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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Baltimore Sun April 10, 2004

NSA poised to hire 7,500 people

Spy agency is beefing up staff in Md. and abroad to meet terrorism challenge

By Ariel Sabar

The National Security Agency is launching its largest recruitment drive since the Cold War, with plans to hire 7,500 workers over the next five years as it adapts to a new array of global security threats.

The Maryland-based spy agency, which intercepts and deciphers foreign communications, is looking for linguists, mathematicians and computer scientists, among a range of other specialties.

About 4,500 will replace workers who retire or otherwise leave the agency, said John Taflan, NSA's human resources director, in an e-mail response to questions.

The other 3,000 will take new jobs, raising the agency's global work force from 32,000 to 35,000.

"This is clearly significant," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, a policy group in Washington. "It's part of the continuing reorientation of the intelligence community away from its Cold War roots, to the war on terrorism."

The NSA would not disclose the cost of its recruitment efforts, but intelligence analysts said the hiring is a product of the surge in intelligence spending since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Last year, the joint congressional committee examining the attacks faulted the agency for its shortage of Arabic linguists and inability to keep pace with the technology that terrorist networks use to relay information.

"The communications sophistication of stateless terrorists in general and al-Qa'ida in particular clearly surprised NSA officials," the panel said in its July report.

The report also said that NSA's enlistment of contractors to develop new eavesdropping and code-breaking gear had led to a significant loss of in-house expertise.

Taflan said Friday that the challenges of the terror war have coincided with the expected retirement over the next decade or so of "a significant portion of our agency work force."

The NSA is one of Maryland's largest employers, with about 16,000 employees at its headquarters on Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and another 16,000 at undisclosed locations around the world.

The agency saw steep budget and staff cutbacks in the 1990s, as it struggled for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress has boosted funding, and job applicants have deluged the NSA, CIA and other intelligence agencies with tens of thousands of resumes.

The NSA, once so secretive that critics called it No Such Agency, responded eagerly and openly to the interest. It handed out signing bonuses and other perks to new hires and made 268 recruitment trips last year alone, many to colleges and career fairs, NSA officials have told Congress.

Last year, the NSA hired 100 language analysts, up from a low of 14 in 1999, and was reviewing a record 858 applications as of February, according to a document the agency provided to U.S. Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

In an announcement posted on its Web site this week, the NSA said it intends to hire 1,500 people by September and another 1,500 in each of the next four years.

The agency said it is particularly interested in speakers of Arabic and Chinese.

"While our key focus remains foreign language, technical and analytical skills, the NSA has opportunities for individuals in a variety of educational and professional disciplines," Taflan said.

Most of the new workers will begin their careers at the Fort Meade campus.

The pace of hiring will be nearly 50 percent greater than in 2002 and is the largest recruiting effort since at least the 1980s, the agency said.

"That's a very steep hiring curve," says Matthew M. Aid, a former Russian linguist at the NSA who is writing a book on the agency. "I don't think since the heady days of Vietnam that they have hired that many people in a single time period."

John E. Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, an intelligence policy think tank in Alexandria, Va., said that NSA's toughest challenge will be shepherding that many people through background checks that can sometimes take a year.

"That's the big bottleneck," he said. "They have always had enormous backlogs in these investigations."

Holt applauded the hiring initiative but said that the NSA might struggle to find enough linguists fluent in its target languages, especially given the stringent requirements for security clearances: "We need to do things to improve our language proficiency in the United States overall, so there is a pool from which to hire."

The lawmaker introduced a bill this year to provide money for intensive high-school and college instruction in languages critical to national security.

Copyright 2004, The Baltimore Sun