Obscured by trees and grassy berms, the campus of the National Security Agency sits 15 miles north of Washington’s traffic-clogged Beltway, its 6 million square feet of blast-resistant buildings punctuated by clusters of satellite dishes. Created in 1952 to intercept radio and other electronic transmissions—known as signals intelligence—the NSA now focuses much of its espionage resources on stealing what spies euphemistically call “electronic data at rest.” These are the secrets that lay inside the computer networks and hard drives of terrorists, rogue nations, and even nominally friendly governments. When President Obama receives his daily intelligence briefing, most of the information comes from government cyberspies, says Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush. “It’s at least 75 percent, and going up,” he says.
The key role NSA hackers play in intelligence gathering makes it difficult for Washington to pressure other nations—China in particular—to stop hacking U.S. companies to mine their databanks for product details and trade secrets. In recent months the Obama administration has tried to shame China by publicly calling attention to its cyber-espionage program, which has targeted numerous companies, including Google, Yahoo!, and Intel, to steal source code and other secrets. This spring, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Beijing to press Chinese officials about the hacking. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon is scheduled to visit China on May 26.