The National Security Agency is one of the most secretive fiefdoms inside the American government and is probably familiar to most people only as the guys who may or may not be listening to your phone calls and reading your E-mails as they surveil terrorists.
Intelligence historian Matthew Aid has spent the past quarter century prying loose NSA documents through the Freedom of Information Act and interviewing current and former agency employees. He recently chatted with U.S. News about his new book, The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency. Excerpts:
What does the NSA do?
The NSA is the U.S. government's eavesdropping agency, with an annual budget of $8 billion. It spies on all foreign communications, and it also encodes U.S. government communications. About 75 percent of its budget is spent on vacuuming up outside communications, and about 25 percent goes to protecting U.S. government communications. The protection of U.S. communications has become more important as more and more hackers try to break into everything from the power grids to the Pentagon's E-mail network.
Does the NSA have offensive capabilities?
Since 9/11, the military has gone out and recruited a small but important group of technically minded people, very young people, who can break into our enemies' communications systems. They are now a group at NSA working what's called Tailored Access Operations.
Working with the CIA and others, TAO identifies computer systems and networks being used by foreign
terrorists. Then, a small group of computer hackers belonging to the U.S. Navy, who call themselves Computer Network Exploitation operators, break into the systems electronically to steal the information contained on the hard drives, as well as monitor the E-mail traffic coming in and out of the computer.
When a military commander asks NSA to jam Taliban communications or bring down an Iraqi insurgent website, it drives the NSA people absolutely bonkers. They don't want to go around putting viruses on an al Qaeda laptop. In fact, they don't want to leave any evidence that they've been snooping at all. All the NSA wants to do is listen. There's a never-ending battle between the listeners and the disrupters in the wake of 9/11, and it won't be resolved anytime soon.
How important is NSA compared with, say, the CIA?
There's really no comparing them. The NSA has admitted that on 9/11, more than 60 percent of the material inside the President's Daily Brief [the highly classified national security report] came
from signals intelligence. That percent age is undoubtedly higher today. Human intelligence by nature isn't that comprehensive or reliable.
Yet there have been some staggering blunders because of signals intercepts. During the Gulf of Tonkin [incident in August 1964], the NSA intercepted signals showing that the North Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. destroyer. It concluded that they were live reports from a battle. They reported that information
up the chain of command. Only many, many years later did the NSA go back and listen to the original material. What they found was that they had intercepted Vietnamese radio operators giving a post
mortem of a battle which occurred two days earlier. It was one of the greatest intelligence mistakes in history.
OK, now let's hear about a success.
In [October] 1964, China was about to detonate their first atomic bomb. The U.S. was well prepared because the NSA was intercepting communications from Chinese transport planes flying VIPs to
the site. They were also intercepting weather forecasts around the test site. Then Secretary of State Dean Rusk strode into the pressroom and told the reporters that he had intelligence that China was 48 hours away from detonating a bomb. The NSA went crazy. The Chinese immediately shut down all their radio traffic, and all the sources were lost. Because of that and other incidents, the NSA still refuses to provide anyone with the raw transcripts of the intercepted communications. It's been a bone of contention be
tween CIA and NSA for more than 50 years—especially with al Qaeda phone call transcripts before 9/11.
You write about other periods of "blackout."
The NSA didn't break any high-level Soviet codes for a period of 30 years. They broke Soviet codes very well between 1945 and 1948 before a mole inside the U.S. military exposed NSA capabilities. One Friday, the Soviets switched to an unbreakable cipher system, and all interception went black. Until 1978, not a single high-level Russian code was broken. NSA spent several billion dollars on it and got nowhere. The NSA finally cracked the Soviet codes again by the late 1970s. Warning of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a great victory for U.S. signals intelligence during a brief window when we could both intercept and decode Soviet traffic. We lost all that access when two more Soviet moles exposed U.S. successes.
Do other countries have their own NSA?
Most nations do. The Soviets had a much larger signals intelligence operation than the U.S. The Soviets were good against other smaller NATO countries but less effective against the U.S. People always blame the press for exposing secrets, but spies inside the government are far more dangerous. In fact, the Soviets generally knew exactly where all our ballistic missile subs were located for many years, thanks to broken naval codes. It actually gave Moscow a sense of security that we were not going to launch a surprise attack.
Has it all been worth it?
I know a dozen senior officials who ask the same question. NSA has produced exceptional material in many instances. And instances of NSA success remain classified. But it's not all-seeing or all-hearing, and it has a major cost. Over all, it's an essential tool, because it produces more and better intelligence than the CIA or anyone else in the intelligence community, except for satellites.