Inside The NSA

What do you think of when you hear the words “National Security Agency”?

Do you think of an enigmatic organization dedicated to keeping America’s secrets secure?

Do you think of a giant super computer, watching and processing everything that people digitally do?

How about a team of secret agents, scouring the country for those missing files that hold the key to unlocking the mystery of our forefathers?

Well contrary to what some entertainment outlets would have you believe, the NSA doesn’t just exist within the pages of books about conspiracy theories.  It is not some crazy men-in-black organization designed to serve in the biggest of big brother capacities.  No, it isn’t.  Because I said so.  Because I do.

Well, okay.  Maybe they’re not that…entirely.

…Right?

So in my quest to discover the truth (in true X-Files fashion) I decided to get the inside scoop about the National Security Agency from this man:

I don't know why, but I just feel compelled to trust this man.  I bet he gets that a lot.  (Photo courtesy of the National Security Agency)

I don’t know why, but I just feel compelled to trust this man. I bet he gets that a lot. (Photo courtesy of the National Security Agency)

His name is John C. Inglis, and he is the Deputy Director of the National Security Agency.  I figure if anyone knows the ins and outs of the enigmatic organization, it would be the man who has dedicated nearly 30 years of his life to it.

And you know what?  I was right.

So tell me a little about what the National Security Agency really is and what it does for the nation.

“Well, the National Security Agency, at the surface level, in terms of the literal mission, goes all the way back to World War II.  We were formally created in 1952 to have a signals intelligence mission, which you might think of as breaking codes, and an information assurance mission, which you might think of as making codes.  You might think of us, then, as creating intelligence by going after signals, communications of our adversaries, or insuring that they – our adversaries – can’t do the same to us.

But at a deeper level, what we do, as the National Security Agency, alongside our counterparts in the intelligence and security community, is we save lives.

We defend vital networks.  We provide policy makers with information necessary to keep the nation safe, to steer the nation clear of threats or disasters, and ultimately, generate technical expertise in our particular field.  We call it cryptology.   That helps advance [to] science, technology and all those things that help keep the internet safe.”

What is the NSA’s role in the nation’s cybersecurity mission?

“We have a role, but not necessarily the role in cybersecurity.

First, we recognize that cybersecurity takes place in cyberspace.  You might think of that as the internet‑plus, and that’s a shared venue.

There are all sorts of networks that are essentially cheek‑by‑jowl connected in cyberspace.

And so, as a part of that, we help understand what threats exist in that space.  Some of those might simply be the threats that come from poorly designed hardware or software, some of those threats might come from foreign adversaries who are actively trying to actually do things in that place that might be not appropriate.

We figure that out and we provide that information to policymakers or operators so that they might help defend the things that are stored in cyberspace.

Our society and other societies store a literal wealth and treasure in that space.

It’s command and control that the military might be essentially trying to apply to forces in places like Iraq or Afghanistan.  It might be dollars – literal dollars – that are stored as ones and zeros in that space.  It might be diplomatic instructions that are conveyed by the President or the Secretary of State to our diplomats around the world.  The only place where those things are stored increasingly is cyberspace.  We need to defend it for all those reasons.”

How does the National Security Agency aid the military or help with military missions?

“Several ways.

NSA is the civilian component of what we know as NSA.  The Central Security Service is the military component of what we know as NSA.  So when I say NSA, I usually mean both.  It’s about 60 percent civilian, 40 percent military, so, the military itself is participating in that activity to help support the military.

We provide information to decision makers.  Sometimes in the Executive branch, sometimes in the other branches of government, but we provide information that helps them make thoughtful choices about the nation’s future.

In some cases, [this information] helps them understand when and where to commit the military to insure that that’s done in a way that is most appropriate to the military’s role.

We are not the policymakers, but we help inform the policymakers so that they can make the right commitments at the right time.

If and when we commit the military in harm’s way or other activities that are suited for the military, we provide operational information in real time to the military so that they might understand their opportunities, their challenges, their threats, and, again, succeed in their mission.

Finally, the NSA has an active role in training the military that comes to us that lives inside our organizations so that they might then be good at those roles that I’ve just described.  They might then have future roles elsewhere in the military that benefit from the technical training they might have here.”

