The National Security Agency (NSA) of the US Defence Department was set up on November 1,1952, to unify all clandestine activities for the collection of foreign communications intelligence (COMINT) through the interception of foreign wireless and telephone networks.
Its charter was expanded in 1971 to cover clandestine collection of foreign electronic (ELINT) and telemetric (TELINT) intelligence. It thus became the USA's SIGINT set-up covering COMINT, ELINT and TELINT.
The next year, it was entrusted with the exclusive responsibility for SIGCOUNTERINT--that is, protection of the US Govt's SIGINT assets from foreign penetration and development and protection of the cryptologic systems used by the US Govt. For this purpose, a Central Security Service (CSS) was created as part of the NSA.
In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration further expanded the NSA's charter to include CYBERINT and CYBERCOUNTERINT too--that is clandestine collection of intelligence from foreign computer networks and protection of US Govt. networks from foreign penetration.
The NSA is not a human intelligence (HUMINT) agency. It does not raise sources in foreign countries. It uses gadgets and technologies for penetrating foreign gadgets and telecommunication and computer networks. But, for such penetration, it needs human assets who can help it identify weak points in foreign networks, provide access to telephone lines serving the offices and residences of individuals occupying sensitive positions etc.
It depends on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), organisations such as the Voice of America (VOA) and academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon for such assistance.
Despite its immense human and technological resources, the NSA cannot provide effective coverage purely with the help of interception stations located in US territory. It needs to have monitoring stations in foreign territory.
In countries, which covertly collaborate with the NSA such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and Israel, the monitoring stations have been set up with the permission of the local government. Till last year, the US State Department was strongly opposing declassification of the fact that the NSA clandestinely collected SIGINT from space (satellite telephone calls monitoring) due to concerns that it could embarrass these countries.
In other countries, the monitoring stations are set up clandestinely, without the knowledge of the local government, either inside the premises of the US diplomatic missions or as part of the VOA set-up.
That is why, New Delhi strongly opposed in the early 1980s Colombo's decision to allow the VOA to expand its facilities in Sri Lankan territory. New Delhi suspected that the expansion was partly meant to provide the NSA with a strong presence in Sri Lanka to intercept the communications of the nuclear and space establishments in South India.
One of the reasons why the US was better informed of the Pakistani army activities in the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) before the Kargil conflict of last year was the NSA has had a presence in Gilgit for decades for collecting SIGINT from the space establishments of Kazakhstan and the nuclear establishments of China's Xinjiang.
The strange silence of the US over the Israeli supply of planes to the Sri Lankan Air Force and over the effective use of the planes against the LTTE in the Jaffna area--as contrasted with the US protests over the use of the Russian Air Force against the Chechen extremists-- was only partly due to its revulsion over LTTE terrorism. Another possible reason is a calculation that a permanent presence of the Israeli military in Sri Lanka could enable the NSA to improve its capability in South India through the intermediary of Israeli agencies.
In South, South-East and East Asia, the main focus of the NSA has been on China, India, Vietnam and North Korea. In India, its priority has been SIGINT emanating from India's nuclear and space establishments.
The NSA was the most secretive of the US intelligence agencies till some years ago, but under congressional and public pressure, there is some transparency now on its activities. The identities of the senior officers are no longer secret and it no longer claims in every case special exemption from the Right to Information legislation.
As a result, nearly a dozen of its past documents have recently been declassified, though in an edited form, and are now available to the public. All but three of these documents relate to the charter, functions and responsibilities of the NSA. One is regarding the NSA's activities in pre-1975 Vietnam and two are regarding the intelligence it was able to collect before 1982 on India's nuclear programme through the interception of telephone conversations.
The first document classified "Top Secret Umbra" is dated August 31,1972,and is based on two telephone conversations between the headquarters of the Banque National de Paris in Paris and its office in New Delhi on June 22,1972,on the financing of an Indian nuclear project under the French-Indian Protocol of March 20,1972, and between an official of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission in Mumbai and a French company on July 12,1972,regarding the shipping of Swedish material for a project in Chennai.
The rest of the telephone intercepts cited in this four-page document has been excised by the NSA before declassification. Since these two conversations were between India and France, the NSA did not need a presence in India for tapping them.
The other document, also marked "Top Secret Umbra", was prepared by the NSA in October 1982,analysing all the information gathered by it from intercepts on the difficulties faced by the Indian Atomic Energy Commission in the production of heavy water. Whereas the first document specifically refers to the intercepts, this one is more in a narrative form without citing intercepts. At the end, the document refers to 24 reports submitted by the NSA on this subject between 1980 and 1982.
Since the NSA deals only with intercepts, it would be logical to infer that it had intercepted 24 telephone conversations on heavy water production. Since most of these conversations appear to have been between India-based parties, with the gadgetry and technology available before 1982, the NSA would not have been able to intercept them without a clandestine presence in India.
The logical conclusion is that the NSA was most probably running, without the knowledge of New Delhi, monitoring stations from within the US diplomatic missions in India and had access to telephone lines serving Indian nuclear scientists. It is likely that this presence and the gadgetry and technology used by the NSA for the electronic surveillance of Indian nuclear and space establishments and their staff have further been strengthened since 1982.
In an analysis of these two documents, published on January 13, 2000, Mr.Jeffrey T.Richelson and Mr.Michael L.Evans, well-known American experts on their intelligence community, wrote: " These two documents provide examples of NSA reporting, as well as demonstrating that NSA's collection targets have included Indian atomic energy programs. Portions of each document that discuss or reveal the contents of the intercepts have been deleted. However, the classification of the documents indicates that high-level communications intelligence was used in preparing the report. UMBRA is the highest level compartment of the three compartments of Special Intelligence--the euphemism for COMINT. The lower level compartments are MORAY and SPOKE. The classification (either "TOP SECRET UMBRA" or "MORAY") of the 25 reports cited in the second document indicate that it relied heavily on COMINT. The report also demonstrates how NSA, often to the annoyance of the CIA, has gone far beyond its formal collection and processing responsibilities and into the analysis of the data it has received."
These two documents are only the tip of the iceberg. It is likely that the NSA has in its records many other intercepts of SIGINT from our nuclear and space establishments. The fact that despite all this, the US was taken by surprise by the POKHRAN I (1974) and POKHRAN II (1998) nuclear tests shows that SIGINT security has not been neglected in our nuclear and space establishments, but there is no room for complacency. The exercise to identify and remove weak points has to be continuous.
Published in SAPRA-India website