April 5, 2016 | Commentary on Cyber Security, Intelligence

The NSA Must Adapt to Survive the Digital Age

Every US intelligence agency must change with the times to stay relevant. Change is especially urgent as America's adversaries become more adept at using the digital tools that the global technology revolution has made available within just a few clicks.

So it's understandable – and admirable – that the Director of the National Security Agency Adm. Mike Rogers has set out to overhaul the agency and ensure it remains the world’s preeminent foreign signals intelligence and information assurance organization in the next decade and beyond.

The effort – known as NSA21 – is the largest agency reorganization since 9/11 and reflects how much the world has changed over the past 15 years. The NSA must adapt and be organized to thwart international terrorism, provide enhanced cybersecurity, offer force protection to our men and women in uniform, and defend our national security communication systems, and enable our strategic weapons with highly sophisticated encoding.

As the NSA21 transformation gets underway, the three major areas of focus are clearly personnel, integration, and innovation.

Improving the capabilities of our signals and cyber personnel through intensive training will ensure the NSA has the premier workforce in this arena. It will also provide a disincentive for NSA personnel to flee the agency for private sector jobs. That's why a new Directorate of Workforce and Support Activities will be the centerpiece for developing the NSA's future workforce – whether employees are in uniform or civilians.

As with the Intelligence Community of 17 agencies, the NSA has determined that breaking down the "silos of excellence" is essential to improving its overall spy craft. Perhaps no part of the agency's future structure is more critical than its digital focus. NSA21 will bring together all mission operations associated with foreign signals intelligence, information assurance (ensuring classified information is protected), and cyberoperations.

Admiral Rogers' plan calls for unifying the offensive and defensive cybermissions. As all intelligence operators aptly recognize, a good defense relies on good offensive capabilities. All cyberdefensive capabilities intended to thwart our adversaries' abilities to access our government networks relies on knowing what the adversaries capabilities are to attack us. Combining the both cyber missions is monumental. However, it will require a significant mindset shift within the NSA.

Innovation plays a critical role, too. The NSA will need to find the balance between harnessing innovation from within and tapping the cutting-edge technology innovation outside the agency. Breaking down barriers to technology acquisition will be necessary to benefit fully from private sector innovation. The barriers to rapid acquisition of technology remain a challenge across America’s intelligence agencies.

As NSA proceeds with its transformation, it must not lessen its commitment in three vital aspects of the agency's mission:
  •     The NSA must continue to protect American citizen’s civil liberties and privacy. NSA21’s integration of missions and the pursuit of innovation must be accompanied by a redoubling of training focused on ensuring that every NSA officer understands the legal and policy restrictions to its collection mission.
  •     The NSA’s accountability to the American people in all aspects of its mission must be resolute, uncompromising, and absolutely transparent with those charged with the conduct of oversight over NSA and its secret activities. That accountability is to its congressional overseers and as applicable, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act judicial oversight.
  •     The NSA must be committed to building partnerships with the other organizations in America’s intelligence structure as well as with allies around the globe. While the NSA’s unique contribution is vital to the security of the nation, it is a more relevant contributor to our national security when NSA’s mission is interwoven with the activities of the other elements of the Intelligence Community and working closely with key international partners.
There is no reason to believe that the NSA’s leadership will lessen its commitment to any of these key tenets for any American intelligence agency operating in an open society. Nonetheless, these reminders are vital for every current and future NSA officer.  

The technology revolution affecting friends and foes alike is a fundamental change that NSA has recognized and is prepared to leverage that revolution to its benefit. NSA21 has a long but exciting road ahead in shaping the destiny of America’s security.

 - David R. Shedd is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow and Acting Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

 - This piece originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. 

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Originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor