Inside the NSA: Peeling back the curtain on America's intelligence agency

It boasts the largest car park  in the world. The operations  centre is guarded by a retinal scanner. But once inside,  you’ve got a licence to snoop  on anyone, anywhere

Whether you love it or loathe it, there is no intelligence service anywhere in the world comparable to America’s massive electronic eavesdropping organisation, the National Security Agency (NSA).

Virtually every news story ever written about NSA focuses to one degree or another on the seemingly impenetrable shroud of secrecy that surrounds all aspects of the agency’s operations, which to many outside observers gives the it a more than somewhat sinister quality.

NSA does indeed try very hard to keep the specifics of what it does as secret as possible because, as any retired or current-serving cryptologist will tell you, electronic eavesdropping can only work if its operations are conducted in absolute secrecy so that the other side does not know what radio frequencies, e-mail links, or computer terminals you are tapping. Which is why the recent disclosures about some (but not all) of the agency’s most sensitive electronic eavesdropping programs have come as such a jolt to officials.

Emerging from the Dark Ages

NSA may be a global intelligence superpower today, but it is worth remembering that not too long ago the agency was the butt of jokes among Washington insiders. Back in 1999, two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many in the US intelligence community and in Congress thought that NSA was rapidly going deaf, dumb and blind because it had fallen so far behind the technology curve after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Former senior NSA officials admit that on 9/11, their agency was indeed in a state of crisis because they had not paid heed to how the internet, fibre optic cables and cellular telephones were drastically changing the way the world’s governments, militaries, corporations and ordinary citizens communicated. The agency’s intelligence production fell sharply in the late 1990s as one target after another went silent as NSA’s targets shifted from radio to fibre optic cables, which NSA’s radio intercept operators could not get at. Things were so bad that former NSA Deputy Director for Operations, James R. “Rich” Taylor, admitted that at the time “NSA was a shambles.”

NSA today is a radically different place than the bedraggled and somewhat dispirited organisation that existed back then. Over the past 13 years it has completely re-engineered and reoriented itself, thanks  to the more than $40bn that the US government has invested in the agency, which NSA has used to hire more than than 10,000 new employees, completely upgrade and modernise the agency’s formerly antiquated infrastructure, and buy vast amounts of newly developed high-tech spy gear and computer systems that are essential if the agency is to be able to perform its mission in a 21st-century telecommunications environment.

To have and have not

NSA’s sheer size, the vast financial resources at its disposal, and its capacity to surreptitiously gain access to the most sensitive and heavily protected electronic communications of friends and foes alike is both breathtaking and frightening. With over 30,000 military and civilian personnel, half of them military servicemen, and an annual budget now estimated by intelligence community insiders at more than $10bn, NSA is by far the largest, and arguably the most powerful, intelligence agency within the US intelligence community.

NSA’s ultra-modern barbed wire-enclosed headquarters is located on a heavily-guarded 660-acre “campus” on the western side of Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, halfway between Baltimore and Washington DC. Surrounding the 26-building complex is the world’s largest car park with over 18,000 spaces for the agency’s employees. The entire complex is guarded a 400-man NSA police force armed with attack dogs, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and a fleet of armoured personnel carriers.

Sitting in an ornate office suite on the 8th floor of the tallest of the agency’s two black glass office towers is the man who has run this global intelligence gathering enterprise for the past eight years, General Keith B. Alexander. Alexander is also the commander of US Cyber Command, also headquartered at Fort Meade, which since 2010 has been responsible for managing the Pentagon’s offensive and defensive cyber operations. Quiet and somewhat reserved, the 61-year-old Alexander is considered by his colleagues to be among the brightest and most astute officers in the US military, as evidenced by the fact that he has earned four master’s degrees while in the army.

Gen Alexander also indirectly controls the activities of another 25,000 military and CIA signals intelligence personnel (referred to as “SIGINTers” inside NSA), who run its dozen or so large listening posts in the US and overseas, including the huge 2,000-person post at RAF Menwith Hill outside Harrogate in Yorkshire, as well as man a plethora of small to medium-sized SIGINT collection units deployed throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.

And as if this were not enough, NSA’s operations have been fully integrated since the end of the Second World War with those its longtime partner in Britain, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, as well as the SIGINT agencies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Taken together, all of these various pieces give NSA a truly global reach that is unmatched at present by any other intelligence agency in the world.

