The NSA: America's Eavesdropper-in-Chief The National Security Agency might be described as the federal government's chief eavesdropper. The NSA is so secretive that for years, the U.S. government wouldn't even acknowledge its existence. We look at the controversial history of America's ultra-secret spy agency.
NPR logo The NSA: America's Eavesdropper-in-Chief

The NSA: America's Eavesdropper-in-Chief

The NSA is the federal government's chief eavesdropping agency. Corbis hide caption

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The National Security Agency might be described as the federal government's chief eavesdropper. Created in 1952 to centralize and broaden intelligence efforts previously managed by the military, the NSA is so secretive that for years, the U.S. government wouldn't even acknowledge its existence.

The NSA intercepts and decodes communications around the world to protect the United States from foreign security threats. In so doing, it spies on individuals, organizations and governments. The agency intercepts e-mails, phone calls, faxes and other communications using a system of space-based satellites and ground-based listening posts, among other tools. It shares the analyzed information with other government agencies.

The agency also keeps close tabs on its own people, tracking such details as who carpools to work together. It administers polygraph tests to employees and keeps detailed computer files on them.

During the Cold War, the NSA helped start the computer revolution by working with technology companies to develop faster, more sophisticated code-breaking machines. Cutting-edge technology helped the agency snoop on Soviet leaders, whose phone calls were regularly monitored by NSA employees.

In 1999, investigators revealed the existence of Echelon, an electronic eavesdropping and intelligence-sharing network that the NSA developed during the Cold War with Britain, Australia and other allies to spy across national borders. The network was reportedly so extensive that it could potentially pick up on most communications on the planet. The next year, former CIA director James Woolsey admitted that the U.S. had been spying on foreign firms to see whether they were using bribery to win contracts from competing American companies. Woolsey did not specify whether Echelon was involved, but critics suspected it was. Privacy advocates questioned whether the NSA was using Echelon to spy on Americans as well.

The agency has been known to spy on Americans before. Most notoriously, in the 1960s Presidents Johnson and Nixon used the agency to listen in on hundreds of Americans, including Vietnam War protesters and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Revelations about these Vietnam-era abuses were investigated by Congress in the mid-1970s, prompting lawmakers to rein in the NSA with the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law lets the agency surveil Americans suspected of being agents of a foreign power with the permission of a special FISA Court. Judges on the court are appointed by the U.S. chief justice for seven-year non-renewable terms. In 2002, Congress added four new judges to the court to deal with an anticipated increase in cases resulting from the war on terrorism. The court has rarely denied a request for a warrant.

The willingness of the FISA court to accommodate requests is one reason why many civil libertarians and lawmakers are concerned by revelations that since 2002, the NSA has been bypassing the FISA Court and conducting surveillance on domestic communications without a warrant. Critics emphasize that FISA allows emergency wiretaps, without a warrant, for 72 hours, as long as a warrant is obtained within that time frame. The Bush administration counters that FISA's warrant requirements don't allow the spy agency to keep up with the flood of phone and Internet traffic it needs to monitor for terrorist threats in a timely manner. And once again, lawmakers find themselves asking whether the agency that eavesdrops on the world may itself need to be watched more closely.