Nicknamed "No Such Agency" and "Never Say Anything" for its legendary secrecy, the National Security Agency conceals its headquarters behind tall fences topped with barbed wire. Its employees are in the business of breaking codes, eavesdropping and guarding secrets. And its normally reticent leaders rarely call attention to themselves outside the agency's sprawling campus.
So it was an extraordinary event when some of the agency's top officials emerged in Annapolis about a year ago at the opening of a business center dedicated to helping start-up homeland security companies.
Their message was also extraordinary: The NSA needs help fighting the war against global terrorism.
"I'm looking for new ideas," said Daniel G. Wolf, the NSA's information assurance director. "We want to hear what you have."
In November, the agency announced that it would pump $445,000 into the center, whose companies are at the vanguard of security technology: finding cures for bioterrorism diseases, protecting computer networks from hackers, developing software designed to find terrorists.
As the intelligence industry continues to expand since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the clandestine agency is playing a more prominent -- and visible -- role in the Washington region. With plans to hire 7,500 new employees over five years, the NSA, already Anne Arundel County's largest employer, is undergoing its largest recruiting drive since the Cold War.
The agency is also increasingly opening its doors to private companies for help in developing spy technologies.
The business center in Annapolis is just one example of how the burgeoning intelligence industry is affecting the region. Highly secure office parks that house defense contractors have sprouted up near the agency's headquarters and nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In Greenbelt, a headhunting agency that serves only clients with security clearances is seeing double-digit growth every month.
Home to the Pentagon, CIA, FBI and NSA, the Washington area has long been a place where the intentionally vague phrase "I work for the government" has been code for one of the security agencies. But now, an increasing number of people demur when asked what they do for a living.
"I'm a contractor for the Department of Defense, doing computer stuff," is how Jason, 31, of Annapolis answers. It's the computer stuff he hopes people focus on, because then they "think I'm an IT guy." And nothing ends a conversation faster than the words information technology, said Jason, who spoke only on the condition that his last name not be used.
Copious Security Features
From the outside, the National Business Park, next to the NSA and Fort Meade, seems like an ordinary set of modern office buildings, just like the corporate parks all around Washington. But there is nothing ordinary about it.
Built to exacting government security standards with a uniform concern -- protecting the technology designed to help intelligence agencies catch terrorists -- the buildings are part of a growing breed of highly secure commercial complexes with cloak-and-dagger amenities.
Known as SCIFs -- sensitive compartmented information facilities -- they often have film on the windows to prevent eavesdropping, walls fitted with soundproof steel plates or white-noise makers embedded in the ceiling that prevent spy bugs from picking up top-secret conversations, according to developers and construction officials.
Some even have a lattice of metal bars in the air ducts to keep out prowlers.