The Secret Sentry Declassified

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 278

Linked with the National Security Agency NSA.

Published on NSA, by Matthew Aid, June 19, 2009 – Declassified Documents Reveal the Inner Workings and Intelligence Gathering Operations of the National Security Agency.

Washington, D.C., June 19, 2009 – Declassified documents confirm that prior to the launch of the first spy satellites into orbit by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in the early 1960s, the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collected by the National Security Agency and its predecessor organizations was virtually the only viable means of gathering intelligence information about what was going on inside the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and other communist nations.  Yet, for the most part, the NSA and its foreign partners could collect only bits and pieces of huge numbers of low-level, uncoded, plaintext messages, according to Archive visiting fellow, Matthew M. Aid, who today posted a collection of declassified documents obtained for his new book The Secret Sentry on the Archive’s Web site: 

  • The Secret Sentry discloses that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was far from the first time when U.S. government officials, including senior military commanders and the White House, “cherry picked” intelligence information to fit preconceived notions or policies and ignored intelligence which ran contrary to their expectations. The Secret Sentry and the documents posted today show that widespread manipulation of intelligence also occurred during the Korean and Vietnam Wars for example, when Washington ignored intelligence on Chinese intervention in Korea, resulting in catastrophic consequences. [See Document 9 and Document 21]
  • The Secret Sentry also details how since the end of World War II, constant changes in computer, telecommunications, and communications security technologies have been the most important determinants of NSA’s ability to produce intelligence. NSA has oftentimes found itself behind the curve in terms of its ability or willingness to adapt to technological changes, with delays and bureaucratic inertia causing immense harm to the agency’s ability to perform its mission. [See Document 16, for example]. As a result, during the past four decades NSA has dramatically increased the amount of the raw material that it collects, even while it has produced less and less intelligence information. According to Matthew Aid’s informed sources, during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, NSA processed, analyzed, and reported approximately 20 percent of the communications traffic it intercepted. Today, that number has dropped to less than 1 percent.  For example, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, NSA was unable to process 60 percent of the Iraqi messages it intercepted, while the U.S. military SIGINT units participating in the invasion processed less than 2 percent of the Iraqi military communications traffic that they intercepted.

Today’s posting of 24 documents consists of a selection of reports and memoranda prepared by NSA officials concerning the role played by Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) in selected military conflicts and crises, a number of classified internal histories written by NSA historians on key events in the agency’s past, and a selection of declassified articles from NSA internal journals … (full long text).

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