The National Security Agency: surveillance giant with eyes on America

The NSA is the best hidden of all the US intelligence services – and its secrecy has deepened as its reach has expanded

by Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald

The very existence of National Security Agency (NSA) was not revealed for more than two decades after its establishment in 1952, and even now its structure and activities remain largely unknown. Hence its wry nickname: No Such Agency.

Of all the US intelligence services, it is has been the best hidden, and has prided itself on having the fewest leaks – at least until now. How many people does it employ? That is classified. Just how many people does it target? The NSA tells members of Congress that it does not have the tools to provide such figures.

When Harry Truman set up the NSA, it was exclusively aimed at monitoring communications abroad. The question that had exercised politicians and civil rights organisations since the Senate unveiled it in 1975 is to what extent its  ferocious appetite for data has encompassed American citizens. General Lou Allen, the first NSA chief to appear in public, told Congress in the mid-1970s that the agency maintained lists of hundreds of names, including US citizens under surveillance for anti-war dissent or suspicious foreign connections.

As technology has evolved, so has the NSA’s capacity to intercept an astonishing variety and volume of communications. Satellites scoop up calls and emails in the ether and beam the information back to earthbound receiving stations. One estimate suggests that each of these bases hoovers up roughly one billion emails, phone calls and other forms of correspondence every day, and the agency has up to 20 bases.

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