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From Codebreaking to Spying On Its Own Citizens: Brief History of the National Security Agency

June 15, 2013

Just as the United States had successfully penetrated secret Soviet communications networks, so the Russians had secretly penetrated the Army Security Agency and later the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), predecessor of the National Security Agency. Although he was never formally charged, the suspect was Russian linguist, William Weisband probably because he was born to Russian parents in Egypt in 1908 and we must remember that during World War II, the United States looked at anyone of German, Russian, Japanese or Chinese dissent with suspicion and contempt. Weisband emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and became a U.S. citizen in 1938. Four years later he joined the Signal Security Agency and was assigned the Sigint activities in North Africa and Italy, before returning to Arlington Hall and joining its Russian Section. Sigint was short for “signals intelligence” which was a reference to the codebreaking organizations in the Army, Navy and Air Force which later was combine to form the Armed Forces Security Agency, AFSA. Most personnel concentrated on traffic analysis, the examination of the message’s “external indicators,” such as its date and “to” and “from” lines.

The ASFA began beefing up its ranks after the North Korean Army had captured Seoul and continued to steamroll south, seeking to unify the peninsula under the flag of communism. The number of intercept positions targeting North Korean traffic were transmitted back to AFSA headquarters in Washington, arriving ten to twelve hours after intercept.

Beginning in early summer 1950, AFSA began developing intelligence on Chinese troops in the Yalu River. By September, AFSA had identified six field armies in Manchuria, near the Korean border, and ferries on the Yalu River were being reserved for military use. On October 21, AFSA issued a Sigint report stating that twenty troop trains were heading toward Manchuria from Shanghai. Then, on November 7, AFSA intercepted a radio-telephone call made by an East European in Beijing. AFSA reports demonstrated clearly that the Chinese were making extensive preparations for war.

But despite the many Sigint clues, U.S. and South Korean forces were caught by surprise. Early on the bitter-cold morning of November26, with trumpets braying, thirty Chinese divisions surged across the North Korean border and forced U.S. and South Korean armies to make a precipitous retreat southward, costing the lives of many North American soldiers. It seems that critical high-level communication between and among the Chinese and North Koreans was beyond the AFSA codebreakers’ reach.

So bad was the success rate of the AFSA that in December 1951 the director of the CIA, Walter Bedell Smith, brought the problem to the attention of the National Security Council. That same month President Truman ordered an investigation into the AFSA. George Abbot Brownell, a fifty-three year-old New York attorney and former special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force was appointed to head the probe of the AFSA. Over six months, Brownell and his committee of distinguished citizens took AFSA apart and put it together again. By June 13, 1952, Brownell had a blueprint for a strong, centralized new agency with a director more akin to a czar than to the wrestling referee the post had previously resembled. Four months later, on October 24, Truman issued a highly secret order scrapping AFSA and creating in its place a new agency to be largely hidden from Congress, the public, and the world. Early on the morning of November 4, as Truman was leaving a voting booth in Independence, Missouri, the National Security Agency came to life.

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