Washington (AFP) – America’s ultra-secret National Security Agency reluctantly finds itself in the headlines amid a wave of disclosures from ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has exposed the service’s vast electronic spying operation.
France and Mexico both demanded explanations Monday after the latest revelations from Snowden alleged the NSA secretly monitored tens of millions of phone communications in France and hacked into former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s email account.
Hollywood directors and novelists have made the CIA famous for its undercover agents in the field, but in the digital era, the high-tech NSA may represent the most far-reaching arm of the country’s 16 spy agencies, with its intelligence at the center of decision-making and military planning.
The agency uses super computers, linguists and code-breaking mathematicians to oversee what experts say is the world’s most powerful digital espionage organization, scooping up phone conversations and email traffic relevant to “foreign targets.”
Created after World War II to avoid another Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack, the NSA “has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created,” wrote author James Bamford, whose books helped lift the lid on the agency’s work.
With code-breaking services in a disorganized jumble, President Harry Truman set up the NSA through a secret directive in 1952, allowing the agency virtually free reign to snoop on the Soviet Union and to track communications entering and leaving the United States.
Employees at the secrecy-minded agency would say they worked at the Defense Department, earning the NSA nicknames such as “No Such Agency” and “Never Say Anything.”
While the CIA may break into a building to plant a bug, the NSA is in charge of information “in motion,” vacuuming up data transiting telecommunication cables or radio waves.