IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century

Staff Study
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
House of Representatives
One Hundred Fourth Congress

V. SIGINT: Signals Intelligence

Executive Summary

The SIGINT staff study relied heavily on the foundation of the Committee's oversight and evaluation of both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the United States SIGINT System (USSS) for the past several years, to include recent hearings dedicated to SIGINT program management and the Global Network Initiative. This was augmented with two panels, one composed of the Division Chiefs within NSA's Directorate of Operations (DO), and one of the Chiefs of the Service Cryptologic Elements (SCEs); a variety of focused interviews; and a series of questions for the record.

The study states at the outset that NSA is an extremely successful organization and that the recommendations contained in the study are intended to improve an agency and a functional system that have provided invaluable support to the nation's policy makers. Although the study group does not believe that the cradle-to-grave approach to a discipline is necessarily the most constructive approach for the future, it has served the nation well in the past and certain elements of the NSA model are worthy of emulation by the rest of the technical intelligence community.

The success of the SIGINT system has been in large part due to NSA's formally established technical control over the discipline, which has resulted in the development of a coherent architecture for collection, processing, exploitation, analysis and reporting. However, this very strength has become also a weakness, as the resources required to maintain the Consolidated Cryptologic Program (CCP) infrastructure' are now competing with investment in the core missions of NSA. Because of the way the Intelligence Community is structured and "managed," SIGINT requirements compete only with other SIGINT requirements within an artificial top line dictated in large part by last year's appropriated amount. Increasing personnel costs, for example, thus result in reduced research and development expenditures, one of the few "discretionary" funding categories within the CCP.

In the broadest sense, SIGINT is a "bridge" between imagery's ability to observe activity and HUMINT's ability to gauge intentions. With its current global reach and multiple sources of collection, SIGINT provides a hedge against strategic deception and can be extremely useful for the tipping of other collection assets. As the Information Age continues to evolve, the task of maintaining the SIGINT system's global reach is becoming more difficult; however, the trend towards increasingly interconnected telecommunications networks using various transmission media, in conjunction with the more fluid geopolitical environment of the post-Cold War world, makes global access more critical than ever before. Access, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. The most important challenges of the future may lie in the quantity and quality of what is being transmitted rather than the means of


transmission. The ability to filter through the huge volumes of data and to extract the information from the layers of formatting, multiplexing, compression, and transmission protocols applied to each message is the biggest challenge of the future. Increasing amounts and sophistication of encryption add another layer of complexity.

Signals Intelligence today is at a crossroads. The global revolution in communications technology demands new techniques, new procedures, and a new corporate mindset. The technical challenges currently facing the SIGINT community are daunting, but the outlook of those involved is cautiously optimistic. As with past and future SIGINT targets, the very technology that creates the difficulties can be the most effective tool to overcome them. This assumes, however, a sufficient level of investment to enable SIGINT to stay close behind technology. A commitment to preserve the technical capability to access and exploit all major communications media worldwide requires a level of investment that is not now planned for the SIGINT system over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP). And yet, SIGINT is already the most expensive of the intelligence disciplines. How to balance the required level of investment in technology with the maintenance of existing core capabilities is perhaps the true challenge for SIGINT as it moves toward the 21st century.

In keeping with our recommendations in the Intelligence Community Management staff study, we believe that the rest of the technical collection community would benefit from the application of a variant of the DIRNSA's (Director of NSA) technical control over SIGINT. We also believe that the Intelligence Community (IC) and the nation would benefit from programming and budgeting decisions that were based on a cross-discipline analysis of collection, production and infrastructure requirements and capabilities, rather than artificial trade-offs within programs or specific disciplines. Our proposals for improved community management of R&D investment and, in particular, consolidation and reform of personnel management should also prove of significant benefit to the SIGINT community. This study highlights the need for improved management and focus of SIGINT R&D to ensure that critical areas are adequately funded and the need to reshape the workforce for the 21st century.

In a more centralized structure, the SIGINT "stovepipe" would still exist, although ideally with much greater permeability at all levels, to capitalize on the professionalism and expertise of the cryptologic workforce. However, we believe that much of the analysis that is conducted at NSA today is more properly done under the auspices of an all-source collection agency such as Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), although this resubordination could be done electronically rather than physically. We also believe that there are specific areas of the SIGINT system that require improvement or more management attention; these are detailed in the classified study.