Want to understand how an organism really works? Take a look at its plumbing. Figure out where the pipes fit together. That's the approach I take to national security and that's the spirit behind this look at the structure of one of the most important institutions in U.S. intelligence: the National Security Agency.
Some intelligence organizations, such as the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, have declassified most of their organizational charts. The NRO develops, launches and controls spy satellites; the NGA analyzes and distribute imagery. For these agencies, the plumbing matters less than what flows through the pipes, which is highly classified.
But the NSA, with its triple mission -- break codes, secure data, collect signals intelligence -- has not made its structure public. Even by the standards of U.S. intelligence agencies whose existence was declassified much later, the NSA's organization chart is largely impermeable to outsiders. The best of its chroniclers, like Jeff Richelson, James Bamford, Bill Arkin and Matthew Aid, have managed to collect bits and pieces of open source data, but many senior intelligence officials who don't work for NSA still have only a vague idea of what signals intelligence collection entails, and even fewer understand the NSA bureaucracy. The map to the NSA's inner sanctum is generally given only to a select few members of Congress and their staff.
In the interests of transparency and in an effort to establish a basis for continued public exploration of the world of intelligence, I've cobbled together a rough and incomplete but still rather comprehensive organizational chart of the agency's operational, analytical, research and technology directorates. With only a few exceptions, the information does not come from inside sources. It builds on the work of the researchers mentioned above and it represents the culmination of a lot of time spent cross-checking government documents and LinkedIn profiles, job postings and agency announcements.
The NSA prefers not to discuss how it works and what it does. Defense One offered NSA the opportunity to review the organization chart and address any national security concerns. "We won't fact check a chart that appears to be based largely on speculation," the agency replied through a spokesperson.
Undoubtedly, some of what follows is incomplete and I hope knowledgeable readers will set me straight.
Click through the image below to enter a mind map in which readers can explore the far-reaching branches of NSA's organizational structure:
It has five operational directorates, several administrative directorates and three large operational centers. Each is headed by an associate director, and each associate director has a technical director. They report to the executive director, who reports to the deputy director, who reports to the DIRNSA, which is NSA-speak for Director of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander. He's also the commander of the Defense Department's U.S. Cyber Command and the Central Security Service, the military signals and cyber intelligence units that contribute personnel to the NSA. The CSS is essentially the NSA.
The NSA's Foreign Affairs Directorate interacts with foreign intelligence services, counterintelligence centers and the UK/USA and FIVE EYES exchanges, an alliance of intelligence operations between the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that dates back to 1946. It also includes the Office of Export Control Policy.
The Information Assurance Directorate is the center of NSA's cyber warfare and defense program offices. It's also responsible for generating the codes that the U.S. uses.
The Signals Intelligence Directorate is the largest functional directorate. It has three subdivisions. One helps determine the requirements of what the NSA calls its customers -- other agencies, the president, the military. The agency's main analytical centers live here, too. The super-secret work of SIGINT collecting and offensive cyber warfare is the responsibility of S3, with its many bland sounding and compartmentalized branches.
The Research Directorate figures out how to break codes and how to best penetrate the telecom infrastructure of tomorrow. The Technical Directorate puts everything together. It's responsible for the infrastructure for everything NSA does.
Two other directorates are responsible for training and human resources and for acquisition and procurement.