For the first time in its history, the National Security Agency is laying off more than 400 technicians and electricians - eliminating an entire department - and leaving them without a lifeline to private-sector jobs.
According to several agency sources, the employees, most with high-level security clearances and at least 15 years at the agency, have been told to keep quiet about the layoffs. Several employees said management told them in a unit meeting that their jobs would be eliminated by June.
In the meantime, many of them are refusing to answer repair and maintenance calls at the agency, and using up hundreds of hours of accumulated sick leave. Most at risk by the work slowdown is the department's critical responsibility of keeping a system running that pipes cold water and cool air to the agency's extensive computer network and mainframes to prevent them from overheating.
The plans to eliminate workers come at a difficult time for the agency, as it continues its search for Osama bin Laden, in addition to working to prevent terrorist attacks. Many of the employees, who spoke to The Sun on the condition of anonymity, said they felt betrayed, especially because their unit worked 24 hours a day, some of them sleeping at the agency at Fort Meade, in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yesterday, an NSA spokesman said in a written statement that the agency is looking for "ways to focus its government resources" by turning work over to contractors and through incentive and early-retirement programs, and that only as a "last resort" will it turn to "involuntary separation programs" late next year.
An NSA memo, though, tells division heads and employees that the agency director has determined that several departments, including the technicians' and electricians' department, "can and should be out-sourced."
The memo, dated Nov. 7, says "the bottom line is that there is no guarantee" that any of the employees will be retained by the agency.
Patricia Cox White, associate general counsel for acquisition and logistics, signed the memo, which was obtained by The Sun.
"I've traveled all around the world for more than 20 years for them, and this is the way they thank us," said one employee.
Potential computer crash
"We have locked up, put on the brakes," said another. "We're not doing service calls, we're not doing repairs. I saw a guy yesterday who has been here 30 years put his feet up on the desk and say, 'Hire a contractor to do it.' ... If those systems overheat, they will shut down, and then the agency will shut down."
For more than five decades, jobs at the NSA have been among the most secure in government. Because all employees undergo extensive background checks and get security clearances, and have access to some of the agency's most closely guarded secrets, the agency has rarely let employees go.
Last year, agency Director Michael V. Hayden announced plans to hire contractors to replace more than 600 information technology employees under a highly publicized program, Project Groundbreaker. Those employees, though, all of whom had left the payroll by this month, were offered incentives such as bonuses and better pay to switch to a private company hired to do their work. The agency also set up a job placement center for those who did not want the private-sector jobs.
Less help for those leaving
These incentives are not likely to be available to the employees of the Installation and Logistics Department, according to the memo.
"There is little likelihood that Groundbreaker-like salary/bonus/benefits packages will be offered," the memo said. "Do not expect an employment office" to be set up for assistance, the memo continued.
The agency has been under heavy pressure from Congress over the past two years to cut back and refocus its funding to its core mission: spying on the communications of the country's adversaries and protecting this country's communications from eavesdropping.
Congressional oversight committees, concerned by a computer shutdown that halted the agency's operations two years ago and worried about reports that the agency can't keep up with the ever-expanding volume of faxes, e-mails, phone calls and digital relays, ordered an overhaul. Until now, the overhaul has not included layoffs.
Working for the NSA has long been a point of pride for the agency's more than 20,000 workers. Employees from the installation and logistics unit said that the agency's highest officials knew them by name, and that if one of the agency's systems failed, the unit would have the problem fixed in minutes.
Many in the department were responsible for fixing problems at secret eavesdropping locations throughout the world, where electricians who hook up high-powered cable wires need top security clearance and specialized skills.
"This place used to be for the elite," said one employee who was told by management to find a new job as soon as possible. "I used to think we were valued. I mean, we are highly qualified, multi-skilled workers. It made me feel good to go in there and do a good job. They'll never find the quality or service we gave them from a contractor."
It's unclear how big the cost savings will be.
Contractors who now work at the agency lack the security credentials to move from department to department, or even hallway to hallway. Most contractors on the agency's grounds must be "tailed" by an employee with security clearance whose job is to follow them around for $10 an hour.
Some employees gave many examples of work they had to redo once a contractor had left.
Many of the employees facing layoffs are recent graduates of the agency's four-year training and apprenticeship program, in which they mastered complicated skills. The program costs the agency as much as $20,000 per student.
Some employees say they hope to be picked up by the contractors who are hired to do their work, but they say they have been warned that the jobs will be temporary, without benefits, and will likely pay $10,000 to $20,000 less a year.
For now, many in the unit say they are just biding their time, rearranging their finances and using sick days to find a new job. In the meantime, broken cafeteria freezers, heating units and water fountains go unrepaired.
Many employees said they don't want to see the agency's major operations hurt, especially when the country is at war. But after decades of service, they don't want the agency to think they will just leave quietly.
"It was always a system of trust," said an employee who has been there almost a decade. "We took care of them, and they took care of us. I guess it was kind of like the Mafia. Now I just feel betrayed. I feel like I have a knife in my back."