The Secret Story of How the NSA Began

Congress was surprised to find that a federal intelligence agency they'd scarcely heard of was bigger and more powerful than one that they'd created.

The NSA's sprawling new data-collection center in Bluffdale, Utah. (Reuters)

In 1982, James Bamford published The Puzzle Palace, an unprecedented journalistic look at the National Security Agency. This is an opportune moment to revisit it. Current readers can't help but be struck by its portents of things to come. As well, the sudden interest in the NSA following the Edward Snowden leaks has exposed a huge gulf between what surveillance state nerds know to be public information and what the general public actually knows about the secretive agency.

Perhaps an impromptu book club would narrow the gap. I'll offer brief reflections as I go, and anyone who wants to read along and comment can get the book here.

Chapter One cover's the agency's birth. It was maximally secretive from the start: President Truman created the NSA with the stroke of a pen at the bottom of a classified 7-page memorandum. Even the name was initially classified. Decades later, the memorandum that acted as the agency's charter remained secret. Reflect on that for a moment. In a representative democracy, the executive branch secretly created a new federal agency and vested it with extraordinary powers. Even the document setting forth those powers was suppressed.

Thus the chapter's most arresting excerpt:

As a result of this overwhelming passion for secrecy, few persons outside the inner circle of America's intelligence community have recognized the gradual shift in power and importance from the Central Intelligence Agency to the NSA. Thus, it was to a surprised Congress that the Senate Intelligence Committee reported: "By the budget yardstick, the most influential individual in the intelligence community is the Director of the NSA, who, including his new role as Chief of the Central Security Service, manages the largest single program contained in the national intelligence budget." 

Again, this is remarkable: in a representative democracy with a bicameral legislature, Congress was surprised to find that a federal intelligence agency they'd scarcely heard of was bigger and more powerful than one that they'd created. Even after post-Vietnam cutbacks, the NSA counted 68,203 staffers in 1978, making it bigger than all other intelligence agencies combined. And it was unlike other agencies:

Despite its size and law has ever been enacted prohibiting the NSA from engaging in any activity. There are only laws to prohibit the release of any information about the Agency. "No statute establishes the NSA," former Senate intelligence committee chairman Frank Church reported, "or defines the permissible scope of its responsibilities." The CIA, on the other hand, was established by Congress under a public law, the National Security Act of 1947, setting out that agency's legal mandate as well as the restrictions on its activities. In addition to being free of legal restrictions, the NSA has technological capabilities for eavesdropping beyond imagination.

So the agency's leading chronicler wrote in 1982.

Its capabilities are orders of magnitude bigger now, and the DNA present at its creation–huge, powerful, and unusually unaccountable–continues to shape it today.