The Pentagon inspector general has begun an investigation of the National Security Agency, the nation's largest spy organization, amid charges ranging from discrimination in employment to retaliation against workers who file complaints.
Derek J. Vander Schaaf, deputy inspector general, outlined his office's action in a letter this week to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. The senator had called for an inquiry, prompted by constituents' complaints of racial and sexual discrimination.
"A team has been assigned to conduct the review you requested and our preliminary research is well under way," he wrote. "At the conclusion of our review, we will prepare a report which will be provided to you."
Susan Hansen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, had few details about the investigation, saying the office is still working to determine how it will be handled.
Asked about confidentiality for workers who come forward, she said, "I'm sure the inspector general will provide as much anonymity as possible."
Ms. Hansen could not recall a previous similar probe at the Fort Meade-based agency.
Part of the federal Defense Department, the NSA is Maryland's largest employer, with a work force estimated between 38,000 and 52,000. The agency collects information from satellites and listening posts throughout the world and writes and breaks codes. Its secrecy over the last four decades has earned it the nickname "No Such Agency."
"The leadership of the agency is in full support of the IG investigation," said Judi Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman. "We will cooperate in every and any way we can."
The investigation comes on the heels of a story in The Sun quoting black workers who complained that they are routinely bypassed for promotions. The agency's own statistics show that only 2.45 percent of those at its highest pay grades are African-Americans, while the comparable figure for the federal government as a whole is 4.8 percent.
Blacks, Latinos and American Indians constitute about 11 percent of the NSA work force, as compared with 27 percent of the federal government as a whole. In a memo distributed to employees this summer and obtained by The Sun, a top NSA official acknowledged the agency "lags behind" the rest of the federal government in hiring minorities.
Ms. Mikulski told Mr. Vander Schaaf last month that she has also received calls from constituents who complained about sexual harassment at the agency. Others "suffer reprisals for filing employment complaints," she wrote.
NSA officials said they have made strides to attract qualified minority employees, including outreach programs at historically black colleges. But they said they are in stiff competition with other agencies and private industry for qualified African-Americans with the necessary skills -- foreign languages, mathematics and computer sciences.
Ms. Mikulski said through a spokesman she is pleased that the inspector general has decided to review the allegations. The decision also pleased the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which pressed for an investigation.
"We hope that it will point out areas where the agency should be more aggressive in its minority recruitment," said John J. Johnson, director of the NAACP's Labor Department.
But one NSA employee, an intelligence analyst who requested anonymity, said she would have preferred a Senate probe, fearing that the Pentagon will not be as aggressive in investigating NSA complaints.
Both Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., and NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate. But committee Chairman Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., said his panel had neither the staff nor the resources for such an undertaking.