Though I know the big news today is Obama’s announcement and introduction of his national security team, I would like to first discuss a story that’s been sitting in my ‘post queue’ for quite some time, the releasing of US National Security Agency (NSA) archives, and I will get to the new Obama team either later today or tomorrow.
In response to a declassification request by the National Security Archive, the NSA has declassified large portions of a four-part, top secret study, American Cryptology during the Cold War. The declassified information was put in the hands of NSA historian Thomas Johnson, who then researched and published a large report of his findings. According to Matthew Aid, a National Security Archive visiting fellow and author of the forthcoming The Secret Sentry: The Top Secret History of the National Security Agency, the three parts released so far provide a ‘frank assessment of the history of the Agency and its forerunners, warts-and-all.’
The released documents discuss the beginning signal intelligence (SIGNIT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) challenges for the organizations, especially in regard to breaking Soviet codes. Johnson’s report goes over the Agency’s greatest successes (predicting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and some of its key failures (the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba). Here is a list of some of the more interesting findings released:
- After the end of World War II, with Soviet codes still unbreakable, the U.S. Army and Navy SIGINT organizations had relatively little to listen to. Johnson’s history reveals that as of mid-1946, the most productive source available to the U.S. Army SIGINT organization was French communications, which accounted for half of the finished reporting going to intelligence consumers in Washington.
- SIGINT coverage of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China by the Air Force Security Agency (an NSA predecessor) during the early 1950s was so bad that a senior CIA official referred to this period as “the dark ages for communications intelligence.”
- The discovery of high-level Soviet spies operating inside the Australian government in 1947 led the U.S. to cut off Australian access to classified U.S. government information, which was not resumed until two years later in 1949. Full SIGINT cooperation with Australia did not resume until 1953.
- Relations between senior officials at the CIA and NSA were at times so bad that they impeded cooperation between the two agencies. The CIA deliberately cut NSA out of the famous Berlin Tunnel operation (1954-1956), with NSA’s director, General Ralph Canine, finding out about the operation from the New York Times after the Soviets discovered the Tunnel in April 1956.
- By the early 1960s, the NSA was beginning to encounter information overload as more and more intercepted messages were stored in huge warehouses of magnetic tapes. According to Johnson, “the volume of unprocessed … tape was becoming difficult to manage technically and was embarrassing politically.”
Though I know many will still desire a greater amount of transparency from American intelligence groups like the NSA and the CIA, there are obvious reasons why certain items need to be kept hidden for lengthy periods of time. I am encouraged at this seemingly unfiltered release of previously classified Cold War material and look forward to more in the future. Many will also be interested to know more about the NSA’s current role in domestic wire tapping, but I doubt any information about this will be released anytime soon. For those interested in reading more about the history and current work of the NSA, I recommend James Bamford’s ‘The Puzzle Palace,’ ‘A Pretext for War’, and his forthcoming ‘The Shadow Factory.’
(Photo Source: The National Security Archive)