November 7, 2012
The National Security Agency (NSA) has released a number of formerly classified articles from a number of its internal publications. NSA censored large portions of the documents, but there is gold to be mined if you are willing to carefully read through what the agency did release.
Here are a selection of the newly released documents that might be of interest to you out there, especially for those interested in the importance of computers at NSA and the agency’s role in pushing high-speed computing technology in this country over the past sixty years.
* A 1956 secret article describing NSA’s early post-World War II efforts to design, build, and use increasingly sophisticated and power computer systems to break foreign codes and ciphers.
* A Top Secret Umbra 1972 report by NSA computer science pioneer Sam Snyder, detailing how American cryptanalysts used IBM tabulators and other mechanical devices to break foreign codes and ciphers even before the first special-purpose computer (called ATLAS) was delivered to NSA after the end of World War II.
* The transcript of a 1972 panel discussion where a group of NSA’s best and brightest computer scientists and engineers describe the how NSA used dozens of different mainframe computers for cryptanalysis between 1945 and 1972. It is a shame that some of the more significant successes that NSA achieved in this field have been deleted by NSA. Shame, shame, shame.
* A Top Secret Umbra 1995 report on NSA’s dependence on supercomputers, for the performance of its signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and cryptanalytic missions. You can tell the article is good when in the second graph it exclaims that “NSA has constructed the largest single-site, single-mission supercomputer complex in the world.” The article describes NSA’s relationship with supercomputer manufacturers and trends in high-performance computing technology.
* And finally, NSA has released to the public a detailed and very well written 1996 article on the role that SIGINT played in tracking the movement of Chinese military forces into Manchuria in 1950 prior them pouring across the Yalu and mauling U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea. I used this article extensively for my history of NSA, “The Secret Sentry.” The article can be viewed here. The takeaway is that just from exploiting intercepted low-level telegrams of railroad movements and personal cables, the American SIGINT analysts were able to do a reasonably remarkable job of tracking the Chinese military buildup in Manchuria during the summer and fall of 1950. But as the article points, General MacArthur either ignored the intercepts or poo-pooed it because it did not comport with his personal assessment that China would not dare risk a war with the U.S. He was dead wrong.