What do you think is the most impressive thing about the NSA and why?

“I think the most impressive thing about NSA, not unlike some other organizations, is its people.  It’s the brain power that we bring to bear.”

How does the NSA help to save lives all across the globe?

“Several ways.  The first is by helping decision makers…in a way that averts disaster or perhaps shortens wars that we might already be engaged in.  I think the history of World War II – which is something we can talk at length about – is replete with examples of where that was, in fact, done.

The battle of Midway ultimately kind of depended upon those who stood in harm’s way, particularly the Navy, to win that battle.

Joseph Rochefort was an American Naval officer and cryptanalyst. His contributions and those of his team were pivotal to victory in the Pacific War.

Joseph Rochefort was an American Naval officer and cryptanalyst. His contributions and those of his team were pivotal to victory in the Pacific War. (Photo courtesy of the National Security Agency)

But beneath that was an intelligence breakthrough.  The secret of Midway was that we knew that the Japanese were going to attack us at Midway, so a fellow by the name of Captain Rochefort went to Admiral Nimitz and said, “I’d like you to commit a vastly inferior force against a vastly superior force at a place called Midway“.

That’s a bit of a bet, but if the intelligence is right, then you can prevail in a way that shortens the war, saves lives.  And we do that today in all of the places that you would imagine.

And the other way that we save lives is that we help provide information that might help our allies better understand the nature of the world and the threats that they’re under.  This makes for stronger coalitions such that we can identify those areas where we have strong shared equities, and we, together, can build and sustain the kind of world that the United States would prefer.

Add all of those up, then we literally save lives by avoiding disaster as much as by winning a particular conflict that we might be in at this moment in time. 

In a world where terrorism continues to be a very prevalent threat to just about all civilized nations, we work hard with others – domestic law enforcement, federal law enforcement, allies – to identify terrorist threats or the conditions that give rise to terrorist threats and try to preempt those terrorist threats using all the lawful means that you would expect.  That’s a very important component of our job.  We stand with a fairly diverse team in the United States and across our allies.”

So what about the misconceptions of the NSA?  What can you say about all of those?

“I would just say that there are a lot of misconceptions, myths about the National Security Agency.  If you were to have asked me what they are, I would give you the following:  One, there’s a misconception that we get to, on a discretionary basis, choose what missions we have.  Choose what techniques, capabilities we would bring to bear.

And, like any other federal entity, nothing could be further from the truth.

We’re more constrained than we are enabled by our charge, which is as it should be.  That’s the nature of the Constitution.  There are explicit authorities granted to an organization like NSA, and we work very hard to be mindful of them and to stay within that charge.

When we take the oath to the Constitution, it’s to the whole of it.

It’s not just to the national security side of the Constitution.  It’s to the protection of civil liberties, privacy, the rights of U.S. persons.  And, frankly, allies that we also respect in the world.

The second misconception might be that we’re more about stuff.  It’s the computers.  It’s all those devices that you’ll see on a CSI television show that make up NSA.  To be sure, we’ve got some really interesting stuff, but the real core, the real competitive advantage that an NSA has is its people.  We work really hard to recruit the best people we can find to sustain those people, and over time, get their intellectual capital, their brain power to be our core asset.  As it turns out, that’s the nature of it.

Maybe the last misconception that people have about NSA is that NSA is a purely military organization.  To be sure, we are a combat support organization, and we do a lot to support the military.  Our roots are very strong and deep there, but we see a larger set of responsibilities for the benefit of the larger nation.”

So there’s no omniscient, mega computer in the basement of the NSA that controls everything?

[laughs] “No there isn’t, but there *are* some really smart people.”

So what would you say is the best part about working for the NSA?

“Ultimately, the NSA, for me, has been a great professional home for the last 28 years, and I look forward to others saying the same thing.  It’s my charge to make that true, to make it possible for others to come to work here and to feel good about what they do, and to feel, at the end of the day, that they didn’t simply succeed individually, but they made a contribution to something that’s larger than the sum of its parts; the national security of the United States of America.”

Something that, I think we can all agree, is well appreciated.  On behalf of all of us here on the other side of the fence, keep up the good work, NSA.  Carry on.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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