Cracking the Code of the U.S. National Intelligence Agency

Civil liberties activists protesting
Civil liberties activists protesting against surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA in January 2014. The U.S. surveillance program was exposed by former CIA employee Edward Snowden in 2013. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images


You've probably heard a lot about the National Security Agency (NSA) in the news, but maybe still don't quite understand what it is. Simply put, it's the intelligence agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, and some of its clandestine operations have been steeped in controversy over the years. But it goes much deeper than just that, as Stuff They Don't Want You to Know podcast hosts Matt Frederick, Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown delve into in the podcast, The NSA: Fact, Fiction, and Fright.

The NSA has its roots in the Cipher Bureau, an organization formed during the early days of U.S. involvement in World War I. Its primary task was gathering "signals intelligence," or SIGINT, the interception and interpretation of radio signals and other communications in order to disrupt enemy war plans. After the war, the U.S. continued to collect SIGINT through several other agencies, with varying success, until 1952 when Harry Truman formed the National Security Agency. This was done in absolute secrecy, so that the NSA was referred to as No Such Agency among the intelligence community.

The official goal of the NSA is to collect data and communications information to "gain a decision advantage for the nation and our allies under all circumstances," according to its website. This means agents work to give the U.S. government all the information it needs to negotiate with other countries and make educated decisions about what actions to take in any situation. However, the NSA was never formed with the intention of spying on U.S. citizens; it was always intended to focus on foreign powers.

But it almost immediately began overstepping its bounds. In the 1960s, the NSA illegally spied on conversations of anti-Vietnam activists and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. After the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration, investigations were launched into misuse of all the security agencies, including the FBI, CIA and the NSA, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was born in 1978 to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, the reach of the NSA has only gotten broader, and it collects and stores nearly every communication made by U.S. citizens via cell phones, email, internet, fax and radio broadcasting. In 2005, former CIA employee-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the truly astonishing extent to which the NSA was surveilling the American public through a program called Prism. In the last days of the Obama administration, legislation was passed that enabled the NSA to share the data it collected with 16 other countries' intelligence agencies without first applying privacy protection laws.

Some say that because terrorists are being radicalized all over the world, it's necessary to monitor everyone's communications to catch terrorists' plans before they can come to fruition. However, members of the NSA have admitted that they've never foiled a terrorist due to their data collection. Yet the program continues.

The NSA is an important and crucial type of agency for any government, especially in the modern world of electronic communications and encrypted data. But how much are American citizens giving up on privacy? Delve into the shadows and find out more in the podcast.