SOFTWAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FORMER NSA DIRECTOR ADMIRAL MCCONNELL


Admiral "Mike" McConnell served with General Colin Powell as his Intelligence officer during the Gulf War. Admiral McConnell later became Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) after the Gulf victory and served under both President Bush and President Clinton. Admiral McConnell finally retired from service in 1996 and left the NSA. Today, he works on information security issues for a contractor located in McClean, Virginia.

SOFTWAR: What is the mission of the NSA?

McConnell: Signals Intelligence. SIGINT is NSA's mission. The NSA is either talking to someone or listening to someone talk. The mission is to exploit human intelligence. However, the NSA's mission does NOT include domestic surveillance, which is patently against the law. Domestic surveillance is the FBI's job.

SOFTWAR: Can you explain why the Clipper project failed?

McConnell: I took lots of heat on Clipper. Clipper was to be strictly voluntary and intended to have two, separate, key holders with at least one holder outside the Executive branch of government. Vice President Gore directed us in a meeting early in 1993 to avoid the obvious conflict of interest with the Executive branch holding both keys. This is where the FBI entered into the equation. Once Gore had given his mandate, the bureaucracy took over at the Department of Justice and the FBI. FBI Director Freeh had been very successful in getting previous legislation passed such as the Digital Telephony Act. He felt he could succeed where other FBI Directors had failed. The law enforcement bureaucracy presented a revised Clipper plan to Gore, with the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department as the key holders. Gore reacted strongly, saying this was not what he asked for. However, by then it was too late. The bureaucracy had already released the plan to the public.

SOFTWAR: Why did the Clinton administration support Clipper so strongly?

McConnell: I'm not sure. Clipper was presented to them as a "transition" issue at the end of the Bush administration. It had never gone very far under Bush and we never met at the White House on Clipper. However, under Clinton we were hustled into the oval office and made our presentation during the first few days.

SOFTWAR: What is your view of the Clinton administration's current export restrictions on encryption?

McConnell: It was our view in the 80s that strong crypto will happen. The export restrictions were only meant to slow down foreign development. It was a matter of national security. Today, it is not a matter of national security. The FBI Director has made it a law enforcement issue involving domestic controls. The Department of Justice and the FBI are still seeking to "mandate" key escrow.

SOFTWAR: The Clinton Administration is pushing KEY RECOVERY encryption as a tool to catch criminals and terrorists. Could this type of software be abused by foreign powers or dictators to persecute dissidents and political opponents?

McConnell: Can Key Recovery be used against dissidents and political opponents? In a word, YES.

SOFTWAR: RSA recently signed a "memorandum of understanding" to do encryption research with China and this November US Navy officials will be attending ASIACRYPT, a conference on encryption technology, in Beijing. Will the PRC benefit from such cooperation on sophisticated technology?

McConnell: Absolutely. Even if the Chinese use weak encryption the sheer volume of their communications will make it impossible for us to monitor. If China were to erect a public key infra-structure it will severely impact our intelligence gathering ability.

SOFTWAR: Is RSA (the largest US encryption company) trying to dominate the encryption market?

McConnell: RSA is trying to be the Microsoft of encryption software.

SOFTWAR: Documents obtained by Freedom of Information requests show that Vince Foster attended a meeting at the NSA headquarters on May 2, 1993. What role did Mr. Foster have in Clipper or at the NSA?

McConnell: Foster had NO NO NO NO role in Clipper. He never went to NSA headquarters to meet on Clipper. The May 2, 1993 meeting at Ft. Meade is an annual event called "Law Day". It is a dog and pony show for the power elite. I doubt that Foster even knew what crypto meant. John Podesta was our contact inside the White House.

SOFTWAR: Does this lack of awareness reflect a general ignorance about encryption technology in the public and at the highest levels?

McConnell: 99% of the American public has no idea what crypto is.

SOFTWAR: The recent Presidential report on US Computer Security released by General Marsh made NO mention of encryption as a defensive tool against hackers and terrorists. Why did the General omit such an important issue?

McConnell: When I found out that General Marsh was tasked to write the President's report on information security I went to Admiral Studeman, the previous Director of the NSA. We decided we owed it to Marsh to explain the crypto problem. We spoke to him for about two hours until his eyes glazed over. Marsh declared the encryption issue too difficult a problem for him to tackle in his report. He simply said he was going to answer the President's questions on computer security. No more. No less.

SOFTWAR: Thank you Admiral for taking the time to answer my questions.

McConnell: You are welcome.

SOFTWAR Main Menu.

All content COPYRIGHT SOFTWAR (C) 2000. Any reproduction or use of content herein must be approved by SOFTWAR.