Moments in Time



The National Security Agency

Eye Spy presents an absorbing overview of how one of the world's most secret organisation came into being...


Although code-making and breaking date back thousands of years, modern cryptologic communications intelligence activities in the United States started in World War I with radio communications technology. In 1917, the US Army established the Cipher Bureau (MI-8) within its Military Intelligence Division (MID), under Herbert Yardley (left). The MID assisted the radio intelligence units in the American Expeditionary Forces fighting in Europe, and in 1918, created the Radio Intelligence Service for operations along the US-Mexican border.


General Pershing (right) took his intercept vehicles, known as mobile tractors, to listen to radio messages sent by the Mexican Government. The US Navy had also created a unit, but this was absorbed (by agreement), in 1918, into Yardley's civilian Black Chamber.

The US military and State Department continued to support the Black Chamber until it was terminated in 1929.


The Army
's role was assumed in the small Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) of the Army's Signal Corps under the watchful eye of William F. Friedman (below). The US Navy's cryptanalytic role was reborn formally in 1924 in the Research Desk under Commander Laurance F. Safford, within the Office of Naval Communications. Much emphasis was placed on securing US military communications (COMSEC), but both services developed radio intercept, radio direction finding and processing capabilities prior to WWII; the organisations achieved particular success against Japanese diplomatic communications.

In 1930, a new Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, withdrew funding for MI-8. Thereafter, Yardley, no longer in service, wrote a revealing book, The American Black Chamber, which publicised MI-8's achievements. Among other things, it prompted foreign governments to search for and adopt new encryption methods.

After Yardley
's Black Chamber closed, the Army looked to William Friedman's SIS to manufacture and break codes. Possibly the best cryptologist of his time, Friedman became known as the 'father of modern Army cryptology'. He also played a part in the incarceration of so-called 'rumrunners' during America's prohibition period.


British and American successes during WWII proved the value of communications intelligence (COMINT). Politicians and military strategists in the United States and Britain recognised the need to expand the organisations in terms of manpower, resources and equipment. The US and UK started to cooperate in the sharing of scientific and technical information. Friedman
's SIS provided details of its successes against the Japanese, while Britain revealed details of the breaking of the German military messages enciphered on the ENIGMA machines. Eventually, US cryptologists were integrated into the UK operation based at the top secret Bletchley Park.

With the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelling America into the war, efforts were soon underway to crack Tokyo
's naval codes. US Navy cryptologists soon broke one high-level code - JN-25. This enabled the US to understand Japanese military strategy and planning in the Pacific theatre of war.

In 1942, the Army
's Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), moved from Washington to more spacious headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Rapid expansion followed and thousands more personnel were employed. Towards the end of WWII, the United States created a coordinating service to facilitate COMINT cooperation - the Army-Navy Communications Intelligence Board (ANCIB) with a subordinate coordinating committee (ANCICC). These were instrumental for negotiating joint postwar arrangements. By the end of 1945, the Department of State became a member of the ANCIB, which in turn became the State-Army-Navy Communications Intelligence Board (STANCIB). STANCIB evolved again in 1946 into the State Communications Intelligence Board (USCIB), which added the FBI as a member.

With the passage of America
's National Security Act of 1947, Congress reinforced the direction in which the intelligence community was moving - toward increased centralisation - and built the framework of the United States' national security structure. The Act also established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA also became a member of USCIB, which received a new charter as the highest national COMINT authority in the form of an NSC Intelligence Directive, NSCID No.9, dated 1 July 1948.

The United States Air Force also sought to expand its cryptologic service. However, Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal was contemplating cutting defense expenditures. One solution was a unified cryptologic agency. Forrestal appointed a special board under Rear Admiral Earl E. Stone, Director of Naval Communications, to begin working on a plan that would enable all military COMINT and COMSEC services to merge into a single agency. Unfortunately, only the Army supported Stone
's recommendations and the plan was axed.

In 1949, the new Secretary of Defense, Louis A. Johnson, reviewed the Stone Board
's report and to take steps for its implementation. After much discussion, on 20 May 1949, Secretary Johnson issued JCS Directive 2010. This established the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), whose mission it was to conduct communications intelligence and communications security  activities within the National Military Establishment. AFSA therefore had almost total responsibility for running COMINT and COMSEC operations, excluding only those that were specifically delegated to the US Armed Forces. The JCS directive also established an advisory council within the AFSA structure. This was known for a time as the Armed Forces Communications Intelligence Advisory Council (AFCIAC), it was renamed later the Armed Forces Security Agency Council (AFSAC). This organisation became the channel which AFSA reported to the JCS.

