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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): The National Security Agency: Organization and Operations, 1945-2009

About this Collection

The National Security Agency: Organization and Operations, 1945-2009, is a uniquely detailed collection of records documenting the history, mission, and intelligence collection and analytic operations of America's largest and most secretive intelligence agency, the National Security Agency (NSA) and its predecessor organizations.

Research Value of the Collection

Incorporating the latest materials declassified and released by the U.S. government, this document set reveals for the first time the vast breadth and scope of the intelligence gathering activities of NSA and its predecessor organizations, and details the critically important role that NSA has played in virtually every conflict and international crisis that the United States has faced since the end of World War II.

Until the mid-1990s, it was virtually impossible to obtain any meaningful documentary materials concerning NSA because of the nearly impenetrable shroud of secrecy that historically has covered the agency's operations. Public Law 86-36 allowed the agency to effectively prevent the release of virtually any information to the public about its organization and operations. At the height of the Cold War, agency officials delighted in telling outsiders that NSA's initials stood for "No Such Agency" or "Never Say Anything."

But with the public release in 1995 of the first documents relating to NSA's Venona code-breaking efforts against Soviet codes, the veil of secrecy began slowly but surely to dissipate. Thanks in large part to the efforts of a small number of senior NSA officials with a deep and abiding interest in history, the release of historically significant documents about NSA gathered steam during the late 1990s. At the same time, the agency's rules about releasing documents to FOIA requestors concerning its operations were dramatically relaxed. And finally, in the late 1990s the CIA began declassifying and releasing large numbers of intelligence reports and studies that included intelligence formation derived from SIGINT reporting coming from NSA. It is this material, located in the CREST computer database at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, that forms the core of the NSA document collection.

 

The majority of the documents comprising this collection cover NSA's activities during the Cold War Years (1945-1989), such as the role played by SIGINT during the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as during a host of international crises. Included in this set are a series of formerly highly classified NSA intelligence reports covering key events during the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incidents, and the Soviet and Cuban military intervention in Angola in 1974-1975. Also contained in the collection are a series of previously classified internal NSA documents, including but not limited to organization manuals and staff studies concerning the effectiveness of NSA's SIGINT collection efforts, and once-classified internal newsletters.

Of particular interest to researchers are the sizeable number of intelligence estimates, studies, reports and memoranda derived from SIGINT that were produced by the CIA and other components of the U.S. intelligence community, most written at the Top Secret Codeword level, on a wide range of topics affecting the U.S. government and military. Many of these reports cover military subjects, such as the order of battle of the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, North Vietnamese and North Korean militaries, warnings of imminent enemy offensives in Korea and Vietnam, indicators appearing in SIGINT of enemy troop movements, details of new Soviet weapons systems, and the like. Other materials concern diplomatic or economic subjects, such as details of what foreign government leaders were saying to one another, as well as data concerning foreign trade, domestic consumer goods policies, gold production, merchant shipping movements and civilian airliner flights, weapons production, shipbuilding, petroleum and other strategic commodities shipments, and civil defense activities, all of which were derived from SIGINT reporting from NSA.

Examined in their entirety, these intelligence estimates, studies, reports and memoranda clearly indicate that the U.S. intelligence community was heavily dependent on NSA for much of the intelligence information it had at its disposal during the Cold War, particularly against the U.S. intelligence community's highest priority targets - the USSR, the Peoples Republic of China, Cuba, North Vietnam and North Korea. It would also seem that SIGINT's importance has not diminished in the post-Cold War world. NSA's intelligence reporting has accounted for much of what is known about the activities of al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations. And SIGINT has played an understated, albeit very important role in the still ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The documents contained in this collection permit researchers to examine the role played by intelligence, especially SIGINT, in the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy and defense strategies; the importance of SIGINT to American policymakers and senior military commanders during world crises and contingency operations; the critically important role played by SIGINT on the battlefield, especially during the Korean and Vietnam wars, when virtually all major operations were driven to one degree or another by SIGINT; and the all-important question of the relative value of the intelligence information provided by NSA given its high cost. This document set will prove valuable to a wide range of researchers, including those who focus on topics such as:

  • General intelligence policy and management issues, such as the importance of the near-continuous internecine warfare between NSA and the CIA, as well as other key components of the U.S. intelligence community during the Cold War. The inability or unwillingness of NSA to work harmoniously with the rest of the U.S. intelligence community was to have long-lasting ramifications. The 9/11 Commission identified the failure of the different agencies comprising the intelligence community to cooperate as one of the key factors in the failure of U.S. intelligence to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • The overall performance of the U.S. intelligence community during the Cold War on a number of critically important intelligence issues in which SIGINT played a vital role, such as the so-called "Bomber Gap" of the mid-1950s and the "Missile Gap" of the early 1960s. In the post-Cold War era, there are still unresolved issues concerning NSA's intelligence collection activities leading up to the 9/11 attacks, and its deficient performance against the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
  • The impact of SIGINT on the planning and execution of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.
  • The overall importance of SIGINT reporting emanating from NSA on the conduct of U.S. military operations since World War II.
  • The still evolving role of SIGINT in the ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its diminishing utility in the U.S. government's global counterterrorist efforts against al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.

1945-1950

1960-1970

1990-2009

Cuba: 1960-63

North Korea: 1950-68