National Security Agency

National Security Agency
National Security Agency

The largest and most secret intelligence tool of the United States—the National Security Agency (NSA)—was born 24 October 1952 with President Harry S. Truman’s signing of National Security Directive 6.

The centerpiece of the U.S. intelligence community, NSA is a technological powerhouse equipped with surveillance tools—both human and computer—to intercept electronic transmissions around the globe. The agency is engaged in collecting raw intercepts, cracking ciphered material, and producing ciphers to protect U.S. coded communications.

The NSA is home to an astonishing collection of hyperpowerful computers, advanced mathematicians, and language experts. The NSA’s very existence was the stuff of conspiracy theories for many years; moreover, many of its historic activities stand alone as conspiracies in their own right.

Size and budget set the NSA apart as the most influential among intelligence agencies. Its annual budget is disguised, though it measures in billions of dollars; most NSA appropriations are hidden in the budgets of other agencies.

The NSA’s 38,000 employees occupy a compound of over sixty buildings—offices, warehouses, factories, laboratories, and living quarters—located off a forbidden highway exit ramp in Maryland.

The location itself is a secret, and earthen embankments, thick trees, and mazes of barbed wire guard the NSA and its activities from intrusion, either physical or visual. Motion detectors, hydraulic antitruck devices, and telephoto surveillance cameras work together to alert the NSA’s paramilitary response team to any potential security compromise.

The NSA was established external to the legislative process—no law created it, and no laws govern the scope of its responsibilities. No law prohibits the NSA from engaging in any activity; there are only laws to prohibit the release of any information about the agency.

The NSA’s mission and responsibilities are unknown to anyone external to the agency, including members of Congress. The name itself— National Security Agency—remained a secret until the late 1950s.

“Until then its name, the identity of its director, and even its existence were considered more sensitive than top secret and were known only to a handful in government”. In addition to the conspiracy surrounding the NSA’s existence, several of its specific operations are worthy of note.

The Cold War

During the cold war, NSA intelligence-gathering efforts focused on detecting the capacity and location of Soviet weapons. Listening posts along the Soviet border failed to yield intelligence about operations deep inside the country, so the NSA responded by developing the U-2, a high-altitude surveillance jet designed to fly well above the reach of the enemy’s retaliatory capabilities.

This plane flew missions deep into the Soviet interior (at altitudes exceeding 70,000 feet) from 4 July 1956 until 1 May 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot out of the Soviet sky.

Eisenhower thought it impossible for a U-2 pilot to survive a crash; he also doubted the survivability of the plane and its equipment. When data ceased to be transmitted from Powers’s U-2 flight, listening station operators assumed the plane to be destroyed and Powers to be dead.

The administration issued a cover story to veil the true nature of the mission. To Eisenhower’s surprise, the Soviets recovered Powers, the plane, and its intelligence payload—information intended for the NSA.

When the Soviets announced the recovery, Eisenhower and his administration responded with a multitude of lies and contradictory stories to protect U.S. intelligence operations. More likely, the cover-up was to disguise Eisenhower’s hands-on role in the project.

The Vietnam War

Operation Desoto placed NSA technicians aboard U.S. Navy destroyers to intercept radio transmissions and radar signals at trouble spots around the globe. In 1964 the USS Maddox was dispatched to monitor a North Vietnamese radar installation.

To ensure success, the NSA preferred that the radar station be switched to full power at the time of the destroyer’s passing by and a raid was staged against the island to create the need for the radar station’s use. Assuming the destroyer to have played some role in the incident, the North Vietnamese launched two counter attacks in the following four days.

“As far as the American people and Congress knew, the North Vietnamese had carried out purely unprovoked attacks in ... international waters against an American ship on peaceful patrol”. An overwhelming majority in Congress immediately approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; thus the NSA’s secret war led to direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Telecommunications Surveillance

“[T]here is no comprehensive ‘right to know’ included, either explicitly or implicitly, within the First Amendment”. These words of Lieutenant General William Odom, former director of the NSA, indicate the agency’s attitude toward individual liberty.

The most egregious of NSA activities, Operation Shamrock, was inherited at the agency’s creation in 1952. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a directive permitting the use of electronic surveillance for national defense.

This enabled the military to work with international communications companies to obtain access to the cable traffic of private citizens, companies, and governments. Technology quickly enabled computers to scan this information, and the NSA incorporated the watch lists of the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, and other agencies into their surveillance activities.

Operation Shamrock was taken to new extremes when Attorney General Robert Kennedy used it against domestic targets in his crusade against organized crime. Kennedy also tracked citizens and businesses transacting with Cuba. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson monitored domestic dissidents opposed to his Vietnam policies with Project Minaret, a division of Shamrock.

Under President Jimmy Carter, the NSA listened to telephone conversations on the island of Cuba using a very large surveillance balloon floating over the Florida Keys. These unconstitutional activities violated the Fourth Amendment stipulation that citizens have a right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The NSA’s listening capabilities have reached new highs. NSA engineers presently “work in secret to develop computers capable of performing more than one septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) operations every second”.

Such processors are necessary to handle the immense communications traffic produced around the world today. Considering General Odom’s words, one may assume the NSA uses its technological capacity to monitor conditions around the globe, including private conversations.