NSA (United States National Security Agency)

NSA (United States National Security Agency)


Legendary for its secrecy, the National Security Agency (NSA) is the leading cryptologic organization in the United States intelligence community. Focused on cryptologic and cryptanalytic missions, it is the nation's leading employer of mathematicians, yet little is known about the inner workings of this secretive agency. Those few details in the public domain have come either through treachery (namely, revelations made public by defectors in the early 1960s) or the tireless efforts of a writer, James Bamford, whose 1982 book The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency was the first detailed study of the NSA.

NSA and the Cold War

NSA's creation in 1952 followed years of efforts to coordinate communications intelligence (COMINT) activities by U.S. forces. The creation of the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) in 1949 seemed to solve this problem, but the experience of cryptologic services early in the Korean War revealed that it had not. Instead of replacing the cryptologic operations of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force, AFSA clashed with these, and rather than take the lead, it simply became a fourth military cryptologic operation.

The result was a secret memorandum by President Harry S. Truman, National Security Council Intelligence Directive (NSCID) No. 9, issued on October 24, 1952. Although the bulk of NSCID 9 has never been made public, it is clear that this document established NSA to take the lead position in COMINT operations. The choice of "national" in the organization's title emphasized the fact that it would serve both military and nonmilitary needs, and instead of reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of

National Security Agency Director Lt. General Michael Hayden answers questions about what went wrong prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, October 17,2002. ©REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS.
National Security Agency Director Lt. General Michael Hayden answers questions about what went wrong prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, October 17,2002. ©

NSA would answer to the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary, in turn, delegated all his COMINT responsibilities to the Director, NSA, as that position was thenceforth known. AFSA, though not officially abolished by NSCID 9, simply faded away.

Revelations. For years, Americans had almost no idea as to the workings of the NSA. Then, in September 1960, NSA cryptographers William H. Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell held a news conference in Moscow to announce their defection. They proceeded to divulge a number of previously secret details about NSA, including the fact that it monitored communications from and in more than 40 countries, including not only members of the Warsaw Pact, but also putative U.S. allies such as France. Three years later, a third NSA defector, research analyst Victor N. Hamilton, told the Soviet newspaper Izvestia that NSA was in the process of breaking numerous countries' diplomatic codes and ciphers. He also revealed that NSA had been intercepting communications to and from specific nations' missions at United Nations headquarters in New York City.

In light of these experiences, occurring as they did against the backdrop of the Cold War at its height, it is perhaps not surprising that NSA reacted with hostility to legitimate scholars writing on ciphers and codes or the organization itself. The first of these was David Kahn, an amateur cryptologist whose 1967 book The Codebreakers came so close to revealing NSA cryptologic methodology that the agency tried to stop its publication. When it did finally appear, it was published by a British publishing house. Fifteen years later, Bamford used the access granted by the Freedom of Information Act to write The Puzzle Palace. A book whose publication NSA opposed with even greater vigor than it had The Codebreakers, Bamford's work was the first full-scale study of NSA, and one of the few that exists even today.

NSA today. Though today's NSA is far from an open book, several of its actions in the 1990s reveal a much greater degree of openness in the post-Cold War environment. During the mid-1990s, the agency opened both a Center for Cryptologic History and a National Cryptologic Museum, the latter located near its Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters in a former motel that NSA purchased years before to prevent enemies from using it as a listening post. Kahn and Bamford, once anathema to the agency, had gained new respect: Kahn was given a position as visiting distinguished historian at the Center for Cryptologic History, while Bamford received full cooperation from NSA when writing a second book about the agency.

The title of that book— Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency: from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century (2001)—might seem a bit incongruous in light of NSA's new openness, but in this case, "openness" is a relative term. NSA remains highly secretive about its operations, and even the most minor of its civilian employees is subject to extensive scrutiny and oversight. Plans to marry a foreign citizen—even if the person marrying is not the employee but a relative of the employee —must be announced to supervisors. The same is true of plans for travel overseas, and those who fail to comply are presumably fired, though not before extensive checks determine whether they passed secrets to an enemy. Even the physicians an employee visits must be on an approved list, in case the employee reveals sensitive secrets under anaesthesia.

Some 20,000 people work at the NSA's 650-acre campus at Fort Meade, making this organization the largest employer in Maryland. The Fort Meade facility includes the National Cryptologic School, a vast printing plant, and a massive factory producing computer chips. The chips are used at the heart of NSA operations, the supercomputers at Fort Meade, where codes and ciphers are made and broken. In the mid-1990s, NSA was estimated to have an annual budget of $3.5 billion.

In addition to the 20,000 at Fort Meade, up to an estimated 100,000 other personnel, mostly military, work for NSA in other parts of the world. The director of NSA is a three-star general or admiral experienced at intelligence work. He also serves as head of an agency within the agency, the Central Security Service (CSS), which is even more secretive than NSA itself. Tasked with providing information security to U.S. communications and cracking the codes of other nations, CSS was established in 1972. Nesting within it, at a still deeper layer of secrecy, is the Special Collections Service, an elite unit devoted to listening in on communications in countries hostile to the United States.

Under the control of NSA is a vast global network of ground stations, ships, aircraft, and satellites that together give it an almost supernatural aura of omniscience. This aura is more than a matter of mere reputation or hype: NSA itself estimates that several times a day, it processes more information than is contained in all the volumes in the Library of Congress. Among the most impressive of its surveillance programs is Echelon, through which NSA, working with other intelligence services in the English-speaking world, monitors communications throughout Europe.



Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

——. Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency: From the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Kahn, David. The Codebreakers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.


National Security Agency. < http://www.nsa.gov/ > (March 24, 2003).

National Security Agency. Federation of American Scientists. < http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/index.html > (March 24,2003).


COMINT (Communications Intelligence)
Satellites, Spy
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence)
Special Collection Service, United States

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