What Is the National Security Agency?
The National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
CREDIT: National Security Agency
The National Security Agency is an intelligence-gathering agency within the U.S. Department of Defense. It is one of the most secretive agencies within the U.S. government. For many years, even its existence was rarely acknowledged by the government, and its budget is still a secret.
The NSA has two main divisions, the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID) and the Information Assurance Directorate (IAD). SID gathers, analyzes and disseminates intelligence information from foreign signals. IAD's mission is to prevent foreign adversaries from accessing classified information. Basically, the NSA eavesdrops on all foreign communications and encodes all U.S. government communications.
The Central Security Service (CSS) was established in 1972 to promote full partnership between the NSA and the armed forces. The NSA and the CSS have since been combined into one service.
The NSA's headquarters are in Fort Meade, Md. It also has facilities in Texas, Georgia and the United Kingdom. A new data center is scheduled to open in Utah in October 2013.
The number of NSA employees, as well as the amount of the agency's budget, is classified information. However, according to Matthew Aid, author of "The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency" (Bloomsbury Press, 2009), the NSA annual budget is $8 billion. The NSA claims to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the country.
The National Security Agency was established in 1952 by President Harry S Truman in order to consolidate code-breaking efforts that grew out of World War II and to aid in fighting the Korean War and, more broadly, the Cold War.
NSA cryptologists played a role in identifying Soviet agents in the United States, tracking Soviet intentions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, providing support during Operation Desert Storm and supporting U.S. Special Forces in the capture of Osama bin Laden.
However, one of the NSA's biggest blunders, according to Aid, was mistaking signal intercepts from North Vietnamese radio operators as reports of a live battle and thinking that a U.S. destroyer was under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. The intelligence report was the trigger for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Only years later did NSA analysts go back to listen to those signals again. They realized that they were hearing post-mortems of a battle that had occurred days earlier.
Over the years, various congressional hearings and investigative research have eroded some of the secrecy surrounding the NSA.
In 1975, a Senate committee investigating activities of U.S. intelligence agencies uncovered covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies, including the NSA. These activities included assassination attempts on foreign leaders and spying against U.S. citizens.
The Church Committee, named after its chairman, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, made recommendations that led to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
FISA established procedures for spying on people suspected of engaging in espionage or terrorism against the United States. It limited the circumstances that allowed domestic spying, but also authorized federal agents to conduct surveillance, including wiretaps, without obtaining a search warrant.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) was set up to approve all surveillance of persons, including American citizens, thought to be working for "foreign powers" within the United States.
In 2001, following the attacks on Sept. 11, President George W. Bush signed a secret executive order that authorized the NSA to conduct electronic surveillance of telephone and Internet communications within the United States.
When the program was revealed in 2005, administration officials defended it as essential to detecting patterns of communication among possible terrorists. The program has continued under President Obama.
In 2006, USA Today published an article that revealed that Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth (since acquired by AT&T) were voluntarily providing the NSA with millions of call logs. It also said another landline provider, Qwest (since acquired by CenturyLink), refused to hand over logs without a warrant, and that the NSA had rejected Qwest's insistence that the matter go before the FISC.
In 2007, former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio was convicted on 19 counts of insider stock trading. During an appeal, Nacchio's lawyers claimed the charges were retaliation for Nacchio's refusal to go along with the warrantless surveillance program while he ran Qwest.
More recently, in June 2013, Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, revealed that Verizon, under a secret order authorized by the FISC, has been handing over call logs of millions of telephone calls to the NSA every day.
Information was also leaked that revealed a program, called PRISM, allows the NSA to tap into major U.S. Internet companies — including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple — to collect emails, videos, images and other material.
A member of Obama's administration defended the practice, saying the harvesting of call logs "has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States."
"It allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the unnamed official said, according to the New York Times.