The National Security Agency (NSA) is the U. S. government’s electronic intelligence-gathering service. When President Harry Truman created this agency to consolidate the government’s code-breaking activities, the NSA’s mandate included the surveillance of both domestic and international communications, something that changed when Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, requiring search warrants from the FISA court before granting NSA domestic wiretaps in cases of national security. Until September 11, 2001, the primary mission of the NSA was the surveillance of international communications.
The head of the NSA at the time of the 9/11 attacks was U. S. Air Force general Michael Hayden, who was director of the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005—the longest tenure in the history of the agency. Officially, his boss was George Tenet, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but in reality the NSA was an independent agency answering to the president more than to the CIA.
Exploiting the capabilities of today’s supercomputers, the NSA has learned to deal with a massive amount of intelligence-related information. International intelligence-gathering has been hidden under the code name Echelon. As reported by James Risen, the NSA has recruited personnel who were “technicians, math and linguistic geeks, and military and civilians who were bureaucratic conformists.” In 1990, in its greatest success, it stole every Soviet code machine and manual.
The NSA began to target the communications of Al Qaeda leaders in the late 1990s. At that time, Al Qaeda leaders used communication systems that the NSA could monitor by using satellites and other signals technologies, as it did with transmissions from an Al Qaeda logistics center in Yemen in 1998. After word leaked out in an article in the Washington Times that the NSA had this capability, Al Qaeda leaders stopped using satellite cell phones and e-mail. Since then, all of Al Qaeda’s communication has been in code. A problem developed in the late 1990s that affected the NSA’s ability to handle its normal volume of data: the NSA’s computer system, which was becoming outdated, crashed for four days in January 2000. The required upgrades cost $1 billion and were not totally in place by September 11, 2001. Even today, the NSA’s attempts to overhaul its badly dated computer system have not been successful.
As the volume of Al Qaeda traffic went up, ominous conversations about “Zero Hour” made NSA and CIA analysts nervous. George Tenet, director of the CIA, warned the Bush administration that something big was going to happen—perhaps even in the United States. He communicated this to Condoleezza Rice in a meeting on July 10, 2001, but nothing came of it. Later, General Hayden was forced to explain before Congressional committees why a key intercept on September 10, 2001, regarding something big scheduled for September 11, was not translated until September 12.
Within weeks of September 11, the NSA received permission from the George W. Bush administration to start the controversial “terrorist surveillance program.” Although domestic surveillance does not fall under the NSA’s purview, the program allowed for warrantless wiretapping and electronic surveillance of communications involving U. S. citizens as long as two conditions were met. First, at least one side of the phone call, e-mail, or text message had to be from outside the United States and, second, there had to be probable cause to believe that members of Al Qaeda or another terrorist organization were involved in the communication. These covert wiretaps were exposed to the public in a December 16, 2005, article in the New York Times, igniting a firestorm of controversy. Supporters argue that the president has the executive authority to override FISA regulations, while detractors maintain that the program is illegal under FISA and a violation of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. Critics have also accused the NSA of using the program to engage in large-scale domestic surveillance unrelated to terrorism.
In the August 2006 case ACLU v. NSA, a U. S. district court judge ruled that the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping was both illegal and unconstitutional. The U. S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, overturned the decision on July 6, 2007. Earlier that year, on January 17, 2007, Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, announced that surveillance would only be conducted with FISA warrants. Many, however, assumed that warrantless wiretaps were still being conducted. Gonzales’ replacement, Eric Holder, and other members of the Barack Obama administration have defended the legality of the warrantless wiretaps, continuing the controversy. Because of the clandestine nature of the program, it remains difficult to ascertain its full scope.
Stephen E. Atkins
See also Al Qaeda; Central Intelligence Agency; Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978; Tenet, George
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