NSA's crypto sting Code breakers: Rigged encryption machines provided U.S. a global security edge.


The remarkable series of articles that The Sun started publishing a week ago about the secretive National Security Agency is getting attention far beyond Maryland. Some readers -- particularly among employees of NSA and other intelligence groups -- complain the paper is revealing too much.

This argument is likely to be voiced even more strongly after today's installment, which discusses a fabulously successful NSA sting. For years, according to reporters Scott Shane and Tom Bowman, NSA has had a hand in rigging encryption machines sold to overseas customers so that the Fort Meade-based global eavesdropper can more easily break their secret codes.

Since its creation, NSA has shied away from publicity. It would prefer that its name not appear in any article -- no matter how laudatory -- because that raises the profile of its electronic intelligence gathering efforts in countries that are the agency's targets.

In deciding to do a series on NSA, which is Maryland's largest employer by the size of its payroll, The Sun faced hard choices. In some cases, the newspaper decided to omit information it had learned because it was deemed to be too sensitive to national interests.

There were other instances, where disclosure was seen as causing no harm. A map of NSA's 650-acre campus, for example, may be startling to the general public in its specificity but is based on unclassified sources, including NSA's newsletter.

The NSA's encryption sting falls in the same category. The American public learns about it for the first time from The Sun series, but the rigging allegations have been referred to in the Swiss Crypto AG company's correspondence to its clients, in papers filed in a court case and in the Swiss press.

In a more innocent time, a U.S. official protested intercepts by arguing that "gentlemen don't read each others' mail." Those days are gone and spy agencies in all countries do whatever it takes to gain an edge in security and economic matters. Organizations like NSA may not want any of that discussed in public, but taxpayers have the right to know about this important agency's successes and failures at a time when the future of the whole costly U.S. intelligence effort is being studied.

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