The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) is a communications intelligence agency of the United States government, part of the Department of Defense
The NSA is extremely active in cryptology and cryptanalysis. The agency creates codes and ciphers for its government to use, and attempts to break the codes and ciphers of foreign nations.
The NSA is rumored to run the ECHELON communications-monitoring system, together with equivalent signals-intelligence agencies in Britain (GCHQ), Canada (CSEC), New Zealand (GCSB), and Australia (DSD). The system's capabilities are suspected to include the ability to monitor a large proportion of the world's telephone, fax and data traffic, according to a December 16, 2005 article in the New York Times
Naturally, in addition to civilian traffic, they also listen in on foreign military and diplomatic traffic as well.
As of 2008, NSA has been directed to help monitor U.S. federal agency computer networks to protect them against attacks.
Since its inception to the present day, the NSA is rumored to have the most powerful collection of computers in the world. While the exact entirety of what they now have is classified, a number of supercomputers they used that they now consider obsolete are in the United States National Cryptologic Museumnote
. One hint to the extent of the NSA's computer usage is that they've opened many satellite offices in the past 20 years. This is not because of some sinister scheme (we hope) but because the HQ at Fort Meade already eats up all
the spare electricity in the Baltimore power system.
NSA's work is limited to communications intelligence; it does not perform field or human intelligence activities. So, no Secret Police
By law, NSA's intelligence gathering is limited to foreign communications, although there have been numerous reports that the agency does not always abide by these laws. George W. Bush
famously removed most of the limits on the NSA, even though it was illegal. Some, but not all, of this illegal activity was made legal after the fact when he pushed Congress to modify the laws. The 2013 PRISM scandal showed this activity has carried on well after Bush left office and doesn't look to be changing any time soon.
The creation of NSA was authorized in a letter written by President Harry S. Truman
in June 1952. The agency was formally established through a revision of National Security Council Intelligence Directive (NSCID) 9 on October 24, 1952, and officially came into existence on November 4, 1952. President Truman's letter was itself classified and remained unknown to the public for more than a generation.
Before the NSA proper was The Black Chamber, so called in part because of the book about it. It was established in World War One
and had a cover as a civilian coding agency. During the 20's funding was pulled because the secretary of state considered decryption to be unfair. Denied funding, the head of it wrote a book about it and tried to keep it open.
For a long period of time, the U.S. government denied the existence of the NSA, thus the "No Such Agency" moniker.note
Because of this mystery, the NSA has become the agency of choice for many Government Conspiracy
and Hollywood spy types, and is one of the most widely misrepresented government agencies in fiction.
Certain movies or TV series will play up inter-department rivalry between the NSA and their better known sister-agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency
and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sometimes a movie or TV show will haphazardly blur these agencies together into "generic government conspiracy Men in Black". In reality, the rough difference between them is that the NSA handles "SIGINT" (signals intelligence: wiretapping, cryptography, etc.) while the CIA handles "HUMINT" (human intelligence: actually sending in human operatives for face-to-face contact). For example, if at the end of a movie the bad guy's right-hand lieutenant shoots him and reveals that he was an "NSA double-agent" the entire time, that's an anachronism: its the CIA that sends in human information gathering agents. In terms of structure, the NSA is part of the Department of Defense, while the FBI is part of the Department of Justice. The CIA is an independent agency answering directly to the Director of National Intelligence.
NSA in fiction:
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- The NSA get involved in the Black Lagoon "El Baile de la Muerte" arc (turned into the Roberta's Blood Trail OVA). They turn out to have been backing the US military Grey Fox unit with intel to aid in the War on Drugs. Apparently, the end goal is an attempt to gain influence and test an NSA/Special ops coalition as a way of partially supplanting the CIA's duties in that field. Eda, who is a CIA agent, teams up with Roberta and Mr. Chang, turning their mission to Roanapur into a Charlie Foxtrot and effectively killing that coalition.
- The 1984 film Starman features a USG agent with an NSA badge (among others).
- The 1992 film Sneakers features NSA agents.
- And compares them to the CIA and FBI:
"So you're the guys I hear breathing on the other end of my phone."
"No, that's the FBI."
"Oh, so you overthrow foreign governments and set up friendly dictators."
"No, that's the CIA."
- The 1997 film Good Will Hunting mentions the NSA offering Will Hunting a job that he turns down.
- In the 1997 film My Fellow Americans, TheDragon/head thug is identified as "NSA", and spends the movie in activities that have nothing to do with the NSA's mission.
- The 1998 film Enemy of the State shows rogue NSA agents tracking a man, using advanced microphones and real-time video from spy satellites.
- The 2007 film Live Free Or Die Hard features NSA agents assisting the FBI Cyber Division, alongside with the main character of the film, John McClane, against an Internet-based terrorist organization who is systematically shutting down the United States.
- The 2007 film The Simpsons Movie depicts the NSA listening to and transcribing every telephone and public conversation in the US. This leads to Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie's capture by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
- The 2008 film Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay has the Vice Chairman of the NSA providing a rational counterpoint to a rabid Homeland Security agent.
- In the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising the character Robert Toland is an NSA analayst. Typical for his books, he properly depicts the NSA as an agency specializing in SIGINT (Signal Intelligence).
- The agency appears or is referenced in several Jack Ryan novels, particularly Sum Of All Fears, where their communications network's security becomes a plot point.
- David Suarez's novel, Daemon, features the NSA heavily given that the plot of the book involves tracking down a network of rogue computer programs. They are positions as being the most tech savy of the three letter agencies - Agent Natalie Philips of the NSA is the lead on the case and she is one of the book's protagonists.
- The Black Chamber was the book about the precursor organization existing before World War II.
- One of the former special forces operatives hired by Mike Harmon (no, not that one) to serve as the head of intelligence for the Keldara, in the Paladin of Shadows series, is mentioned to have previously worked for the NSA.
- Much of the action in Dan Brown's first novel Digital Fortress takes place in the NSA. Like most Dan Brown novels, he blends fiction and reality (though he claims not to) in his depiction of the agency.
Live Action TV
- In the 1968 Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Assignment: Earth", Agent Gary Seven has an ID card from the NSA.
- The 1998-2001 UPN TV series Seven Days followed a fictional "special branch" of the NSA - "BACKSTEP" - involved with using time travel for national security.
- In the third episode of The X-Files, titled "Conduit," NSA Agents break into Mulder's hotel room.
- While the title character in Chuck is a CIA agent of sorts, his team is a joint CIA-NSA operation answering to an official in both agencies until the CIA liason to the team gets killed, and never replaced. From then on, Team Bartowski just talks to the NSA's General Beckman.
- In the first season of Dollhouse, Dominic is revealed to be an NSA agent.
- In season three of Alias, Vaughn's wife Lauren Reed is an NSA agent. Naturally, she's a Mata Hari working for the Alliance.
- Third Echelon from Splinter Cell is actually a sub-division of the NSA and there is some All There in the Manual handwaving about why the eponymous operatives like Sam are employed.
- The NSA is a relatively minor faction in Alpha Protocol, they have no field agents but you can bug one of their listening posts during the course of the game. Ironically, this makes the NSA, which really doesn't have any field agents the most realistically represented intelligence agency in the game. Mina Tang, your Mission Control, is ex-NSA recruited by Alpha Protocol. She's also The Mole and heavily implied to still be loyal to the NSA, using her position to feed them info on Alpha Protocol.
- Infiltrated by the world's greatest hacker in this xkcd strip.
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