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U.S. cryptography timeline


The U.S. Army creates the Cipher Bureau within the Military Intelligence Division. The small Signal Intelligence Service of the Army Signal Corps later carries on its duties.


The U.S. Navy creates its first cryptanalytic group within the Code and Signal Section of the Office of Naval Communications.


The U.S. military creates the Army-Navy Communications Intelligence Board (ANCIB) to facilitate cooperation in intelligence gathering.


The ANCIB adds the State Department to its membership and becomes the State-Army-Navy Communications Intelligence Board (STANCIB).


STANCIB becomes the U.S. Communications Intelligence Board (USCIB) and adds the FBI to its membership.


Congress passes the National Security Act, which moves toward centralizing U.S. intelligence gathering and forms the framework for the modern national security structure. The act establishes the National Security Council (NSC) and the CIA.


Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson issues a directive creating the Armed Forces Security Agency with the mission of conducting communications intelligence and security activities for the military.


President Harry Truman orders the formation of a special committee to analyze the nation's intelligence and cryptographic needs. The secretaries of state and defense, aided by the CIA director, are charged with naming the committee.


In June, the special committee, chaired by New York lawyer George Brownell, recommends the creation of a unified communications intelligence agency with greater powers commensurate with clearly defined responsibilities. In October, Truman and the NSC adopt most of the Brownell committee's recommendations, issuing a top-secret directive creating the National Security Agency. In November, Maj. Gen. Ralph J. Canine is named the first NSA director.


Congress establishes a civilian career service at the NSA, like similar services at the State Department and FBI. To maintain this career service, the agency conducts its own recruiting and employment programs.


The NSA begins intercepting messages and communications traffic revealing the Soviet military buildup in Cuba, including the installation of air defense systems and missile capabilities.


In October, the Cuban missile crisis explodes into the public eye, leading to a tense standoff between the United States and Soviet Union. The crisis marks the first time the NSA creates an around-the-clock command center.


The NSA receives operation control over the cryptologic agencies of the Air Force, Army and Navy. The three agencies are reorganized into the newly created Central Security Service (CSS) headed by the NSA director. The move centralizes the government's signals intelligence (SIGINT) and communications security (COMSEC) programs under the NSA.


Investigations by congressional committees headed by U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and U.S. Rep. Otis Pike of New York reveal that government agencies, including the NSA, performed clandestine surveillance on U.S. citizens who participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. The NSA's activities included passing intercepted information to other agencies and maintaining files on key figures. In response, the House and Senate create permanent committees to oversee the actions of the U.S. intelligence community.


Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to regulate electronic intelligence gathering. The act includes the creation of a special court to handle requests by the NSA to perform electronic surveillance on targeted U.S. persons. Other classified regulations created later cover the handling of foreign intelligence electronic surveillance.


President Ronald Reagan issues a directive giving the NSA responsibility of maintaining security of government computers.


Congress passes the Computer Security Act, which makes clear that in the area of unclassified computing systems, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and not the NSA, is responsible for the development of technical standards for civilian communication systems.


The federal government proposes the Clipper Chip initiative, which would have placed a chip inside communication devices to allow the encryption of private communications. But the proposal also calls for a third party to maintain the "keys" to unlock encrypted communications, which government agents could access with court permission. The NSA invented the chip's underlying cryptographic algorithm, known as Skipjack, which the agency classified on national security grounds. But the proposal comes under severe criticism from privacy advocates and the technology industry, and eventually the Clinton administration abandons it. In 1998, the NSA releases the Skipjack algorithm to computer security companies interested in developing off-the-shelf encryption products that will work with existing federal government communications systems.


Controversy breaks out over the alleged NSA "Echelon" project, which privacy groups describe as a worldwide surveillance network that eavesdrops on all communications traffic. The NSA allegedly maintains the network, which privacy groups say involves the sharing of intelligence gathered by the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

A European Parliament report states that the project targets civilian communications, including political advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Greenpeace. The NSA declines to comment on the project but reiterates that it follows U.S. law.


The director of an Australian intelligence agency publicly acknowledges a long-rumored relationship between U.S. and British intelligence agencies known as UKUSA that allows them to share data.

The U.S. House Select Committee on Intelligence Oversight requests that the NSA provide it with "legal memoranda, opinions rendered and other documents" to see how the agency's legal counsel governs its activities. The agency refuses a portion of the request on the grounds it violates the attorney-client privilege. The agency's response comes under criticism from members of Congress, and legislation is passed requiring the NSA to submit a report detailing the legal standards it uses in carrying out its activities. The Electronic Privacy Information Center files suit in federal court, seeking the release of NSA documents concerning potential surveillance of American citizens by the Echelon project.


NSA director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden testifies before the House intelligence committee. He says media reports that the NSA collects all electronic communications, spies on U.S. citizens and provides intelligence information to U.S. companies are "false or misleading." However, Hayden and CIA director George Tenet, who also testifies, neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Echelon system. U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Georgia, who pushed for the hearings and also testified, says the testimony of Hayden and Tenet leaves the committee with "more questions than answers."

Sources: Federation of American Scientists, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, American Civil Liberties Union and National Security Agency

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