nsa building

What is the National Security Agency?

International Relations

The National Security Agency (NSA) is a member of the U.S. intelligence community and plays an integral role in safeguarding national interests and achieving military objectives by gathering, analyzing and sharing data and signals intelligence. The NSA is widely acknowledged as the country’s foremost authority on cryptanalysis and its role in preserving national security is twofold. Firstly, NSA analysts gather and decrypt intelligence from electronic communications and sources such as email, videos, photos, stored data, internet phone calls, chat, video conferencing, file transfers, and online social networking accounts. Subsequently, the NSA uses its gathered intelligence to protect the nation’s classified data and national security systems from unauthorized access and tampering by foreign and internal adversaries. Established by President Harry Truman with the express purpose of coordinating and improving the collection and analysis of intelligence communications, the NSA plays a significant role in protecting both the United States and the world at large; therefore, it is vital for individuals with a strong interest in international relations to gain an understanding of the functions of this critical intelligence agency.

The National Security Agency’s Origins

The protection of communications and systems in the United States through the use of cryptology, cipher and other methods can be traced back to the American Revolution with the formation of the Secret Committee of Correspondence; however, it was after World War I with the advent of the radio that national security experienced a pronounced evolution. The Black Chamber—or, the Bureau of Cipher—was established after the war and was disguised as a New York commercial code company. The Black Chamber used cryptanalysis to intercept foreign communications, notably monitoring and decoding communications sent to and from Japanese delegates during the Washington Naval Conference which first convened on November of 1921, giving U.S. negotiators a strong advantage. However, the organization was disbanded in 1929, when Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously quipped, “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

During World War II, the group OP-20-G played an important role in providing vital intelligence on adversaries, such as the Japanese, thereby surpassing the information-gathering capabilities of all other agencies and allowing the U.S. military to be more effective and precise in its operations. OP-20-G was greatly respected, allowing it to metamorphose into the Army Security Agency (ASA) and later, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), which united all cryptologic activities of the Army and the Navy. However, the organization faced difficulty in its operations, mainly in centralizing data collection efforts, processing the communications intelligence and coordinating with other agencies. President Truman tasked New York attorney George A. Brownell with forming a committee that included representatives from the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency in order to find a solution to AFSA’s operational woes; upon receiving the committee’s official recommendations regarding the United States Government Communications Intelligence (COMINT) in a five-part report, Truman established the National Security Agency on November 4, 1952.

Throughout the Cold War, the NSA expanded U.S. surveillance activities and was able to monitor and intercept the communications of various foreigners and U.S. citizens through programs such as Project MINARET. The project notably surveilled Americans traveling to Cuba and participating in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and resulted in thousands of citizens being placed on watch lists. The lack of clear legal constraints resulted in the severe violation of privacy: In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Keith decision noted that, even though the government has the responsibility to protect the American people from disruptive activity, the government cannot use warrantless electronic surveillance devices—especially for domestic espionage activities. NSA’s Operation Shamrock was investigated by the “Church Committee” and in August of 1975, NSA director Lieutenant general Lew Allen testified to the House of Representatives’, disclosing NSA’s activities. This lead to the introduction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 by Congress, which helped monitor and regulate the NSA and notably, established the need for acquiring warrants through the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) prior to pursuing any clandestine efforts.

Roles and Responsibilities of the NSA

The NSA is known as the premier cryptology organization, and until the end of the Cold War, cryptography in the United States was solely the concern of the NSA (and the organizations that preceded it). The NSA, along with the National Bureau for Standards and IBM, played a significant role in the development of the Data Encryption Standard, an algorithm used in the encryption of data. The development of the DES launched cryptography as an academic discipline.

Operating under the purview of the Department of Defense, the NSA is tasked with two primary responsibilities. The first is producing SIGINT, or signals intelligence, and sharing it with various parties—such as the military, members of the executive branch, government agencies and foreign allies. Signals intelligence is any information that has the potential to be intercepted and utilized by adversarial groups and is derived from various signals, sources, systems, and satellite communications. SIGINT can be used in a number of ways, including to help secure the nation and its allies; protect troops; prevent domestic and international terrorism, crime and narcotics; and assist with diplomatic negotiations and foreign relations. The NSA’s second responsibility is information assurance, or the protection of national security systems crucial to intelligence, military operations and other government activities. The NSA helps prevent the theft of classified information and ensures that these materials are available to policymakers and others in government.

NSA Data Collection Methods and Controversy

To protect national security interests, the NSA engages in mass surveillance and the collection of metadata, which includes the gathering and tracking of American and foreign citizens’ phone calls, text messages, social media posts, emails, internet browser history and more. Mass surveillance by the United States was initially conducted as part of WWI security efforts, such as when the U.S. government monitored telegrams sent to and received by the United States. This surveillance was allowed to continue on into peacetime to help ensure that the U.S. government was kept abreast of pressing domestic and international affairs—especially those related to the expansionist policies of rival nations, like Japan.

