What You Need to Know: The Origin of the NSA

What You Need to Know: The Origin of the NSA

Nowadays, the NSA is a ubiquitous term among Americans, thanks in large part to Edward Snowden. When he dropped the bombshell that Americans’ cellular data, online activity, and virtually everything about their electronic footprint was being collected and stored by its own government, the NSA went immediately from a little-known government agency to one of notoriety. But many people still don’t understand exactly what the National Security Agency does, how it does it, or why it was created in the first place.

The government report entitled ‘The Origins of the National Security Agency: 1940-1952’ actually traces the faintest origins of the NSA all the way back to WWI, when the interception of enemy correspondence became a critical aid in warfare. Citing the outbreak of WWII, the formerly top secret report states, ‘during that war, a small number of organizations provided the total intelligence gathering activities of the United States government. Army and Navy authorities played a preeminent role in the production of this intelligence.’ In the perspective of the report’s timeframe, 1952, it became clear just how rapidly the breadth of intelligence gathering by the United States had expanded post-WWII. It goes on to state that, ‘there is now a National Security Council (NSC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Foreign Intelligence Board (NFIB), and National Security Agency (NSA).’ (NSA.gov)

But, even by its own accounts, the Army and Navy resisted merging their systems of intelligence gathering, especially in a manner that would inject civilian control into the processes. According to report, it was Pearl Harbor that would eventually force the Army and Navy to coalesce to the ‘establishment of a truly centralized, permanent intelligence agency’. They would not have a choice, as the value put on COMINT, or communications intelligence, came to reign supreme. During WWII, the official government report cites increased cooperation between Army and Navy intelligence gathering operations as having a role in many of the Allied forces’ successes. ‘These included cryptanalytic breakthroughs against the communications of German submarines, German and Japanese armed forces, and the diplomatic communications of the Axis countries both of the European and Pacific theaters.’

These successes, the report states, had garnered greater positive sentiment of many in the military and government toward the importance of COMINT, and an agency which would permanently incorporate communications as a system of intelligence gathering. The first step toward a non-military agency that would oversee COMINT operations came in 1945, when the Department of State accepted an invitation to join the Army-Navy Communications Intelligence Board.

But it was on October 24th of 1952 that the formal steps for establishing the modern NSA were set into motion by President Harry Truman, who stated that ‘the communications intelligence function was a national responsibility rather than one of purely military orientation.’ The collection, storage, and interpretation of communications in order to gain military intelligence was the given reason that the NSA was signed into existence by President Truman on November 4th, 1952, but it was made clear by the president at the time: what was once a purely military matter was now a national one, and it would be embodied by the National Security Agency.

Truman had reached this conclusion based on the recommendations of a presidential commission that he himself had commissioned, the Brownell Committee. While perceived military intelligence shortcomings had prompted the complete review of U.S. COMINT per the Brownell Committee, ‘setting up a mostly civilian committee…had caused great alarm within the military.’ In retrospect, such alarm at the exclusion of military oversight and perspective in the overhaul process of what was originally an intelligence gathering body created for the military seems warranted.

Ultimately, it was Kingman Douglass, the CIA’s officer for COMINT, who would provide the recommendation for the structure of what would become the NSA, establishing a critical and lasting connection between the CIA and NSA which persists today. It was curious that the president would now be taking, essentially, an order from a CIA communications intelligence officer on how to direct an investigation into military COMINT practices. Only a few years earlier, it was noted that ‘although the State Department was indeed generally unhappy with the military direction of COMINT activities, it now became alarmed about the obvious CIA ambitions to acquire direct control of all intelligence.’ By allowing Kingman Douglass to have such outsize control over the Brownell Committee’s agenda, it seems that the CIA would indeed have its way.

The Brownell Committee represented the most secretive American intelligence agency working with high-ranking, civilian government officials to investigate the intelligence gathering of the military, and the military brass were not happy about this apparent shift in the power of American communications intelligence gathering.

The government’s own report is candid. The Joint Chiefs of Staff called a meeting with the relevant governmental heads and individuals. ‘The message of the meeting was clear – the Joint Chiefs were alarmed over the activities of the Brownell Committee…they had not been consulted about the investigation prior to its conception…they had no representation on the board, and…the line of questioning indicated a possibility that the board would recommend transfer of AFSA (Armed Forces Security Agency) from the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.’

Despite these concerns, the Joint Chiefs quickly realized that the most important decisions had already been made regarding the forward-looking path of U.S. intelligence collection, and they were not in the room when it happened. Their opinions were mere formality. ‘The options of the JCS remained limited…the committee was already in operation…the JCS was obviously in no position to risk a head-on challenge with the president or the secretary of defense.’

The government report notes the swiftness with which the Brownell Committee moved, submitting a final report before the military had a chance to conduct their own review of AFSA operations. And, the Brownell report ‘confirmed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s apprehension about the AFSA were well-founded.’ The report added that the military had failed to provide necessary collaboration between intelligence branches, resulting in an ‘atmosphere of bitter inter-service rivalry.’

It’s interesting to note that the Brownell Committee’s ‘harsh words’, which were aimed at the highest ranks of the military, seem to stand contrary to the purported intelligence successes that called for the expansion of COMINT in the first place. Skeptics would note that, at this point in time, the harsher the findings of the Brownell Committee – speared by the CIA’s Kingman Douglass – the greater the case for the formation of the NSA, which the CIA would have virtually complete control over. This was the outcome that the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared, and they had ample reason. It was the outcome that would arise.

Ultimately, the Brownell Committee decided that ‘all of the interested services and agencies should have a voice in determining AFSA policies and giving it guidance.’ Cue the Joint Chiefs, who had been completely left out of the review process, rolling their eyes. Second, and this is the far more predictable conclusion of the Brownell Committee, ‘in order to strengthen the COMINT structure, the committee stressed that the AFSA should be placed under a single governmental department for administrative purposes.’

This meant the end of military control of intelligence gathering, the reason for which the concept of COMINT, communications intelligence, was deemed justifiable in the first place. COMINT would now ‘be centralized in a neutral governmental agency that would have some latitude in its operations.’

That agency would come to be known as the National Security Agency, and it would achieve realization upon President Truman’s signatory approval in 1952. This, in a nutshell, is how the NSA of 2018 was born. What would be meant by the words ‘some latitude’ would be proven with the passage of time and the further granting of powers outside of the traditional legal system, these processes bringing along with them plenty of scandal.