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Useful Notes / NSA

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In God We Trust.
All others we monitor.

No Such Agency
— Unofficial name.

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. NSA also released as part of the public distribution, a set of upgrades called "Security Enhanced Linux" to improve the Linux Operating System with additional security.

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, and no Splinter Cells.note 

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. Another form of Loophole Abuse the NSA found was to get help through the "Five Eyes" (or FVEY) alliance, formed by the US's closest allies of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zeland - as well their NSA counterpartsnote ; since most of them have the same domestic restrictions, they allow the other countries to spy on their citizens and then share the intelligence they found on the target, this means the NSA will spy on British citizens and give what they found to the GCHQ, while the GCHQ will spy on American citizens and give the intel to the NSA. 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 I and had a cover as a civilian coding agency. During The Roaring '20s, 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.

The NSA was around for several years before the U.S. government acknowledged its existence, 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. Of course, it's become a bit harder to use the NSA as a generic "super top secret black ops" force in recent years given that it's now common knowledge what they actually do.

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 agentsnote . 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, who answers directly to the President.

Do not confuse with NASA.

NSA in fiction:

    open/close all folders 

  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • Makkari of Marvel’s Eternals used the cover identity of NSA agent "Jake Curtiss" in the 1950s.

    Films — Animated 
  • 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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The 1984 film Starman features a USG agent with an NSA badge (among others).
  • The 1992 film Sneakers features NSA agents or rather people masquerading as 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.
    • NSA is also an initialism for National Security Advisor, a senior advisor to the President, who works in the White House.
  • 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 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.
  • Xx X and its two sequels all feature NSA agents as protagonists.
  • Mercury Rising features a rogue FBI agent protecting an autistic child who cracked a supposedly unbreakable US government cypher from NSA assassins.

  • In the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising the character Robert Toland is an NSA analyst. 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 The Sum of All Fears, where their communications network's security becomes a plot point. However, they rarely actually do much of anything in the books: CIA apparently handles signals and human intelligence gathering instead, leaving the NSA tasked only with communications integrity (and failing at that!).
  • 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.
  • The protagonists visit the NSA in Vladimir Serebryakov and Andrey Ulanov's From America With Love in search of information for their investigation. They essentially never get past the doorman, and the plainclothes officer talking with them explained, that the agency cannot be of any help, because they aren't authorized to divulge any classified information, and the open one they could've easily obtained through the other agencies (which happens to be true). After both are politely shown the door, one of them remarks that it's only to be expected, because the NSA headquarters is the only security-related building he's seen in the States which has the false windows.note 

    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 fourth 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. Several Actives are also imprinted as NSA agents in the episode "Echoes", and one is sent to infiltrate the NSA in "A Spy in the House of Love".
  • In the third episode of NUMB3RS, Charlie is revealed to be a consultant for them, in addition to the FBI.
  • In season three of Alias, Vaughn's wife Lauren Reed is an NSA agent. Naturally, she's a Femme Fatale Spy working for the Alliance.
  • Near the end of Kung Fu (2021) Season 3, hacker Althea Shen-Soong is approached by the NSA to work for them after testing her by planting a bug in her office (which she finds). After deliberating on the offer, she agrees to the deal only if she can work part-time, allowing her to keep her Private Detective job with Evan.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Many Delta Green agents are from the NSA, which can include player characters, NSA agents are usually The Cracker, with the game giving builds for agents focused on Computer Sciences and SIGINT. MAJESTIC-12 also employs NSA agents for their operations, along with CIA and NRO.
    • In 2002 when most of MAJESTIC was disbanded and reorganized, most of it's assets were moved under the umbrella of the NSA to form the new Delta Green, now nicknamed "The Program".
  • In Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition the NSA accidentally breached the vampire intranet SchreckNet through the PRISM program, leading to them discovering the secrets of the vampires. Disturbed by the implications of what they found, the NSA did not go public with this, but instead shared their findings with other security agencies and the Vatican, all of whom also agreed not to go public with the information. Instead forming an intra agency collaboration called FIRSTLIGHT, or as the vampires call them, "The Second Inquisition", to hunt the vampires. The NSA is one of the pillars of it by using their surveillance capabilities to track vampires through the internet, leding to the Camarilla banning all eletronic-based communications, resorting to paper-based letters and physical couriers.

    Video Games 
  • 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.note 
    • Splinter Cells and Third Echelon also show up in EndWar, providing intel.
  • 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.note  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.

    Western Animation 

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