by Suzanne Kelly
Editor's note: In the Security Clearance "Case File" series, CNN national security producers profile the key members of the intelligence community. As part of the series, Security Clearance is focusing on the roles women play in the U.S. intelligence community.
She is the highest-ranking woman entrusted with the National Security Agency's most-guarded secrets. Inside Fran Fleisch's mind are the details of the country's most delicate and sophisticated intelligence-gathering operations, intertwined with the knowledge and experience needed to run the world's most secretive spy agency.
As executive director of the NSA, Fleisch is No. 3 in the management chain, reporting to Deputy Director John "Chris" Inglis. He recently assumed more responsibilities when Director Keith Alexander took on the extra job of heading U.S. Cyber Command, which is dedicated to the growing national security threat posed by those using keyboards and servers as their weapons of choice.
The NSA's intelligence prowess on matters of signals intelligence and information assurance is widely considered to be unrivaled. If there is a cell phone conversation originating from some faraway part of the world where terrorist operations are being planned, chances are good that the NSA is listening in. It has earned a reputation as perhaps the most feared intelligence agency in the U.S., probably because it has also tended to be the most secretive.
Fleisch is on a mission to change that. It's important to her to show the world that the NSA is actually transparent on issues where it doesn't compromise the valued sources or methods that the intelligence community holds close.
"We conduct our mission in silence, you know. We really grew up that way. There wasn't necessarily an expectation that we would or should or that it would be appropriate for us to be out in the public. That has changed a lot in recent years, and of course, one of our main tenets is transparency," Fleisch said.
With 32 years under her belt, she now presides over an agency divided by design. Part of the NSA's mission known as the Information Assurance section focuses on keeping the enemy from gaining access to sensitive information, and the Signals Intelligence division looks to collect and use intelligence to support military and counterterrorism operations.
Although the NSA's warriors wear a uniform that is more likely to include a pocket protector, the mathematicians, engineers and scientists who fill its ranks are scoping out the battlefield for both real-world and cyberwar operations carried out against those seeking to do harm to American.
Navigating her way
Fleisch found the NSA by accident. She was working on Wall Street and attending a summer language immersion program when an NSA recruiter paid a visit.
"They appeal to your patriotism. I think that is one of the things we still do today," said Fleisch, who also credits the recruiter with sparking her curiosity. "They are able to tell you just enough about the unique contributions that you'll be able to make that it was very enticing for me, so I went ahead and applied a little bit on a lark."
Fleisch was a business and finance major who also happened to have an affinity for language, studying Russian, French and Latin. She was an interesting addition to the agency's Russia unit, then dominated by men, most of whom were quite a bit older than she and had served in the military.
"I'm not sure who was more surprised, but I have to say that considering how different our backgrounds were, it was really a very welcoming environment from the outset."
Fleisch was a Russian linguist and an analyst/reporter, and more important, she was part of the team responsible for reporting Russian intelligence to those higher up the NSA chain of command.
The position she holds today is a natural extension of how the threat has changed. Attacks can be launched from behind a computer, and because the nature of the enemy has changed, it isn't always clear who the bad guys are or, more important, where they are conspiring.
"We've had a couple of transformational opportunities over the course of my career," Fleisch said. "The fall of the Soviet Union, I think, is one where we needed to adjust and reallocate resources, and many people who started as Russian linguists, maybe their skills were needed or could be applied in other places, so I think we have done a very good job of that."
A new NSA
With an enemy that is constantly changing and new enemies popping up around the world, Fleisch knows that the agency's most pressing challenge is making sure it is ready for what is coming next.
"The world we live in is changing so quickly, and there are so many things that we know about the threat and that we know about the technology and how that's being used by our adversaries, it really behooves us to make sure that we are positioning our enterprise," Fleisch said.
Positioning that enterprise means finding more efficient ways to comb through the volumes of information the agency collects, sticking within the legal limits of what it is allowed to collect and how it uses it. At the same time, the NSA must use transparency as a weapon against critics who believe that it has sinister motives.
What about those fears? They were played out on the big screen in Hollywood's "Enemy of the State," in which Will Smith's character, an American citizen, is targeted by a sinister agency that tracks his every move in real time.
The fact that the NSA is so powerful and secretive does make people nervous. The fact that it is in a prime position to find out just about anything about anyone has made it a favorite target of conspiracy theorists and Hollywood, who run scenarios of all of that power being run by a Big Brother-type goverment.
Fleisch insists that those scenarios couldn't be further from the truth and points to laws that govern what information the agency can collect on Americans.
But groups like the ACLU have legally challenged a controversial domestic surveillance program that the agency called a terrorist surveillance program. It was instituted under President Bush after September 11 and allowed the NSA to monitor phone conversations of people inside the United States. An appeals court ultimately refused to rule on the legality of the program, but the issue highlights the delicate territory that the NSA occupies between keeping Americans safe from attack and not compromising their civil liberties. Because of the nature of the debate, that is likely to remain an ongoing issue for an agency as secretive as the NSA.
"What I would want to convey to you, besides the brilliance and the strength of our agency being our people, is that one the values we embody here is adherence to the law and how prevalent that is and is really seminal to everything that we do," Fleisch said. "I think people feel an ownership of the secrets that have been trusted to them."
There is another way that the agency stands out, though. If you think that behind those barricades and checkpoints that protect its main building in Fort Meade, Maryland, sit a bunch of men in suits, you might be surprised by who is really making a significant number of the decisions there.
Fleisch says that 40% of the agency's leadership team is made up of women, a number more in line with the roles women play in the intelligence field overall. Some other agencies have a disproportionate number of women in the middle ranks compared with those in leadership positions. Fleisch credits the difference with the fact that there are just more women at the NSA who, like her, stuck around and have amassed the experience needed to take on those higher-ranking roles.
"Most people have kind of grown up in our system and have earned their positions as a result of their demonstrated ability and capability in our discipline, so besides me, our chief of staff is a woman, and the leads for our two major missions are women. Our (signals intelligence) directorate and our information assurance directorate are all women," Fleisch noted.
Maybe Hollywood will have to make a wardrobe change.
CNN's Security Clearance examines national and global security, terrorism and intelligence, as well as the economic, military, political and diplomatic effects of it around the globe, with contributions from CNN's national security team in Washington and CNN journalists around the world.