A Short History of the NSA

In the early 20th century, the US military faced a new challenge with the increased use of radio technology for military operations. Cryptology, the study of codes and how to crack them, emerged as an important tool for military intelligence. It was for this reason that during World War I, the US Army created [PDF] the Cipher Bureau within the Military Intelligence Division to assist with radio intelligence. The bureau was disbanded in 1929, and remained dormant until World War II. It was re-established as the core of the Signal Security Agency, and played a key role in intelligence gathering during the war.

The US military and intelligence agencies transformed in the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, the National Security Act passed [PDF] and created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council to combat new threats to American security. In 1949, the Armed Forces Security Agency was created within the Department of Defense for the purposes of organizing electronic communication throughout civilian agencies. After a few short years of operation, however, the effectiveness of AFSA came under scrutiny in the Brownell Report. In order to combat the ineffectiveness of the AFSA, President Harry Truman issued [PDF] a memo in 1952 that transformed the AFSA into the National Security Agency. According to Truman's memo, the NSA was "to provide an effective, unified organization and control of the communications intelligence activities of the United States conducted against foreign governments."

The Cold War era presented new threats and new opportunities for the NSA to increase intelligence gathering operations. The NSA and its predecessor managed to decipher Soviet codes for a brief period in the late 1940's, until a mole notified the Soviets about the NSA activity. Soviet codes would not be successfully deciphered again until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. China became another target of NSA activity in 1964, when the Agency deciphered communications regarding the impending detonation of China's first nuclear weapon. The NSA was also active in the Middle East. The USS Liberty was accidentally attacked [PDF] by Israelis in a joint air and sea assault on June 8, 1967 while on a mission to gather intelligence. A similar incident occurred in January 1968, when North Korean forces captured [PDF] the USS Pueblo during an intel gathering mission off the North Korean coast. Despite drawbacks, by 1970 the NSA had achieved success with deciphering foreign communications in numerous theatres.

The Agency remained relatively unknown to the American public. But during the course of a 1975 US Senate investigation, many Americans learned that not only did the NSA exist, but that it monitored Americans. The Director of the NSA testified that the Agency had monitored the phone calls of anti-war Americans to discover connections to suspected foreign criminals. Because the NSA had some success, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in 1978. The Act authorized the creation of secret FISA courts to issue warrants for wiretaps when requested.

The mission of the NSA changed dramatically in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush ordered the use of warrantless wiretaps on American citizens in contact with foreign persons for information about potential terrorist attacks. President Barack Obama has allowed the NSA to continue gathering information about Americans under the Bush-era policies.


PRISM is the code name given to a top-secret surveillance program run by the NSA. PRISM was established to gather information through a variety of digital means, mainly by targeting foreign individuals through internet-based organizations. The full extent of what exactly PRISM does is not entirely known, although a series of PowerPoint slides leaked to the Washington Post and Guardian in early June 2013 provides a basic understanding. President Barack Obama and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have both publicly confirmed the existence of such a surveillance program, though both have implied that it is narrowly tailored and constitutional.

The program allegedly involves cooperation between the NSA and nine organizations: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, Youtube, Skype, AOL and Apple. Representatives from many of these organizations, however, have denied compliance with any government surveillance efforts.

The slides indicate that the FBI gleans a variety of digital information on foreign individuals and entities, and then forwards it to the NSA to be scrutinized. In April 2013, the NSA allegedly had some 117,675 targets of surveillance in PRISM's database. Though the slides imply that efforts are made to weed out American citizens, there is no indication how PRISM guarantees that none are targeted.

PRISM's legality is based upon the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).


The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 permits electronic and physical monitoring to assess threats and maintain US safety. FISA created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which grants surveillance warrants.

Concerned with authorization of wiretaps against Americans, a Federal judge resigned in December 2005. In February 2006, House Republicans expressed interest in updating FISA to reflect contemporary technology. In July 2006, the legal community debated the merits of warrantless eavesdropping given terrorist threats.

