5 Historic Controversies Involving the NSA

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For years, the National Security Agency remained shrouded in secrecy, with the U.S. government officially denying its very existence. Created by President Harry Truman in late 1952, the NSA remained such a mystery that many in Washington joked that the NSA stood for “No Such Agency.” Today, of course, the intelligence agency has become a lightning rod for controversy, as politicians, intelligence officials, civil libertarians and the public debate the issue of surveillance in the United States. But the current situation involving Edward Snowden and the PRISM data-collection program is not the first time the NSA has endured tough scrutiny in its 61-year history.


5. Watergate Fallout Prompts Investigation of NSA, Other Agencies

The Church Committee investigated the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies in the 1970s.

The National Security Operations Center Floor in 2012.

This may surprise or even offend some people, but government surveillance of individuals within the United States is nothing new. In 1919, the NSA’s predecessor, an Army intelligence unit nicknamed the “Black Chamber,” convinced Western Union to let it monitor telegraph traffic. The Army used the surveillance to keep tabs on foreign diplomats and agents abroad and operating in the U.S. Surveillance within the U.S. increased through the years as technology enabled more covert sniffing. By the 1970s, radio and telephone communications were routinely intercepted. Given the allegations of illegal domestic surveillance in the post-Watergate era, the U.S. Senate formed the Church Committee in 1975 to investigate possible abuses by the NSA as well as the CIA, FBI and IRS. During the nine-month investigation, Idaho senator and committee chair Frank Church — himself a one-time military intelligence officer — became dismayed by the NSA’s tremendous surveillance capacity. “That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people,” the New York Times quoted Church as saying in 1975, “and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.” Yet in a foreshadowing of the 2013 NSA PRISM controversy, other Americans were not bothered by the revelations, and in fact called the Church Committee’s investigation treasonous for exposing the United States’ intelligence-gathering capabilities.


4. NSA Accused of Altering Data Encryption Development

The NSA has tens of thousands of employees.

The National Security Agency headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland.

The Data Encryption Standard (DES) is a type of algorithm developed by IBM in the early 1970s to encrypt sensitive electronic data. By the late 1970s, DES had become the worldwide standard for encryption. Some civilian cryptologists at the time alleged that the NSA had played an improper role in developing the algorithm, by convincing IBM to shorten the key, making it possible for the NSA to decipher messages. A U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee investigation found that the NSA had assured IBM that the shorter key would be secure, but the agency did not “tamper” with the design of the algorithm. By the way, the DES algorithm standard has been rendered obsolete in recent years by more advanced encryption methods.


3. NSA Suspected of Monitoring Communications Worldwide

NSA officials have never confirmed the existence of the Echelon program.

Radomes at Menwith Hill in England, believed to be part of the NSA’s ECHELON network; Tom Blackwell

The 1990s were a period of transition for the NSA. Even though the Cold War had ended, the agency faced challenges as the Internet, e-mail and cell phones and satellite phones presented new ways for foreign agents and governments to communicate. But new technologies offered greater opportunities for electronic eavesdropping, as well. In 1999, the BBC reported a story it said sounded like science fiction. The BBC claimed that the NSA, along with partner agencies in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, operated a worldwide surveillance network capable of intercepting every international phone call, fax and email. Further news reports suggested listening posts around the world routinely intercepted communications, used supercomputers to analyze them for certain keywords, then flagged suspicious transmissions for further analysis at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. To this day, the U.S. and Great Britain have denied the existence of the network — popularly known as ECHELON — although officials in Australia and New Zealand have given confirmation.

Many people were appalled to learn of the NSA’s worldwide eavesdropping, but others pointed to the potential benefits; being able to intercept satellite phone calls, for example, became an effective way to track potential al-Qaeda operations. However, there were also allegations that the U.S. had sifted through certain information and used it for industrial espionage. Other potential abuses arose through the years; a former Canadian intelligence agent told 60 Minutes in 2009 that one woman earned scrutiny as a possible terrorist because she mentioned on the phone that her son had “bombed” in his school play.


2. President George W. Bush Approves Warrantless Surveillance

President George W. Bush approved Warrantless Wiretapping under the Patriot Act.

An NSA map showing countries least subjected to surveillance (green) to those with high levels of surveillance (red).

This one is so fresh from the headlines it needs little introduction. But in the wake of 9/11, under the auspices of the Patriot Act, President George W. Bush authorized the NSA to intercept international communications entering or leaving the U.S., if one of the parties were suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. And they could do this without a warrant from the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has jurisdiction in this area. This so-called “warrantless wiretapping” remained a secret until a December 2005 series of stories in the New York Times. The controversy grew when the government admitted telecom companies had cooperated in wiretapping activities. Bush did not reauthorize the program and it lapsed in early 2007, only to have Congress a year later enact expanded wiretapping powers under an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A key provision: telecom and tech companies that aided the government in data collection and wiretapping were granted immunity from any liability.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to end the warrantless surveillance. “Under an Obama presidency, Americans will be able to leave behind the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and ‘wiretaps without warrants,’” he said. Yet to the dismay of many, President Obama has not challenged the program. Neither has Congress, as both the House and the Senate voted by three-fourths majorities in late 2012 to extend FISA for five years. Critics had hoped to, if not limit the collection of data, at least make the process more transparent (What information is the government collecting? What is it doing with it?)


1. PRISM Controversy Again Brings NSA Under Scrutiny

A CNN poll found 66 percent of Americans approve of the NSA's data collection efforts.

Diagram illustrating PRISM data collection; National Security Agency

It is ironic that the most secretive intelligence agency in the United States government could not prevent some of its most valuable secrets from walking out of a facility in Hawaii in the pocket of a lowly private contractor, Edward Snowden. Whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor depends upon your point of view. But given the previous disclosures about the NSA through the years, many people weren’t surprised by news of the NSA’s PRISM data-collection program, although some were dismayed by the active cooperation of some of the United States largest tech companies, including Google, Apple and Facebook. Although thousands have protested against the NSA and PRISM around the country, a mid-June CNN/ORC poll found that 66 percent of Americans surveyed supported the NSA’s collection of data from Internet companies. In defending the program, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the NSA’s director, noted that the agency’s data-gathering program had helped prevent more than 50 potential terrorist acts around the world — including 10 in the U.S. — in recent years. The issue defies all political boundaries, as it appears to be the exceedingly rare political debate in the U.S. where Democrats and Republicans have joined forces on both sides.

Whether Snowden is captured and tried for his crimes or spends his life in an authoritarian backwater like Venezuela remains to be seen. But the world will continue to be a dangerous place and the U.S. and other governments will spy on each other in the name of national security. And the debate surrounding the NSA’s methods and Americans’ concerns about balancing privacy versus security will continue.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.