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    A Photo History of the NSA, from Its Once-Secret Archives

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    The US Army Signal Intelligence Service posed in front of their vault, 1935. 

    The NSA trumps even the CIA as the nation's most secretive intelligence agency. Though it first began shape in the 1930s, its existence wasn't even publicly acknowledged until the 1970s. But even top secret spy programs, it turns out, like to keep photo albums. 

    Last year, in celebration of its 60th anniversary, the NSA published an "interactive timeline." The crown jewel is a stockpile of photos, many of them previously kept secret, from its own archives. It's chock full of fascinating images taken throughout the agency's history, beginning in the 1930s, when the nascent proto-NSA was still called the US Signal Intelligence Service (it would be officially become the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1949 and the NSA in 1951). 

    The NSA, it turns out, wasn't always so intent on spying on Americans—the NSA began as a secret cryptologic service that broke foreign foes' code in wartime. So, to better introduce everyone to our clandestine spy cabal that's currently spying on America, let's flip through their digital scrapbook. 

    Cryptologists during WWII

    The proto-NSA's earliest missions included deciphering communications from both Nazi Germany and the Japanese Navy, and to encrypt American messages.

    M-138, a strip cipher device that allowed the use of multiple alphabets to encipher messages.

    The Signal Intelligence Service cryptologists used a Bombe machine, developed in Britain, to decipher Nazi messages encoded by Germany's Enigma machine. 

    Bombe Operator, World War II.

    Fleet Radio Unit Pacific (FRUPAC) in Hawaii working on JN-25, the principal Japanese Navy encryption system (1945).

    Of course, Eisenhower was in on it.

    GEN Eisenhower visits Arlington Hall, William Friedman is standing on the far left.

    Even then, the NSA went to the ends of the earth—and to the bottom of lakes—to decipher communications.

    U.S. Army Engineers conduct diving operations to recover Nazi cryptologic records from Lake Schlersee in Southern Germany at the end of World War II.

    And here's where the NSA stored data before they built the nation's biggest data center in Utah. 

    Maintenance area at Arlington Hall Station.

    The NSA had the top-notch tech.

    NSA's SIGSALY voice security system.

    And here's its first home base.

    National Security Agency, Operations Building 1 (1957).

    In Fort Meade. "One reason the site was selected was because it was deemed far enough away from the capital in case of a nuclear strike," the NSA explains.

    NSA's cryptologists deciphered enemy comms in the Korean war, too.

    Cryptologists in Korea. The Army Security Agency (ASA) was responsible for supplying the Army’s codes and ciphers, Korea, 1950s.

    But there was still time between crytpo-spying to kick back and take in a pageant every now and again. In the late 50s and 60s, the agency staged a "Miss NSA Pageant." 

    Contestants in the Miss NSA Pageant held annually in the 1950s and early 1960s.

    And put on an annual Fall Festival. Take a pony ride with the NSA, kids.

    NSA Newsletter advertising the fall festival in July 1958.

    The 50s were a fun time, eh? But in the 1960s, it was back to work. There was a nuclear standoff boiling, after all.

    The direct communication link between Washington and Moscow at the Pentagon Building, as monitored by the NSA.

    And another war. The NSA sent specialists to Vietnam.

    Left bank operator during Vietnam.

    NSA office circa 1960s.

    UNIVAC system purchased by NSA in 1963.

    The NSA's website notes that it played "a critical role in defusing" the Cuban Missile Crisis, an "event that had the world on edge."

    It was collecting recon on sites like this:

    Soviet strategic missile sites under construction in Cuba, 1962.

    Surveillance tech continued to improve into the 70s. 

    KY-28 and KY-8 Cryptologic Devices.

    UNIVAC 9300 Peripheral Processor.

    NSA supercomputers in the 1970s.

    By the 70s, around the time when the NSA's existence was officially acknowledged, its members already had accomplished enough careers to warrant induction into the NSA "Hall of Honor."

    VADM Inman and Ms. Ann Caracristi listen to Hall of Honor Cryptologist Frank B. Rowlett describe the ENIGMA machine.

    The NSA continued to expand into the 1980s, as you can see in this aerial headquarters of its headquarters. 

    New wings were built elsewhere, too.

    President and Mrs. Reagan tour the new OPS2A and 2B Buildings with LTG Odom and Mrs. Odom on 26 September 1986.

    The NSA calls 1985 "the year of the spy," after Ronald Pelton (right) and Petty Officer John Walker were each convicted of espionage.

    The NSA kept confidential presidential communications encrypted. Here, George H.W. Bush enjoys the fruits of their labors:

    President H. W. Bush confers in confidence using a STU III device.

    The 90s were relatively quiet for the NSA. They collected intelligence for the Desert Storm operation, and long-serving agents got some fittingly Big Brothery recognition with the unveiling of the 'Cryptologic Wall':

    NSA's Cryptologic Memorial Wall honors those "who served in silence" since World War II.

    After 9/11, all that changed. The photo album mostly goes quiet after that, around the time the NSA was directed to begin conducting warrantless wiretaps. There are still a few images, like this photo of Bush and Cheney at the NSA offices in 2008.


    And there's a couple shots of the NSA's Operations Center today. This is where agents are analyzing the metadata from millions of our cell phone calls. 

    View of the National Security Operations Center Floor, 2012.

    And here's the only photo in the album of an agent ostensibly doing everything that you've been reading about—fighting "cyber-terrorism." 

    The NSA/CSS Threat Operations Center Provides Situational Awareness on any Adversarial Attempt to Exploit and Attack Our Networks.

    And that's as good a look as you're ever likely to get at the history of the inner-workings of our tightest-lipped secret service branch. The NSA is typically such a faceless monolith, it's pretty fascinating to see its legacy fleshed out like in this fashion. Now, if only they'd share exactly what they know about each of our personal histories.