The Bush Administration called for strengthening FISA. The CIA Director claimed, in July 2006, that court orders were not helpful against terrorists. In January 2007, the Attorney General agreed to submit all domestic surveillance requests to FISC for approval, but later refused to release documents to the public. The Attorney General later relented after pushback from the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

The US Director of National Intelligence, in April 2007, proposed several suggested amendments to FISA, including immunity for telecommunications firms that cooperated with government surveillance requests. The Bush Administration endorsed those amendments later that month.

In August 2007, the US Senate and the US House of Representatives passed the Protect America Act of 2007, which granted expanded surveillance powers to the President while Congress discussed FISA amendments.
The US Director of National Intelligence and the Bush Administration sought to make the expanded changes permanent in September 2008. When Congress and the President failed to to agree on permanent FISA expansions, President Bush signed a 15-day extension to the act in January 2008.

At the request of President Bush, the Senate passed FISA amendments, including telecom immunity, in February 2008 and the House followed in June 2008.

However, the Senate and House failed to reach a compromise bill by July 2008. President Bush announced that he would veto any FISA amendments that did not contain telecom immunity. FISA amendments that met the administration's approval passed later that month.

In an August 2008 ruling, FISC held that the Federal government acted within Constitutional boundaries when it required telecommunications companies to comply with warrantless surveillance requests. The FISA amendments granting telecom immunity were upheld by a federal court in December 2011.

The House passed the Reauthorization Act of 2012 in September 2012, extending the FISA amendments, and the Senate followed in December 2012.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA who leaked the NSA Power Point slides to the Washington Post and The Guardian, has been very open with the media regarding his background, education, work history and motives surrounding his leaking of NSA information. Snowden was born in Elizabeth, North Carolina in June of 1983. His parents were Lonnie Snowden, an officer in the US Coast Guard, and Wendy Snowden, a clerk for a Maryland federal court. Snowden did not graduate high school due to prolonged illnesses, but went on to obtain his GED and take college-level classes relating to computers.

Snowden enlisted in the US Army Reserves after completing his GED. This career did not last long for Snowden as he was discharged following a training exercise during which he broke both of his legs. A relatively short time after that, Snowden was employed by the CIA as an Information Technology security officer, the NSA as a security guard, and finally as a private contractor for many large companies, including Dell and Booz Allen.

While working for Booz Allen, Snowden was assigned to NSA offices in both Japan and Hawaii, where he had access to some of the NSA's highly guarded information, which became the information that Snowden leaked in 2013. The most cited reason given by Snowden regarding his motive for the leak of information about PRISM and other NSA surveillance programs is that the public has a right to know what thea government is doing.

Following the leak, Snowden abruptly took leave from Booz Allen (citing needs for medical treatment) and left his girlfriend behind in Hawaii. Snowden then traveled to Hong Kong, and began the process of seeking political asylum in several countries. Snowden left Hong Kong and began working with Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, and a handler, Sarah Harrison, to submit requests for political asylum in several different countries.

In the US, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. The US Army has been blocking access to The Guardian, which published the NSA information regarding surveillance programs and personnel locations in June of 2013.


7/16/2013: Nineteen organizations file suit against the NSA for violation of their First Amendment right of association.

6/23/2013: Edward Snowden leaves Hong Kong for Moscow after Hong Kong denies a US request for extradition.

6/21/2013: Edward Snowden is charged with espionage in the US

6/11/2013: ACLU files suit against the NSA for its collection of phone information.

6/9/2013: The Guardian releases information about "Boundless Informant," the NSA program designed to
collect and map the data collected by the agency.

6/9/2013: Edward Snowden reveals himself as the informant.

6/62013: The Washington Post publishes story about the PRISM program.

6/5/2013: The Guardian releases classified FISC order detailing surveillance of Verizon Wireless calls.


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