A Look Back at the National Security Agency
January 21, 2014
By Ruth Quinn
As this article is being written on January 17, 2014, President Obama is in the midst of a press conference to announce changes to national surveillance policies, curbing the power of the National Security Agency, or NSA. Specifically, according a New York Times article, the carefully calculated changes would restrict the ability of American intelligence agencies to gain access to telephone data, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government. However, the broad surveillance net that the NSA had assembled would be left intact. The mission of the NSA remains the same: to lead the US Government in cryptology that encompasses both Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance products and services, and enable Computer Network Operations in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and its allies under all circumstances.
This particular moment in history may seem unremarkable. But the history of cryptology is a twisting one that has many of its roots in Army Intelligence. Conducted primarily by a handful of men and women -- led by the likes of Herbert Yardley and the Black Chamber in World War I, and William Friedman and his brilliant crew in the Signals Intelligence Service in World War II -- cryptology was a burgeoning field in the Twentieth Century. In 1942, the small group that made up the Signals Intelligence Service was renamed the Signal Security Service and moved its headquarters into Arlington Hall, a former women's college in Arlington, Virginia. There, it grew in scope and importance as it deciphered and translated messages collected all over the world and sent them back to commanders. Later that year, the Army opened another facility at Vint Hill Farms, Virginia, and called it the Signal Security Agency. By the time the Signal Security Agency became the Army Security Agency, or ASA, in September 1945, the military and the government had no doubt of the need for a peacetime collection mission.
ASA's mission was commanding all signals intelligence and security establishments, units, and personnel of the Army. The Office of Naval Intelligence also had its own cryptologic organization. In 1947, the National Security Act separated the Air Force from the Army, leading the Air Force to create its Air Force Security Service, and created the Central Intelligence Agency, which would eventually take over political and economic intelligence functions from the Army. Each of these agencies had overlapping missions, with no central coordination. This decentralization became a bigger problem during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union was emerging as a new operational target for US communications intelligence organizations. The Army and the Navy both began to plan for readjustment of their collection coverage to include Soviet targets, but questions surfaced immediately: What were the new intelligence priorities? Who would set the collection priorities? Which service would be responsible for which collection missions? Would diplomatic targets continue to be the responsibility of the military? Something had to be done to bring the services together at a high level.
The Armed Forces Security Agency, or AFSA, was intended to do just that. Formed in 1949 and placed under the authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Its leadership was handled by officers from the various services on a rotating basis. However, this organization only responded to the needs of the military, leaving wider, national concerns unmet. Furthermore, the rotating leadership model undermined the administrative continuity the move was trying to achieve. The Korean War only highlighted the limitations of the AFSA to coordinate communications intelligence activities in support of national targets. Duplicate collection efforts, processing problems, service rivalries, and communication delays all led to its eventual downfall. The civilian members of the National Security Council, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Department of State, vigorously opposed the creation of the AFSA, believing that it gave too much control over communications intelligence to the military establishment. The military intelligence agencies were not in favor of it either, preferring to maintain their autonomy in matters of intelligence. In fact, they regularly took full advantage of loopholes in the charter to avoid AFSA oversight. Despite all this, the AFSA was considered an important step in the movement toward the establishment of a national cryptologic effort.
All of this led President Truman to once again change the structure of the intelligence community. In December 1951, he directed the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence to review in depth the communications intelligence activities of the United States. The resulting committee, known as the Brownell Committee, was made up of representatives from the civilian organizations and the Department of Defense, but had no representation from the military services. Ten months after it convened, the president accepted the recommendations of the committee. He stated in November 1952 that the communications intelligence function was a national responsibility rather than one of purely military orientation. Truman made reference to a "National Security Agency" which would replace the Armed Forces Security Agency and be under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Defense, rather than the Joint Chiefs of Staff, putting the final authority of communications intelligence and communications security squarely in the hands of civilian leadership.
The creation of NSA clearly identified the national rather the solely military character of American communications intelligence activities. For the first time, the director acquired the authority to issue instructions directly to military units without going through the military command channels. However, the success of the unification effort was limited. The cryptologic agencies of the military -- Army, Navy, and Air Force -- retained significant independence, their own intelligence-gathering organizations, and their own identities, as well as administrative and logistic control of their field operations. The Army's insistence on providing its own cryptologic support to its commanders ensured the continued potency of the Army Security Agency. In fact, as national agencies began taking on more of the Army's traditional intelligence-gathering roles, not only in communications intelligence but in all the disciplines, the ASA expanded its reach to include the entire electronic spectrum instead of just one part.
The NSA was no different. By presidential directive in 1972, the Central Security Service was formed to promote support the military cryptologic community. The Director of NSA is also the Chief of the Central Security Service. The emblem of the Central Security Service contains a five-point star that identifies the five military branches' intelligence organizations. Each are equally balanced around the symbol of NSA/CSS, who provides the funding, direction, and guidance to all of America's signals intelligence activities.