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NSA Documents on U.S. Cold War Intelligence Activities Released

Editor’s Note: George Washington University’s National Security Archive obtained from the highly secretive National Security Agency numerous documents related to U.S. Cold War Intelligence Activities. The information below detailing U.S. intelligence work during the Cold War was drafted by National Security Archives staff.

Soviet Strategic Forces Went on Alert Three Times during September-October 1962 Because of Apprehension over Cuban Situation

Forty-six years ago, a month before the Cuban Missile crisis, Soviet leaders put their strategic forces on their “highest readiness stage since the beginning of the Cold War,” according to a newly declassified internal history of the National Security Agency published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. Possibly responding to President Kennedy’s call for reserves, perhaps worried that the White House had discovered Moscow’s plans to deploy missiles on Cuba, the Kremlin kept forces on alert for 10 days, beginning on September 11, 1962.

The USS Oxford on its maiden voyage, circa August 1961. The Navy wanted to see if this ship was seaworthy, so it not carrying NSA officers on board.  Used in patrols of the Caribbean and Latin America, the Oxford was in Cuban waters during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (photo from collection of Matthew Aid)

The NSA’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) history also discloses that, a month later, on October 15th, the Soviets initiated a “precautionary, preliminary” alert, perhaps because Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev feared that U.S. intelligence had discovered the missiles. After President Kennedy’s speech on October 22nd 1962, announcing the “quarantine” (blockade) of Cuba, the Kremlin put military forces, especially air defense forces, on an “extraordinarily high state of alert.” Significantly, “offensive forces avoided assuming the highest readiness stage, as if to insure that Kennedy understood that the USSR would not launch first.”

In response to a declassification request by the National Security Archive, the secretive National Security Agency has declassified large portions of a four-part “top-secret Umbra” study, American Cryptology during the Cold War. Despite major redactions, this history discloses much new information about the agency’s history and the role of SIGINT and communications intelligence (COMINT) during the Cold War. Researched and written by NSA historian Thomas Johnson, the three parts released so far provide a frank assessment of the history of the Agency and its forerunners, warts-and-all.


According to National Security Archive visiting fellow Matthew Aid (author of the forthcoming history The Secret Sentry: The Top Secret History of the National Security Agency), Johnson’s study shows “refreshing openness and honesty, acknowledging both the NSA’s impressive successes and abject failures during the Cold War.” Another striking feature of Johnson’s study is the candor with which it discusses the fractious and damaging relationships between the agencies which make up the U.S. government’s intelligence establishment. Among the successes and failures disclosed by Johnson’s history are:

  • After the end of World War II, with Soviet codes still unbreakable, the U.S. Army and Navy SIGINT organizations had relatively little to listen to. Johnson’s history reveals that as of mid-1946, the most productive source available to the U.S. Army SIGINT organization was French communications, which accounted for half of the finished reporting going to intelligence consumers in Washington.
  • SIGINT coverage of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China by the Air Force Security Agency (an NSA predecessor) during the early 1950s was so bad that a senior CIA official referred to this period as “the dark ages for communications intelligence.”
  • The discovery of high-level Soviet spies operating inside the Australian government in 1947 led the U.S. to cut off Australian access to classified U.S. government information, which was not resumed until two years later in 1949. Full SIGINT cooperation with Australia did not resume until 1953; according to Johnson, the Australian-American intelligence rift “had a deleterious affect on early U.S. SIGINT efforts against the Peoples Republic of China.”
  • During the 1950s, relations between senior officials at the CIA and NSA were at times so bad that they impeded cooperation between the two agencies. The CIA deliberately cut NSA out of the famous Berlin Tunnel operation (1954-1956), with NSA’s director, General Ralph Canine, finding out about the operation from the New York Times after the Soviets discovered the Tunnel in April 1956.
  • By the early 1960s, the NSA was beginning to encounter information overload as more and more intercepted messages were stored in huge warehouses of magnetic tapes. According to Johnson, “the volume of unprocessed … tape was becoming difficult to manage technically and was embarrassing politically.”
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a major strategic intelligence failure for NSA. SIGINT provided no warning of the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba prior to their discovery by U-2 reconnaissance aircraft; according to Johnson, this “marked the most significant failure of SIGINT to warn national leaders since World War II.”
  • In April 1975, as the North Vietnamese military prepared for the final offensive to capture the beleaguered South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, ambassador Graham Martin refused to believe SIGINT reporting which clearly indicated that the offensive was about to commence, arguing that the intercepts were a “deception.” He believed that North Vietnamese wanted a coalition government, not military victory. The offensive began on April 26, 1975. Three days later, Saigon fell.
  • Even though the 1970s was a period of lower budgets and dramatic personnel reductions for NSA, it regained some degree of access to Soviet encrypted communications during the late 1970s. A sentence that the Agency did not delete hints at this and other major cryptanalytic successes “Even with decreased money, cryptology was yielding the best information that it had produced since World War II.”
  • Ten days before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on 28 December 1979, U.S. intelligence agencies provided “specific warning” of the invasion. The post-mortems evaluating intelligence estimates of the Soviet invasion “were unanimous in describing [them] as an intelligence success.”
  • During the 1960s and early 1970s, the NSA officials who ran the Agency’s domestic watch-list/eavesdropping program (Minaret) disguised the origin of their reports because they “seemed to understand that the operation was disreputable if not outright illegal.”

The NSA released the first three parts of American Cryptology during the Cold War in response to a mandatory review request filed by the National Security Archive. The excisions are currently under appeal, both at the NSA as well as the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. With book four of the history recently completed, the Archive has also requested its declassification.


Read the Documents

Document 1: Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989: Book I: The Struggle for Centralization, 1945-1960 (National Security Agency: Center for Cryptological History, 1995), Top Secret Umbra, Excised copy, pp. i-xvii and 1-155

Document 2: Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989: Book I: The Struggle for Centralization, 1945-1960, pp. 157-287

Document 3: Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989: Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972 (National Security Agency: Center for Cryptological History, 1995), Top Secret Umbra, Excised copy, pp. 289-494

Document 4: Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989: Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972, pp. 495-652

Document 5: Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989: Book III: Retrenchment and Reform, 1972-1980 (National Security Agency: Center for Cryptological History, 1998), Top Secret Umbra, Excised copy, pp. i-ix, and 1-116

Document 6: Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989: Book III: Retrenchment and Reform, 1972-1980, pp. 117-262

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