The NSA is having a pretty rough week.
It recently came out that the organisation was overseeing a program that tracked Americans’ electronic lives without warrant in a major national controversy.
However, it’s worth remembering that the NSA’s history is actually rather storied, and before this rough patch it was remembered as the institution founded by a long line of geeks that basically saved the world during the second world war with their amazing code-breaking skills.
The NSA was formally established in 1952, but the parts that went into the organisation were some of the most important factions working for the Allies in World War Two.
Cryptography was used by each side during and before the outbreak of the second World War, and the Allied Powers’ ability to overcome the Axis cyphers lea to an earlier-than-expected Allied victory and the development of the modern field of computer science.
Some of the earliest antecedents of the NSA were the competing Army and Navy communications intelligence divisions.
Prior to and during the second world war, all crypto work was done by competing departments in the army and navy. The Navy concerned itself with naval code-breaking, the army with military code-breaking, and both competed over diplomatic code-breaking.
Throughout the war, talented mathematicians working for the Army and Navy identified crucial intelligence intercepted and decoded from both Japanese and German cyphers.
Thomas L. Burns’ previously top-secret history of the founding of the NSA outlines a number of significant successes by the Army and Navy forebears of the current system during the second world war.
The Japanese codes — called PURPLE machines — were cracked relatively early in the war (1939) by the Army. Use of these intercepted messages led to both the assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in Operation Vengeance and considerable military success. Using ULTRA to decode Purple shortened the Pacific war by an estimated two years.
Cracking the Water Transport Code annihilated 98% of the Japanese merchant fleet by the end of the war.
The Navy’s cracking JN-25 in 1942 led to victory in the Battle of Coral Sea and Midway. The Navy also made several breakthroughs that helped locate German submarines in the Atlantic.
Meanwhile both the Army and Navy collaborated with British intelligence to work on the Enigma, cracked by Polish mathematicians Marian Rejewski. Allied mathematicians working under Briton Alan Turing constructed large bombes — considered among the first computers — to systematically decode enigma machine transmissions.
Back in the U.S.A. the Navy was constructing its own bombes — according to Jennifer Wilcox 10 feet high, seven feet ling and two feet wide and each with “400 vacuum tubes, 64 individually wired bakelite rotors, and innumerable feet of wire”— called Adam and Eve to the cost of $50,000 apiece at Building 26 of the National Cash Register Company in Ohio.
The first German encryption decoded by Adam and Eve was the location of a German refueling submarine, the elimination of which justified the entire project. 121 more bombes were promptly built.
After the war, the U.S. realised the strategic advantage of having an army of mathematicians working on cracking everyone’s cryptography.
The Army-Navy Communication Intelligence Coordinating Committee was created in 1944 to oversee the combined Army and Navy communications intelligence apparatus. Plagued with problems and continuing rivalries, the communications intelligence groups survived the military restructuring of 1947, maintaining talent for several years of reorganization,.
In 1949 the Secretary of defence established the Armed Forces Security Agency, placing it under the command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and overseeing the Air Force, Army and Navy signal intelligence operations. By the end of the year, 4,000 military and civilian personnel worked for AFSA.
AFSA had problems given the continued independence of the Army, Navy and Air Force agencies, bus succeeded in physically merging everyone.
In October 1952, Truman issued a classified directive to rename the AFSA the NSA and move it out from under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to directly under the Secretary of defence. The new organisation laid the framework for the modern, independent NSA and set the organisation up for the Cold War.
According to Burns’ history of the founding:
Truman stated that the communications intelligence function was a national responsibility rather than one of purely military orientation. […] The president’s memorandum also contained the first reference to a “National Security Agency,” to be established in place of the Armed Forces Security Agency.
So, after guaranteeing U.S. victory in World War 2, inventing the mass-produced computer, surviving years of odd and forced mergers and enduring the changing military realities of the post-War period the NSA was finally established proper.
It’s a pretty awesome story, and it’s a shame the organisation is in so much hot water today.
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