Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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National Security Agency

U.S. intelligence-gathering agency. Headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, the National Security Agency (NSA) is the highly secretive component of the U.S. intelligence community and specializes in activities related to cryptography and signals intelligence (SIGINT). Established on 4 November 1952 by President Harry S. Truman in the wake of a series of intelligence lapses regarding the Korean War, the NSA served as the U.S. government's primary technical intelligence-collection organization throughout the Cold War.

The United States was renowned for its success in the realm of SIGINT (the gathering and analysis of intercepted voice communications intelligence, or COMINT) and electromagnetic radiation (electronic intelligence, or ELINT) during World War II. Yet the Americans entered the early years of the Cold War with a disorganized SIGINT apparatus loosely coordinated among the independent and oftentimes redundant cryptologic agencies of the army, navy, and air force. In line with the centralizing theme of the 1947 National Security Act, Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson established the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) in 1949 to streamline SIGINT collection. Plagued by the weaknesses of limited jurisdiction and ill-defined authority, however, deficiencies in AFSA's relationship with the service agencies were made readily apparent prior to and during the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950.

At the urging of President Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson appointed New York attorney George Abbott Brownell to head a probe investigating AFSA's failings. The resultant "Brownell Committee Report" advocated replacing AFSA with a centralized national agency capable of unifying all U.S. SIGINT efforts. Fully agreeing with this recommendation, within months President Truman dissolved the AFSA and quietly signed into law the NSA.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the NSA established itself as a key intelligence player in virtually all major Cold War political and military conflicts. In 1953 the NSA began overflights of Soviet airspace using converted B-47 Stratojets equipped with various receivers capable of intercepting Soviet air defense radar signals. By intentionally triggering the activation of the Soviet air defense radar system, the B-47s could pinpoint and map the locations of Soviet systems on the ground, providing crucial information for U.S. pilots. By the late 1950s, the Stratojets had been replaced by the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance jet, and overflights to collect Soviet SIGINT data continued, focusing on radar emissions and telemetry information related to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches. The overflight program ended suddenly amid an international crisis when, on 1 May 1960, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the central Soviet city of Sverdlovsk. Initially disavowing any knowledge of the overflight program, the Eisenhower administration was forced to concede that it had ordered the flights when faced with irrefutable evidence presented by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Although direct flights over Soviet airspace were terminated in the wake of the Powers controversy, the NSA maintained a robust collection effort utilizing ground, air, sea, and space-based antennas and sensors to monitor the transmissions of the Eastern bloc as well as nonaligned and allied nations. In an often contentious relationship with the U.S. Navy, NSA listening posts were established on both adapted warships such as the Liberty and on smaller dedicated collection platforms such as the Pueblo to loiter in international waters collecting transmissions, while NSA-directed submarines tapped into undersea communication cables. Ground stations concentrating on intercepting shortwave and very high frequency (VHF) emissions were established in strategically important locations around the globe ranging from Ellesmere Island in the upper reaches of the Arctic Circle to Ayios Nikolaos in Cyprus, to Field Station Berlin in West Berlin, to Misawa Air Force Base in Japan. After the undisclosed launch of the first SIGINT satellite in June 1960, the NSA also began to establish an array of ground-based relay centers in remote locations on the periphery of the Soviet Union.

By the late 1970s the NSA was enjoying great success in decoding the encrypted Soviet messages that had previously eluded the U.S. intelligence community. As the NSA's mission grew, its budget increased exponentially. Exact budgetary figures from the Cold War period continue to be withheld as classified information, but during that time the NSA established itself as the largest U.S. intelligence agency in terms of both manpower and financial resources.

Robert G. Berschinski


Further Reading
Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency. New York: Penguin, 1983.; Bowie, Robert R., and Richard H. Immerman. Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.; Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.
 

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