WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Burdened by a bloated and expensive work force, the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence services must make deeper cuts in personnel and invest in new technology or their mission could be "seriously jeopardized," a federal commission said yesterday.
NSA, which eavesdrops on foreign communications and is Maryland's largest employer with about 20,000 workers at Fort Meade, and the nation's two other spy agencies have been ordered by Congress to reduce their civilian personnel 24 percent by 2001.
But the commission headed by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown said a reduction of at least another 10 percent -- 5,000 to 6,000 employees -- is needed. The greatest number would likely come from NSA, since it has a larger work force than the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Brown said the intelligence agencies need to be realigned to deal with more diverse threats, ranging from terrorists to drug traffickers and sophisticated criminals using the latest technology.
"America needs a strong and effective intelligence organization," said commission member David H. Dewhurst, a Houston businessman and former CIA officer. "It's a dangerous world. In many ways, it's a more dangerous world."
The 17 commission members, named last year by President Clinton and Congress to review the future of the intelligence in the post-Cold War world, said spy agencies must bring in workers with more up-to-date technical and computer skills and language abilities. Too much money is being spent on an older work force with higher salaries and benefits, the commission found, noting that while NSA has cut back in the number of workers, its payroll has actually increased.
NSA in particular must invest in new technologies to keep pace with widely available encryption products and hard-to-tap fiber optics, both of which are hampering its ability to intercept foreign communications, the panel said.
"Unless this is done, and done soon, we will wake up about five years from now with an NSA that does not have the ability to supply the kind of information" government officials need, said former New Hampshire Sen. Warren B. Rudman. "We must change the mix of people, and we must modernize."
The recommendations now move to the congressional intelligence committees, which are expected to introduce legislation incorporating the ideas.
"It is certainly the starting point for some very significant changes in the U.S. intelligence community," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. "But there are some questions with whether the Brown Commission has gone far enough."
Rep. Larry Combest, a Texas Republican and committee chairman, is scheduled to present his own proposals on the future of the agencies on Monday.
Among the panel's recommendations:
* A more coordinated effort from the spy agencies to fight "global criminal activity," ranging from terrorism and drug trafficking to nuclear proliferation and organized crime. Law enforcement and the intelligence agencies should work closer to battle these threats.
* A review of NSA's "technological health" by the CIA director. NSA should work more closely with the private sector, which is outpacing the agency in cutting-edge technology. The review should also consider the "serious threat" to NSA -- widespread global use of cheaper encryption technology and pressure by U.S. businesses to end export restrictions on these software products.
* Spies should not become involved in "economic espionage" -- stealing foreign business secrets and giving them to U.S. corporations. But the spies can continue to report to U.S. officials information about bribery or "kickbacks" in areas when U.S. companies are competing against foreign firms.
* CIA agents should continue to conduct "covert action" when the U.S. government needs to secretly influence events in another country through efforts ranging from propaganda to paramilitary actions. Such action should only be taken when there is a "compelling reason why U.S. involvement cannot be disclosed."
The commission took no position on whether the overall intelligence budget, estimated to be about $28 billion a year, should rise or fall. Members noted that any savings may be absorbed by new developments and investments.
The panel proposed that workers whose jobs are targeted for elimination could be shifted to other positions or receive job placement assistance. Older workers might be offered one-time payments up to $50,000 to retire early. So far, NSA has been able to reduce its work force through buyouts and retirements, and not have layoffs.
The bipartisan committee and its staff heard more than 150 witnesses. The commission's recommendations were unanimous, said Mr. Brown.