Big Brother Is Listening

The NSA has the ability to eavesdrop on your communications—landlines, cell phones, e-mails, BlackBerry messages, Internet searches, and more—with ease. What happens when the technology of espionage outstrips the law’s ability to protect ordinary citizens from it?

The NSA won’t divulge how many people it employs, but it is likely that more than 38,000 worldwide now work for the agency. Most of them are at Fort Meade. Nicknamed Crypto City, hidden from public view, and located halfway between Washington and Baltimore, the NSA’s own company town comprises more than fifty buildings—offices, warehouses, factories, laboratories, and a few barracks. Tens of thousands of people work there in absolute secrecy, and most never tell their spouses exactly what they do. Crypto City also houses the nation’s largest collection of powerful computers, advanced mathematicians, and skilled language experts.

The NSA maintains a very close and very confidential relationship with key executives in the telecommunications industry through their membership on the NSA’s advisory board. Created shortly after the agency’s formation, the board was intended to pull together a panel of science wizards from universities, corporate research labs, and think tanks to advise the agency. They keep the agency abreast of the industry’s plans and give NSA engineers a critical head start in finding ways to penetrate technologies still in the development phase.

One of the NSA’s strategies is to hire people away from the companies that make the critical components for telecommunications systems. Although it’s sometimes difficult for the agency to keep up with the tech sector’s pay scale, for many people the chance to deal with the ultimate in cutting-edge technology and aid national security makes working for the NSA irresistible. With the help of such workers, the agency reverse-engineers communication system components. For example, among the most crucial pieces of the Internet infrastructure are routers made by Cisco. “Virtually all Internet traffic,” says one of the company’s television ads, “travels across the systems of one company: Cisco Systems.” For the NSA, this is an opportunity. In 1999, Terry Thompson, then the NSA deputy director for services, said, “[Y]ou can see down the road two or three or five years and say, ‘Well, I only need this person to do reverse-engineering on Cisco routers (that’s a good example) for about three or five years, because I see Cisco going away as a key manufacturer for routers and so I don’t need that expertise. But I really need somebody today and for the next couple of years who knows Cisco routers inside and out and can help me understand how they’re being used in target networks.’”

The Temptations of Secrecy

The National Security Agency was born in absolute secrecy. Unlike the CIA, which was created publicly by a congressional act, the NSA was brought to life by a top-secret memorandum signed by President Truman in 1952, consolidating the country’s various military sigint operations into a single agency. Even its name was secret, and only a few members of Congress were informed of its existence—and they received no information about some of its most important activities. Such secrecy has lent itself to abuse.

During the Vietnam War, for instance, the agency was heavily involved in spying on the domestic opposition to the government. Many of the Americans on the watch lists of that era were there solely for having protested against the war. Among the names in the NSA’s supercomputers were those of the folk singer Joan Baez, the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, the actress Jane Fonda, the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and the newspaper editor David Kahn, whose standard history of cryptology, The Codebreakers, contained information the NSA viewed as classified. Even so much as writing about the NSA could land a person a place on a watch list. The NSA, on behalf of the FBI, was also targeting religious groups. “When J. Edgar Hoover gives you a requirement for complete surveillance of all Quakers in the United States,” recalled Frank Raven, a former senior NSA official, “and when Richard M. Nixon is a Quaker and he’s the president of the United States, it gets pretty funny.”

Of course, such abuses are hardly the exclusive province of the NSA; history has repeatedly shown that simply having the ability to eavesdrop brings with it the temptation to use that ability—whatever the legal barriers against that use may be. For instance, during World War I, the government read and censored thousands of telegrams—the e-mail of the day—sent hourly by telegraph companies. Though the end of the war brought with it a reversion to the Radio Act of 1912, which guaranteed the secrecy of communications, the State and War Departments nevertheless joined together in May of 1919 to create America’s first civilian eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, nicknamed the Black Chamber. By arrangement, messengers visited the telegraph companies each morning and took bundles of hard-copy telegrams to the agency’s offices across town. These copies were returned before the close of business that day.

A similar tale followed the end of World War II. In August of 1945, President Truman ordered an end to censorship. That left the Signal Security Agency (the military successor to the Black Chamber, which was shut down in 1929) without its raw intelligence—the telegrams provided by the telegraph companies. The director of the SSA sought access to cable traffic through a secret arrangement with the heads of the three major telegraph companies. The companies agreed to turn all telegrams over to the SSA, under a plan code-named Operation Shamrock. It ran until the government’s domestic spying programs were publicly revealed, in the mid-1970s. The discovery of such abuses in the wake of the Watergate scandal led Congress to create select committees to conduct extensive investigations into the government’s domestic spying programs: their origin, extent, and effect on the public. The shocking findings turned up by the Church Committee finally led to the formation of permanent Senate and House intelligence committees, whose primary responsibility was to protect the public from future privacy abuses. They were to be the FISA court’s partner in providing checks and balances to the ever-expanding U.S. intelligence agencies. But it remains very much an open question whether these checks are up to the task at hand.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Today, the NSA has access to more information than ever before. People express their most intimate thoughts in e-mails, send their tax returns over the Internet, satisfy their curiosity and desires with Google searches, let their hair down in chat rooms, discuss every event over cell phones, make appointments with their BlackBerrys, and do business by computer in WiFi hot spots.

Presented by

James Bamford is the author of two books on the NSA, The Puzzle Palace and its sequel, Body of Secrets. His most recent book is A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. In January he joined the American Civil Liberties Union in its suit asking the courts to end NSA’s warrantless spying.

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