NSA’S growing reach

Evan NSA’s detractors in Washington, and there are many, reluctantly admit that the agency can go places and do things unlike any other US intelligence agency, thanks in large part to the  ever-growing array of high-tech collection sensors controlled by the nearly 6,000 men and women working for NSA’s Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Directorate, headed by Teresa H. Shea.

NSA has its own constellation of four to five huge and very expensive spy satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth, which suck up virtually all the communications traffic coursing through the ether below that is within their line of sight. Hidden away behind a set of cipher-locked doors inside the NSA operations complex is a unit called the Overhead Collection Management Center (OCMC), which is responsible for giving these satellites on a daily basis the list of targets they are required to monitor.

Over the past five years NSA has invested over $4bn to build three brand new SIGINT intercept and processing centers in Hawaii, Texas and Georgia, each of which employs between 3,000 and 4,000 personnel, and extensively renovate and modernise the agency’s SIGINT satellite ground stations at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado and RAF Menwith Hill, which NSA runs jointly with GCHQ; and build a massive computer data center in Draper, Utah which is rapidly nearing completion. Back in May, NSA held a groundbreaking ceremony at Fort Meade for its brand new High Performance Computing Center, which when finished in 2016 will house the latest generation of supercomputers just now coming off the assembly lines.

Thanks to the recent leaks we now know that NSA receives every day from America’s largest telecommunications companies and internet service providers massive amounts of raw data concerning the phone calls, e-mails, text message, and Skype conversations of subscribers in the US and overseas. According to recently disclosed documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA internet surveillance program, codenamed Prism, has since it began in autumn 2007  become NSA’s most productive source for intelligence reporting, although we still do not know whose phone calls and/or e-mails were being monitored or why.

Complementing Prism is the intelligence information being derived from the work of NSA’s own super-secret cyber espionage unit called the Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO). According to sources, over the past 15 years TAO’s  corps of over a thousand military and civilian computer hackers have succeeded without attracting any publicity in penetrating the computer systems of hundreds of foreign government agencies and dozens of terrorist groups.

Because of the extreme political sensitivity of the work the unit performs, access to TAO’s work spaces and all materials that it generates are severely restricted to those with a “need to know”. You need a special security clearance to read the materials generated by TAO, and to get past the cipher lock on the door leading to its operations centre you must enter a lengthy password into a keypad mounted on the wall and allow a retinal scanner to verify that you are on the list of people cleared for access.

NSA’s reach now even extends down to the battlefield in Afghanistan, where several dozen aerial reconnaissance and ground-based tactical SIGINT units are still operating around-the-clock, monitoring the walkie talkie and radio transmissions of Mullah Omar’s Taliban fighters throughout the country. An NSA unit called the Meade Operations Center (MOC) has a staff of several hundred military linguists and SIGINT analysts, who provide 24/7 intelligence support to US military forces around the world.

NSA has also taken steps in recent years to speed the flow of the intelligence information it produces to its customers in the US and overseas through its own secure intranet system called NSAnet. In recent years NSAnet’s reach has expanded down to the lowest echelons of command on the battlefield in Afghanistan, where US Army and Marine Corps intelligence analysts at the brigade and battalion level can access the system via secure satellite feed from NSA HQ 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the full light of day

There is still so much we do not know about what NSA does and how it does it, which is what scares people the people the most.

Since President Obama came into office four and a half years ago, a few brave and foolhardy officials have suggested that perhaps it might be useful to restore somewhat a semblance of openness and transparency about NSA’s work in order to dispel public concerns that have lingered since the New York Times first disclosed in December 2005 that the agency had spied on Americans without court warrants beginning shortly after 9/11. But these suggestions were perfunctorily shot down in short order by White House officials, who frankly have become accustomed to operating behind a veil of secrecy rather than in the full light of day of public scrutiny.

A now retired NSA official told me last year: “I hope you do not expect to learn anything about our ops any time soon. The reason this stuff is so secret is that it would scare the pants off a lot of people... It’s just safer and politically expedient for everyone to remain blissfully ignorant.”

Matthew M Aid is the author of ‘Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror’ and ‘The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency’, and is co-editor with Dr. Cees Wiebes of ‘Secrets of Signals Intelligence During the Cold War and Beyond’

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