Distrust of NSA has roots in '70s
Hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, top National Security Agency officials paid a calming visit to the NSA's counterterrorism office. Workers there were emotionally wrought, due to both the stress of the day and the counterterror division's location - the vulnerable top of a high-rise at NSA's suburban Maryland location.Skip to next paragraph
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By the afternoon, they had recovered and were defiantly tacking up blackout curtains to mask their location, according to Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, then the NSA's director.
Now the NSA is being roiled by political controversy over charges that it is illegally eavesdropping on Americans. President Bush is scheduled to visit the agency Wednesday as part of a week-long effort to defend a program the administration claims is both legal and crucial in the fight against terror.
If nothing else, the uproar is adding another chapter to the history of an arm of the government that has been derided and lauded by turns ever since the US government first publicly acknowledged its existence.
In the 1970s, for instance, the NSA drew intense criticism for its role in spying on critics of the Vietnam War and other political opponents of the Nixon administration.
But that sort of subversive behavior isn't what is at issue today, notes one administration critic. "No one is suggesting the NSA is monitoring Hillary Clinton," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
Founded by order of President Truman in 1952, the NSA is today headquartered at Fort Meade, an Army reservation that sits near the midpoint of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
In the NSA's early years, the US government did not publicly acknowledge it. NSA stood for "no such agency," joked its employees.
That changed with the 1973-76 investigations of US intelligence abuses by Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho. The NSA had kept a "watch list" of US citizens and organizations whose foreign communications it intercepted, it turned out. The NSA had also kept copies of most telegrams sent from the United States to foreign countries.
The response to these revelations was the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA - a law that set judicial procedures for requesting electronic surveillance of persons thought to be engaged in espionage or terrorism against the US.
Today the NSA is in the curious position of being both secretive and famous. Its work remains so closely held that its director seldom appears in public. Yet it has starred (as the villain) in at least one recent feature-length movie, "Enemy of the State." The NSA itself, perhaps to bolster its image, has created a website for children, which features the Cryptokids, an assortment of cartoon animal characters who, in games, carry out code-breaking assignments and other espionage activities.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the loss of the agency's cold-war mission of eavesdropping on everything from Soviet missile telemetry to the car-phone calls of Kremlin leaders, the NSA lost about one-third of its budget, and one-third of its manpower.