No Strings Attached.

In 1930 the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp created the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS). The tasks of SIS included the interception and cryptanalysis of the radio communications of foreign powers. Over time, SIS evolved into the current National Security Agency (NSA).[1]  It employs something between 30,000 and 40,000 people.[2] That’s more than double the number of people working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[3]

Several decades of dramatic advance in communications technology has allowed the NSA to extend its reach. When more and more communications began to pass through satellites, the NSA built parabolic dish aerials to snatch the messages out of the ether. When communications shifted to fiber-optic cables, the NSA both tapped the cables and accessed the data hubs of telecommunications companies.

Huge amounts of data flow through these systems, with useful intelligence buried in among the innocuous rest. How does the NSA find the needle in the haystack? It has a program called Echelon that searches the huge mass of collected messages for names, phone numbers, addresses, and even phrases that have been submitted by the intelligence community. Its computers look for patterns of interest to the intelligence community in among all the other patterns that are created by global business and migration.[4]

This powerful tool in the struggles waged in the shadows has raised concern about threats to the privacy of American citizens. Already in the 1970s it was revealed that NSA had files on 75,000 Americans. Well, it wasn’t against the law. Congress then passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Act barred the NSA from collecting data on Americans at home and required approval from a special (secret) court before carrying out foreign interceptions that might involve Americans.

The came 9/11. President George W. Bush signed a (secret) executive order allowing the NSA to engage in wiretapping of Americans who fell under suspicion of being in touch with foreign terrorists. Not even a FISA court warrant was required. Eventually, news did leak out. Instead of the outrage that had accompanied revelation of the NSA surveillance of Americans in the 1970s, however, the shock of 9/11 made Congress confirm the new course. In July 2007, Congress passed a new law that made legalized the work done under the secret executive order.

Much of what we know about the NSA comes from two sources. One is James Bamford, a former intelligence analyst-turned-journalist. He has written a series of books on the agency based on troves of information acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. The other is Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who published immense amounts of information stolen from NSA computers.[5] Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. But is civil rights or vital intelligence the baby?

[1] Beginning in 1943 the SIS intercepted the radio communications of America’s then-ally, the Soviet Union. The code in which the messages were sent could not be broken, but the messages were archived. Subsequently, code-breakers found a way to read the messages. This led to a hunt for Soviet agents in the United States. The Rosenberg ring were among the agents captured as a result. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a secret executive order creating the enlarged and empowered NSA.

[2] Once upon a time, being gay or even being suspected of being gay got one discharged from the U.S. government as a security risk. Now, NSA has an LGBT club.

[3] “America’s most secret agency,” The Week, 31 August 2007, p. 9.

[4] For example, cash flows to the Cayman Islands or Indonesians calling home on Friday evenings.

[5] Curiously, both Bamford and Snowden worked in Hawaii. Makes me wonder what goes on in the Haleakala Observatory on Maui.

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