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'No Such Agency' Secretive NSA: Obscure, global eavesdropper at Fort Meade is largest state employer.


An editorial in today's Perspective section misstates the timetable for a study of U.S. intelligence agencies by a commission headed by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown. The panel is to conclude its review in the spring.

The Sun regrets the error.

THE NATIONAL SECURITY Agency, the code-breaking and electronic spying organization headquartered at Fort Meade, has many nicknames. Some claim the initials NSA stand for "No Such Agency" -- because it was long so secret even its existence was officially denied.

In a six-part series that starts today, Sun reporters Tom Bowman and Scott Shane offer one of the most detailed descriptions of NSA ever published. It will be a revelation for many citizens who have idea of the agency's scope or work. Indeed, some people in the intelligence community are certain to argue that the series reveals too much about methods used to collect raw data on matters of sensitivity to U.S. national security.

We see little validity in such a argument. Taxpayers have a right to know what their money buys and why. The articles do not betray any NSA secrets or compromise its operations.

The NSA series comes at a time when its $8-billion-a-year eavesdropping operation is at a crossroads. There is a widely shared belief that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the whole structure of U.S. intelligence should be rethought. A commission led by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown is expected to start its closed-door review of the whole intelligence field next spring.

Reporters Shane and Bowman spent more than a year collecting information. They interviewed scores of people, ranging from current and former low-level NSA employees to the nation's leading intelligence officials. Some were forthcoming, most were not. "I wish you nothing but bad luck," R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, told the prying reporters.

The stakes of any shake-up and reorganization are high for Maryland. Not only does NSA employ some 20,000 highly skilled linguists, electronic wizards, mathematicians and analysts in the state but much of its contracting benefits the local economy. This is a good time to understand NSA's mission and importance.

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