NII's Secret Policy-Makers

NSTAC Is More Than an 'On-Ramp'

Away from open discussion, in closed rooms at rarefied policy-making levels, the nation's top communications and defense executives -- and high-level officials from the intelligence and defense communities -- are quietly influencing the possible futures of the "people's network," the National Information Infrastructure.

The high-powered panel is called the President's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. The name says whom it reports to. Its first order of business for the NII was to develop an "emergency on-ramp" the government could use for matters of national emergencies -- including, of course, security.

But the NSTAC, as it's called, is about more than emergency on-ramps to the NII. The select group's national security focus is broadening to include U.S. economic interests on the information superhighway itself.

Few know about the NSTAC, and its members don't particularly like their membership known. As a result, its gravitas as a policy-maker is a matter of some speculation.

From a broader perspective, however, its high-powered membership illustrates federal concern not just about national security and data integrity, but about what kind of access the government will ultimately have to the NII --which the White House reveres as a cornerstone of democracy. For example: The Pentagon is still trying to deal with the inability of their primary scrambler to function on wireless networks.Sources close to NSTAC say the importance of the NII as a conduit of large-scale commerce makes it a natural target of security concerns. "We are broadening what we understand by security," said one individual who did not want to be identified. Network-busting computer hackers are considered the primary threat.

The secretive group, chaired by Norman Augustine, CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Martin Marietta, is a who's who of defense information and telecommunications leaders.

Members include C. Michael Armstrong of Hughes, Kent Black of Rockwell, William Esrey of Sprint and Albert Zettlemoyer of Unisys. The minutes of NSTAC meetings are classified.

Originally created by Ronald Reagan in 1982 as an industry task force to coordinate national security and emergency preparedness, -- NS/EP -- issues in U.S. telephone networks, NSTAC has become an integral player in information superhighway policy making at the highest administration levels.

The committee now has its own NII Task Force, which is working closely with other government policy groups. Its particular interests are security, interoperability, dual-use applications, industry trends and government technology.

According to a recently released synopsis of a closed-door NSTAC meeting March 2 at the Department of Commerce, the NII Task Force will "provide the industry NS/EP perspective on the difficult balance between the competing goals of universal access and legitimate privacy and security concerns."

Exactly how access and privacy will be resolved is still being debated by NSTAC. And how security will be achieved is also unknown -- though at least one official noted that the NSTAC does not consider the National Security Agency-designed Clipper chip a panacea.

"Clipper is an issue they've been avoiding," said NSTAC spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Cleary, primarily because the device is so controversial within the computer and communications industries.

A harbinger of the Council's larger policy role is the participation of NSTAC staffers in a Naval War College NII symposium scheduled for August 29-31. Senior level government and industry representative are expected to attend.

There is no doubt the group has high-level access. The last convocation ended with a meeting between NSTAC members, Vice President Al Gore, science advisor Jack Gibbons and then-Undersecretary of Defense John Deutch.

The group also has direct liaison with top federal information systems and intelligence directors. In attendance at the March 2 meeting was Lt. Gen. Alonzo Short, chief of the Defense Information Systems Agency (who gave a briefing); Emmett Paige, director of Pentagon command, communications, control and intelligence activities; Jack Phillips of the Central Intelligence Agency and Larry Irving, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Irving's talk was on current NII policy. More than 100 other government and industry representatives were also in the audience.

Most of the working committees of the Council are still focused on creating an emergency lane on the NII for disaster assistance and national security operations.

Wireless capabilities are of particular interest. At the March 2 meeting, members heard a briefing from the Wireless Services Task Force, which recommended the government "should pursue implementation of a single nationwide wireless priority access capability...[that is] Transparent to the national security/emergency preparedness user." That means quick and easy access to public-switched networks.

According to a Wireless Services Task Force report dated Jan 31, the group, headed by Allan Dayton of Comsat, is pushing for a wireless priority access system that is both "uniform across the nation" and "interoperable across service boundaries," which, in essence, means the same thing as quick access.

Last year, the NSTAC recommended the Clinton administration create a priority access for NS/EP on public switched networks. The National Communications System, a conglomeration of 23 federal agencies including the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense, is currently asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission. According to the March 2 meeting synopsis, NSTAC staffers expect the FCC to authorize the priority access. Such a system would not pre-empt or disconnect ongoing calls.

In its report, the Wireless Services Task Force recounted that in 1991 "emerging wireless technologies would not support in a standardized manner, some of the critical government....security requirements, e.g. STU IIIs."

The STU III is the DoD telephone scrambling unit commonly used for secure conversations. The standards problem was enough of a headache that the NSTAC has recommended to the president that he charge an NSA official to "address and monitor wireless digital interface issues."

Several inter-agency working groups are still mulling the issue, the most recent of which is the Federal Wireless Policy Committee at the Department of Commerce.

The NSTAC has three new members: Robert Boaldin, vice chairman of the U.S. Telephone Association; Joseph Gorman, CEO of TRW Inc. and Roy Merrills, Chairman of the Board, Northern Telecom Inc. The next meeting is scheduled for January 1995.


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