obama’s last year in office – a resurgent revanchist Russia, the Islamic State rampaging across the Middle East, and a rising China increasingly testing our resolve in the Western Pacific – this may not be an ideal time to subject NSA, America’s most important intelligence source, to such bureaucratic chaos.

Agency morale is fragile these days, as I’ve previously reported, and Director Rogers may be making a serious error by attempting such a major reorganization with his workforce demoralized and frustrated. Not to mention that, yet again, handsomely paid outside management consultants are behind this new structure, which irritates the lower-salaried agency staffers who have to make it all work. “We need this ‘REORG’ right now like we need a shotgun blast to the head,” was how one frustrated agency veteran explained it.

As someone who has publicly called on NSA to fix its public image and get serious about counterintelligence before another Mr. Snowden appears, I find the absence of such issues here worrisome.

Not to mention that serious matters are left out of this new scheme entirely. The word “counterintelligence” does not make an appearance in the agency’s press release on the reorganization, which is distressing given that NSA is still digging out from the Edward Snowden debacle, the greatest intelligence loss in world history. The damage inflicted by that defector was both operational, with many of NSA’s most sensitive programs being compromised, as well as political, with the agency’s reputation being wrecked before the world. As someone who has publicly called on NSA to fix its public image and get serious about counterintelligence before another Mr. Snowden appears, I find the absence of such issues here worrisome.

Nevertheless, NSA’s workforce will follow orders and get on with their important job, as they have done every day since 1952. However, Adm. Rogers’ wholesale reorganization may have unintended consequences, few of them beneficial; at worst, it may create problems more serious than the ones it aims to fix.

It would be wise for our sprawling, seventeen-agency Intelligence Community to be more cautious about sweeping reorganizations as a panacea. This tendency goes far beyond Fort Meade. Right now the Central Intelligence Agency is undergoing its own traumatic recasting, the most comprehensive in CIA history, and its impact on agency morale is predictably negative, while the little-noticed bureaucratic implications ought to raise questions in Congress. In the future, our spy agencies should ask how to fix their problems in less traumatic ways than far-reaching reorganizations, which are expensive, time-consuming, and not always beneficial. Until then, “REORG” will continue to be the most feared word in American espionage.