Official history lifts a veil on US code-breaking agency
AFP - 2 hours 29 minutes ago
WASHINGTON, (AFP) - - A secret history of the National Security Agency has revealed a number of Cold War intelligence coups obtained through electronic eavesdropping -- but some went unheeded.
The agency released three of four parts of the history in response to a declassification request by an independent research institution, the National Security Archives, which published them on its website Friday.
Although containing many deletions, the history provides a rare official look into the doings of a huge code-breaking agency so secretive that it was once referred to by its initials as "No Such Agency."
Matthew Aid, a scholar at the National Security Archives, said the history was notable for "its refreshing openness and honesty, acknowledging both the NSA's impressive successes ... and abject failures during the Cold War."
Written by NSA historian Thomas Johnson, "American Cryptology During the Cold War (1945-1989)" traces US attempts to spy on the Soviet Union and China from their unpromising beginnings after World War II.
US signals intelligence was so limited in 1946 that half the finished intelligence produced by the army was based on intercepts of French communications, according to the history.
Johnson quotes a CIA official as referring to the 1950s as "the dark ages for communications intelligence."
The NSA was established in 1952 to unify signals intelligence, which had been conducted separately during the war by rival US military services.
Turf wars raged through much of NSA's history with the CIA, which kept NSA in the dark about its now famous 1954-56 operation to tap Soviet telephone lines via a tunnel in Berlin.
But by the 1960s, the NSA had grown so proficient in collecting electronic data that it couldn't keep up with the backlog.
But it missed the movement of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 prior to their discovery by a CIA U-2 spy plane, according to the history.
Johnson wrote that this "marked the most significant failure of SIGINT (signals intelligence) to warn national leaders since World War II."
"SIGINT warning, so highly touted during the Eisenhower administration, failed in Cuba," he concluded.
It was more successful in monitoring the movement of Soviet forces to Cuba during the crisis, and the readiness of Soviet air defense and strategic forces.
NSA determined that Soviet air defense and strategic forces went on high alert three times between September and October 1962. The last and highest alert was after President John Kennedy's speech announcing the discovery of the missiles.
"Offensive forces avoided assuming the highest readiness state, as if to insure that Kennedy understood that the USSR would not launch first," Johnson wrote.
During the Vietnam War, the NSA provided advance warning of the 1968 Tet offensive, a major attack by the northern Viet Cong forces against US and southern Vietnam.
But the warning appears to have been discounted because President Lyndon Johnson, the CIA and the military commander in Saigon thought the offensive would be limited in scope.
At the end of the war, in April 1975, the NSA went unheeded again when it reported indications that a final North Vietnamese offensive on Saigon was about to begin.
US Ambassador Graham Martin believed the North Vietnamese wanted a coalition government, not a military victory, and so dismissed the NSA intercepts as deception.
Four years later, US intelligence agencies provided "specific warning" ten days before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 28, 1979.
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US President George W. Bush vists the National Security Agency (NSA) in October at Fort Meade, Maryland. A secret history of the National Security Agency has revealed a number of Cold War intelligence coups obtained through electronic eavesdropping -- but some went unheeded
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