On 15 July 1949, the JCS appointed Rear Admiral Stone the AFSA
's first director. By 1950, the US Army and Navy cryptologic organisations had transferred plentiful numbers of civilian and military personnel, as well as equipment, enabling the AFSA to operate properly. At this time, however, the AFSA did not have its own facilities.

In 1951, Admiral Stone was succeeded by Army Major General Ralph J. Canine (left). Current NSA staff acknowledge that it was around this time various difficulties in defining powers and areas of jurisdiction were obvious. Furthermore, both directors experienced grave difficulties in obtaining the Advisory Council
's approval of proposed courses of action because of the AFSAC's policy requiring unanimous decisions. The potential of expanding US technical COMINT capabilities of the late 1940s could not always be reached. During the Korean War, for example, the quality of strategic intelligence derived from COMINT surprisingly fell below that which had been provided in WWII. 'Consumers' [often intelligence agencies] were disappointed and increasingly critical. By late 1951, AFSA had clashed with the service cryptologic agencies, with consumers, with CIA and with the State Department, though not all at once and not always on the same issue. Despite good intentions, AFSA had become a 'fourth military cryptologic agency.'


On 13 December 1951, President Harry Truman ordered an analysis to be performed by a special committee to be named by the Secretaries of State and Defense, and aided by the Director of Central Intelligence. Chaired by George Brownell, an eminent New York solicitor, the Brownell Committee analysed the situation and in June recommended that a
'unified COMINT agency receive greater powers commensurate with clearly defined responsibilities.' The committee also advised that the agency be 'freed' of the crippling line of subordination through AFSAC to the JCS and, instead, be directly subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, acting with the Secretary of State on behalf of the NSC. It also proposed that the unified agency be controlled in policy matters by a reconstituted United States Communications Intelligence Board (USCIB), under the chairmanship of the Director of Central Intelligence, in which the representation of military and non-military intelligence interests would be evenly balanced.

Speaking on communications intelligence, George Brownell said:
'COMINT is a national responsibility (as distinct from the responsibility of any particular service, department or agency) and that as a consequence the activity must be managed and organised as to exploit all available intelligence resources in the participating departments and agencies in order to obtain the optimum results for each and for the Government as a whole.'

In October 1952, the President and National Security Council adopted most of the Brownell Committee
's recommendations and issued a revised version of NSCID No. 9 on 24 October 1952.


A mingling of military and non-military interests was expressed in the word
'national'. The production of COMINT was declared to be a national responsibility. In place of an Armed Forces Security Agency, the US Government was to have a National Security Agency (NSA), an organisation with the same resources plus a new charter. The AFSA Council, while not specifically abolished, thus had the agency pulled out from under it. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were no longer in the chain-of-command.

The NSA Director reported to the Secretary of Defense though a unit in the latter
's office that dealt with sensitive operations. The Secretary himself was declared to be executive agent of the government for COMINT and subordinate to a special committee for the NSC, of which he and the Secretary of State were the two members and the Director of Central Intelligence was an advisor.

The Secretary of Defense was instructed to delegate COMINT responsibilities to the Director, NSA, and to entrust him operational and technical control of all US military COMINT collection and production resources. The Director of the NSA was ordered to bring about the most effective, unified application of all US resources for producing national COMINT.

Promulgation of NSCID No.9 brought about a greater participation by civilian members (CIA and State) of the community in the COMINT process. At the same time it was recognition of the necessity for more centralised technical operations.

On 4 November 1952, Major General Ralph J. Canine was appointed the first Director of the National Security Agency. Canine was described as a
'no-nonsense' former artillery officer for General Patton. He brought about the unification of some reluctant players in the cryptological field and presided over the greatest expansion of American cryptologic assets ever, both human and machine. He pushed for research and development into the new field of computers, and began work on the fastest and most reliable form of communications network in federal government.

The NSA expanded its field sites from 42 in 1952, to 90 by 1956. In 1957, NSA consolidated its headquarters operations at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, where it continues to operate today.

The world
's most technologically advanced intelligence service was born... just in time for the emergence of the Cold War.







Previous 'Moments in Time'

MI5, Hitler and the Stargazer