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Myth Busting?: NSA Mass Foreign Surveillance Over 30 Years Ago

NSA surveillance, in the context of post-9/11 counterterrorism, is often characterized by an exceptional technological capacity and strategic commitment to “Collect It All.” But how historically unprecedented are those technological capabilities (matched against existing modes of communication at the time) and how unusual is that strategy when it comes to foreign surveillance?

In reading the terrific biography of William Casey by Joseph Persico (published in 1990), I stumbled across a remarkable description of an NSA program that predated the April 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut. According to Persico’s book, the NSA may have had the ability and an existing operation that could scale up to region-wide collection of communications (across the Middle East).

Of course some progenitors of modern NSA surveillance programs are already well known. Bruce Schneier has described Project Shamrock which intercepted virtually all telegrams leaving and entering the United States (see also the NY Times story that uncovered the program in 1975). Shane Harris described the rise of US surveillance programs following the Marine barracks bombing in late 1983 (here and here), and Echelon became known well before any of us ever heard of PRISM (it’s worth comparing James Bamford’s description of the birth of Echelon in his book Body of Secrets (pp. 346-47) which  dovetails with Persico’s description).

Against that backdrop, check out Persico’s description of NSA foreign surveillance techniques in the Middle East in existence before April 1983:

“Who blew up the American embassy in Beirut? The United States spent billions to keep satellites in the sky that could intercept virtually every international cable, radio signal, and phone call. The NSA operated powerful code-breaking computers. Technically, every cable coming out of the Middle East could be intercepted. But economically this total capture was unfeasible. Consequently, the electronic ears were programmed to pick out certain watchwords in messages. When these watchwords occurred, the computer intercepted the full message for analysts to evaluate. Computers could also be programmed to pick out the beep-tone patterns heard after long-distance calls are placed. The pattern reveals who is calling whom, and the computer could be programmed to start recording predetermined callers.”

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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16). You can follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).