By their very nature, the NSA’s methods of data collection are shrouded in secrecy. The NSA has been known to install listening posts around the world in order to gather foreign intelligence, thereby creating considerable controversy. To wit, there exists a special division within the NSA named the Special Collection Service; this classified body installs eavesdropping devices in places such as foreign embassies and government buildings and is dubbed the “Mission Impossible” task force. The NSA was embroiled in significant international controversy when it was exposed as having conducted surveillance on the German government, including monitoring the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel through an antenna installed on the roof of the U.S. Embassy. The United States justified its actions on the basis that some of the terrorists involved in the planning and execution of the September 11th attacks had operated out of Hamburg, Germany, and the revelation created tension between the U.S. and German governments—who had long considered one another to be strong allies.

The NSA has also courted controversy with American citizens, coming under fire for the unconstitutionality of its surveillance and data collection activities, which critics argue impinge on privacy laws and violate the Fourth Amendment. The NSA reportedly collaborates with technology and Internet companies to obtain access to phone records, emails, and cloud-stored files, though some of these companies (such as Google and Yahoo) insist that they require a court order before releasing information; however, Sprint, AT&T and others have reportedly handed over millions of records on ordinary citizens not suspected of any wrongdoing, all without a court order. Such records are now housed in the NSA call database in perpetuity. The NSA, for its part, has continuously argued that its surveillance activities are in full compliance with the law; that it takes civil liberties very seriously and only collects critical information necessary for policymakers to ensure the security of the U.S. and its allies.

The NSA is able to conduct its data collection thanks to laws such as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which requires communications companies to make their facilities available to law enforcement agencies or to supply consumer information following a court order. Since the September 11 attacks, provisions in the Patriot Act have allowed the NSA to expand its widespread surveillance of suspected terrorists in an effort to fight domestic and international terror.

One of the undisclosed programs covered under the Patriot Act is Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management (PRISM). Operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), PRISM allows the NSA to solicit technology companies to gain access to phone, email and other records of foreign citizens in the event that certain search terms or phrases trigger red flags. However, information has since come to light indicating that these searches often extend to U.S. citizens and that the NSA paid technology companies millions of dollars for their disclosures. PRISM and other programs were unveiled in a series of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

Since its inception, the Patriot Act has been criticized by many in government and the public sphere, and programs such as PRISM have faced litigation from the ACLU. Critics believe that these programs have been abused and have rarely succeeded in foiling terrorist plots; such was the case with the Boston Marathon attacks, as the terrorists were found to have visited an Al-Qaeda website. Foreign governments, especially members of the European Union, have expressed outrage at the mass surveillance of their citizens and their Internet activities. The NSA and its proponents (including former President Barack Obama), however, have argued that these surveillance programs are effective, having thwarted a plot against the New York City subway, for instance. They also argue that such programs face rigorous bipartisan Congressional scrutiny and are subject to extensive oversight. The Patriot Act has elicited so much criticism that a compromise was reached in the form of the Freedom Act in 2005, which reinforced certain segments of the Patriot Act while limiting the information the NSA can gather without a warrant.

The National Security Agency plays an important role in ensuring national security; facilitating foreign, military and diplomatic affairs; and fortifying classified information and national security systems. The NSA does not carry out its duty without a significant amount of scrutiny, however, as the constitutionality of its measures is often called into question. Given the important work of the NSA and growing public interest in the agency’s sometimes controversial activities, it is essential for individuals studying international relations to fully comprehend its operations and outcomes in order to anticipate and address future challenges.

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Recommended Readings:
Isolationism & U.S. Foreign Policy After World War I
7 Components of Liberalism


Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, Federal Communications Commission

NSA’s Role in the Development of DES, RSA Conference

A Brief History of Cryptography Policy, The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine

National Cryptologic Museum, National Security Agency

NSA Timeline 1791 – 2015, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage, Google Books

Trove of Stolen NSA Data Is ‘Devastating’ Loss for Intelligence Community, Foreign Policy

PRISM is Legal, The Verge

NSA Scandal: What data is being monitored and how does it work?, The Guardian

Secret Committee of Correspondence / Committee for Foreign Affairs, 1775-1777, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs

Foreign Relations of the United States 1950-1955, The Intelligence Community 1950-1955, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs

Context of ‘1967-1975: Project MINARET Illegally Monitors American ‘Subversives’, Creative Commons

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs

NSA Tapped German Chancellery for Decades, The Guardian


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