Unexplained Mysteries

National Secret Agency ( NSA ) or the Central Secret Service ( CSS )...

national security agency

The National Security Agency was created in November 1952 and has provided timely information to U.S. decision makers and military leaders for more than 50 years. However, even before President Truman signed the memorandum establishing the Agency, pioneer cryptologists laid the groundwork for an organization that would play a critical role in the outcome of all major conflicts. Cryptologist legends such as William and Elizebeth Friedman, Frank Rowlett, Agnes Meyer Driscoll and Herbert O. Yardley are remembered for their brilliant contributions but thousands of other men and women have quietly served their country altering the course of this nationís history and ensuring a free and safe America. The history of cryptology is their story.

The NSA/CSS boasts a rich heritage and the people who have served their country in any cryptologic capacity understand a legacy unknown to most Americans. From pre-WWI efforts to the most recent conflicts, this nationís cryptologists have been there quietly protecting and exploiting signal intelligence.

Their efforts and the use of radio intercept, radio direction finding, and processing capabilities gave the United States and its Allies a unique advantage in WWI. The lessons learned here and advances in technology played a critical role in the cryptologic successes in WWII. It was finally realized that cryptanalysts needed to be coordinated under one agency so the Armed Forces Security Agency was formed in 1949. The mission of this newly created agency was to conduct communications intelligence and communications security activities within the National Military Establishment.

However, with its restrictive organizational structure and a lack of a central agency for cryptologic efforts, AFSA could not achieve its mission. It had merely become the military branch for cryptology. The agency was therefore redesigned and all cryptologic activities both military and nonmilitary were brought together to form the National Security Agency.

Since its inception, the Agency has taken responsibility for securing the nationís communications while exploiting foreign signals intelligence. Although inherently a secret business, a public museum devoted to the history of cryptologists and their work opened to the public in December 1993. Memorabilia ranging from the German Enigma to the recently declassified Cray computer decorate the museum hallways. The National Cryptologic Museum attempts to pull back the veil of secrecy and gives visitors an insight into the history of making and breaking codes. Visitors can get a feel for the legacy and rich heritage that is the cornerstone of the National Security Agency.

People in Europe and the United States are beginning to ask why. Has the NSA turned from eavesdropping on the communists to eavesdropping on businesses and private citizens in Europe and the United States? The concerns have arisen because of the existence of a sophisticated network linking the NSA and the spy agencies of several other nations. The NSA will not confirm the existence of the project, code-named Echelon.

The allegations are serious. A report by the European Parliament has gone so far as to say "within Europe all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted" by the NSA. As one of the few outsiders who have followed the agency for years.real concern is that the technologies it is developing behind closed doors, and the methods that have given rise to such fears, have given the agency the ability to extend its eavesdropping network almost without limits. And as the NSA speeds ahead in its development of satellites and computers powerful enough to sift through mountains of intercepted data, the federal laws (now a quarter-century old) that regulate the agency are still at the starting gate. The communications revolution--and all the new electronic devices susceptible to monitoring--came long after the primary legislation governing the NSA.

The controversy comes at an interesting time. Throughout much of the intelligence community, the cloak of secrecy is being pulled back. The CIA recently sponsored a well-publicized reunion of former American spies in Berlin and is planning a public symposium on intelligence during the Cold War later this month in Texas. Even the National Reconnaissance Office, once so secret that even its name was classified, now offers millions of pages of documents and decades of spy satellite imagery to anyone with the time and interest to review them. The NSA is the exception. As more and more questions are being raised about its activities, the agency is pulling its cloak even tighter. It is obsessively secretive. Last spring, for the first time, it denied a routine request for internal procedural information from a congressional intelligence committee.

Headquartered at Fort Meade, halfway between Washington and Baltimore, the NSA is by far America's largest spy agency. It has about 38,000 military and civilian employees around the world; the CIA, roughly 17,000. The agency's mandate is to monitor communications and break codes overseas; it also has a limited domestic role, with targets such as foreign embassies. It can monitor American citizens suspected of espionage with a warrant from a special court. It is potentially the most intrusive spy agency. Echelon, which links the NSA to its counterparts in the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, amounts to a global listening network. With it, those agencies are able to sift through great quantities of communications intercepted by satellites and ground stations around the world, using computers that search for specific names, words or phrases. Whether the NSA will go too far with Echelon is not an idle question. In the mid-1970s, the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence were created in part as a result of NSA violations. For decades, the NSA had secretly and illegally gained access to millions of private telegrams and telephone calls in the United States. The agency acted as though the laws that applied to the rest of government did not apply to it.

Based on the findings of a commission appointed by President Ford, the Justice Department launched an unusually secret criminal investigation of the agency, known only to a handful of people. Senior NSA officials were read Miranda warnings and interrogated. It was the first time the Justice Department had ever treated an entire federal agency as a suspect in a criminal investigation. Eventually, despite finding numerous grounds on which to go forward with prosecution, Justice attorneys recommended against it. "There is the specter," said their report, which the government still considers classified, "in the event of prosecution, that there is likely to be much 'buck-passing' from subordinate to superior, agency to agency, agency to board or committee, board or committee to the President, and from the living to the dead."

As a result of the investigations, Congress in 1978 passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which stated in black and white what the NSA could and could not do. To overcome the NSA's insistence that its activities were too secret to be discussed before judges, Congress created a special federal court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to hear requests for warrants for national security eavesdropping. In case the court ever turned down an NSA request, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Appeals Court was created. It has never heard a case. In the more than two decades since the FISA was passed, the law has remained largely static, while cell phones, e-mail, faxes and the Internet have come to dominate how we communicate. The point hasn't been lost on the NSA. Last month, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the NSA, gave a speech inside the agency. I was one of the few outsiders invited to attend. Hayden warned of the "new challenges" in "information technology" that the agency now faces. "The scale of change is alarmingly rapid," he said, noting that "the world now contains 40 million cell phones, 14 million fax machines, 180 million computers, and the Internet doubles every 90 days."

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