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What Is the National Security Agency?

The NSA collects and analyzes phone, Internet, radio and television communications.
Decrypting foreign communications is one of the duties of the NSA.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 03 July 2014
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The National Security Agency (NSA) is a part of the United States federal government that works specifically to protect information sent from the US, and to decode information that may be sent out by other countries. Usually, such information is encrypted, and the agency has many employees who specialize in decoding material, also called cryptanalysis. The agency has become much better known in the mid 2000s for its expanded role in domestic surveillance of things like telephone calls, what some refer to as “domestic spying.” This has led to serious debate on the degree to which the NSA should be empowered to evaluate the communications of private citizens who may have suspected but unproven associations with terrorist organizations.

Unlike other security agencies of the US, the NSA is limited by charter to the analysis of communications in other countries. Since the attacks on 11 September 2001, more power has been given to the agency to carry out domestic surveillance, however. This was not the initial intent of the agency.

The organization was formed in 1952. Before this, various agencies of the military used cryptanalysis to evaluate signals and communications of other countries, but many experts felt that an overhead organization was needed so that the data collected could be better coordinated. A review of the collection and organization efforts of several military intelligence units, called the Brownell Committee Report, recommended such an organization in 1951, resulting in the creation of the National Security Agency the following year.

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The agency has several functions. It analyzes communications via phone, radio, television, and Internet; collects information and organizes it; and reports to and shares information with the Department of Defense, which is its overhead agency. A branch of the NSA called the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID) carries out this work. It plays a vital role in the US intelligence community.

The other aspect of the NSA that has become increasingly important in the computer age is researching and studying how information in the US, especially classified information, is held and disseminated. One branch, the National Computer Security Center, also sometimes works with private companies to help them develop the best information systems to protect the privacy of their customers and communications. All work dedicated to the protection of information in the US is conducted under the second main branch of the National Security Agency, called the Information Assurance Directorate (IAD).

Not all work conducted by the NSA is known about by the public because the agency, as part of military operations, is able to maintain high levels of secrecy. Even the specific number of employees and the extent of the operation are kept closely guarded. The main building that houses much of the operations of the agency is located in Maryland, and the organization is always overseen by a high ranking officer of the military, usually a lieutenant general or vice admiral. The name of the person who heads the National Security Agency is not private information, and there have been many directors, made by presidential appointment. Deputy directors tend to be civilians with significant experience in the field of information collection and protection.

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Discuss this Article

irontoenail
Post 3

@pastanaga - Yeah, one of the interesting things I discovered about the codes used in, I think, World War One was that they realized the best ones were actual, obscure languages, without any relation to English, rather than trying to muddle up English in a code. The problem was that they had no way to truly generate random numbers back then, it all depended on people and people will almost always eventually start favoring particular numbers or letters.

Anyway, they would use Native American speakers to send and receive coded messages because the language was so different in both sentence structure and form to anything else that there was no way for the bad guys to easily translate it. Interesting, huh? I guess that's one way to get a National Security Agency career.

pastanaga
Post 2

@anon76008 - I haven't read those, but the best one I've read dealing with code breaking and the development of that kind of agency was Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. If you haven't read it, you're missing something amazing.

It has a lot of detail about the analysis of mathematical codes though, so it might be heavy going for someone just looking for the history of the NSA.

anon76008
Post 1

The best books about this extremely secret agency are the two books written by James Bamford. "The Puzzle Factory" and "The Crystal Palace."

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