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Inside the Ring: NSA under Reagan
Question of the Day
The National Security Agency, the electronic spy and code-breaking service whose name frequently is mentioned with the words "super-secret," recently declassified details of its history.
A former "top-secret" history produced in 1999 contains a section on how President Ronald Reagan realized the value of NSA's unique electronic intelligence collection capabilities, and he sharply increased the agency's funding and manpower.
The agency is in the midst of downsizing as part of the drastic cuts in defense and intelligence spending underway in the Obama administration.
"NSA's total population rose by 40 percent during the 1980s," states the history, which was made public last week by the National Security Archive. "Beginning with 19,018 in 1983, the Agency's population peaked in 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, at a total of 26,679. The dramatic rise was across the board, civilian and military, but was most pronounced on the civilian side."
It was the first time the NSA made public the number of people who work for the agency, whose post-9/11 workforce is now estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000.
"Ronald Reagan inherited a cryptologic system in parlous shape," the 233-page document says. "Manpower over the previous decade [under President Jimmy Carter] had dropped from 88,600 to about 41,000."
Square footage of NSA office space grew by 240,000 square feet per year during the 1980s. That was accompanied by the addition of computer workstations, with 20,000 workstations in place by 1993 at a cost of $60 million.
To accommodate traffic around NSA headquarters at Fort George G. Meade, Md., the agency lobbied the state to widen Route 32, the main access road to the facility, as a way to reduce traffic jams.
The history also credits Reagan with taking on the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. According to the history, Reagan's anti-communism stance was central to that collapse.
"Militarily, the Reagan administration opened a campaign of psychological military warfare," the history says. "American aircraft, especially from the Strategic Air Command, probed East Bloc borders in increasingly provocative flights."
The Navy was more daring. "Two huge naval exercises — one near the Murmansk coast in 1981, the other in the Sea of Okhotsk in April of 1983 — served notice that Allied naval forces would intrude into what the Soviets had come to regard as their own private lakes," the history says.
"The Navy also delighted in using sophisticated evasion techniques to elude the USSR's ocean reconnaissance systems. These techniques would frequently be turned against the Soviets in high-tech sub shadowing exercises."
The history also mentions the code name for the operation to thwart Russian electronic monitoring against the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
In 1982, an NSA team was sent to Moscow to deal with "technical penetrations" of the embassy, the history says. The team discovered that the KGB intelligence service had wired the embassy's IBM typewriters so they could copy all typed messages and transmit them to KGB electronic spies.
One former intelligence official who briefed Reagan on the case was amazed at how sharp the president was. After he was briefed, Reagan asked if the Soviets knew that the NSA had discovered the KGB bugging and was told they "probably" knew.
"That's too bad because we could have used it against them," the president said, understanding that it would have been useful to feed disinformation to the enemy with false messages from the typewriters.
Any reporter who has interacted with the Pentagon's public affairs bureaucracy knows the effort often can be an "Alice in Wonderland" experience.
Art Pine, a former defense reporter for the Los Angeles Times, once remarked about the Pentagon public affairs shop: "If you ask them what time it is, they'll tell you call Switzerland because they make watches."
Last week, the Pentagon public affairs office provided two curiously different responses to press inquiries related to an exclusive report in Inside the Ring revealing that China's military had conducted the first test of a new and more-capable anti-satellite missile called the DN-2, on May 13.
Asked about the test, Pentagon spokeswoman Army Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson said in an email May 14: "We don't have a comment on it as we don't discuss intelligence."
But a day later, Reuters news agency ran a nearly identical story under the headline "U.S. sees China launch as test of anti-satellite missile: Source."
The article quoted Pentagon spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Monica Matoush as saying of the Chinese missile launch: "We tracked several objects during the flight but did not observe the insertion of any objects into orbit and no objects associated with this launch remain in space."
In that same story, a U.S. defense official was quoted as saying: "It was a ground-based missile that we believe would be their first test of an interceptor that would be designed to go after a satellite that's actually on orbit."
Asked how details of the DN-2 test were classified as secret intelligence matters one day and a matter for public comment the next, Col. Wilkinson said: "The day you asked me the question, the answer was no comment on intel matters. That changed the next day, and Lt. Col. Matoush responded to the new query at that time."
Col. Wilkinson did not respond when asked why she made no effort to correct the earlier "no comment" response.
WHITE HOUSE HIDDEN HAND
Another Pulitzer Prize may be waiting for The New York Times if the newspaper does to the Obama administration what one of its reporters did to win the prize during the George W. Bush administration: Make a big deal out of nothing.
Investigative reporter David Barstow won a Pulitzer in 2009 for his story with the headline "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand." The report suggested that the Pentagon's hosting of regular briefings for more than 75 retired military officers who then spoke on television was improper.
A Pentagon inspector general probe and a review by Congress' Government Accountability Office later found no evidence of wrongdoing in the briefing affair, a point The Times has yet to report in its pages.
In light of the award-winning story, Inside the Ring notes with great interest that John O. Brennan, the former White House counterterrorism adviser who is now CIA director, disclosed under questioning during his Senate confirmation hearing this year that he, too, had briefed news commentators on various national security issues.
Mr. Brennan made the disclosure in stating that he had worked with the Justice Department during a leak investigation. He asserted that he never disclosed classified information in his briefings to former government officials who had become television news commentators.
It also was disclosed later that commentators for MSNBC, the liberal cable news channel, were frequent guests at the White House for such briefings.
President Obama joked about the close ties between MSNBC and the White House during his April 27 speech at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, when he remarked that former adviser David Axelrod had been hired by the cable outlet.
"Some of my former advisers have switched over to the dark side," Mr. Obama said. "For example, David Axelrod now works for MSNBC, which is a nice change of pace since MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod."
Mr. Brennan's briefing of former officials turned news commentators sounds very similar to what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did when he and his public affairs officers launched the briefing program.
The New York Times so far has not devoted its investigative reporting resources to looking into the Brennan briefings.
Inside the Ring would like to send this message to The Times: Mr. Brennan has given you fodder for another Pulitzer.
REAGAN ON NUKE DETERRENCE
A portion of President Ronald Reagan's personal diary that was cut from the 2009 publication of his unabridged diaries recently was made public by the private National Security Archive.
It shows the president understood the value of deterrence in the face of nuclear threats.
The declassified Oct. 10, 1983, diary entry outlines Reagan's reaction to an advanced screening of the ABC drama "The Day After," held at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md. The show dramatized the devastating effects of a Soviet nuclear strike on the town of Lawrence, Kan.
"It is powerfully done — all $7 mil. worth," Reagan wrote. "It's very effective & left me greatly depressed."
The president went on to note that he could not say whether the propagandistic drama would be "of help to the anti-nukes" movement that was active at the time and was later found to have been supported by Soviet intelligence and propaganda organs.
"My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war," Reagan wrote, adding "Back to W.H."
The entry had been censored at the request of the National Security Council for unspecified reasons.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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