About thirty miles northeast of CIA headquarters in
Langley, Virginia, right off the Baltimore-Washington expressway
overlooking the flat Maryland countryside, stands a large three story
building known informally as the "cookie factory." It's
officially known as Ft. George G. Meade, headquarters of the National
Three fences surround the headquarters. The inner and
outer barriers are topped with barbed wire, the middle one is a
five-strand electrified wire. Four gatehouses spanning the complex at
regular intervals house specially-trained marine guards. Those allowed
access all wear iridescent I.D. badges -- green for "top secret
crypto," red for "secret crypto." Even the janitors are
cleared for secret codeword material. Once inside, you enter the world's
longest "corridor" -- 980 feet long by 560 feet wide. And all
along the corridor are more marine guards, protecting the doors of key
NSA offices. At 1,400,000 square feet, it is larger than CIA
headquarters, 1,135,000 square feet. Only the State Department and
the Pentagon, and the new headquarters planned for the FBI are more
spacious. But the DIRNSA (Director, National Security Agency) can be
further distinguished from the headquarters buildings of these three
other giant bureaucracies -- it has no windows. Another palace of
paranoia? No. For DIRNSA is the command center for the largest, most
sensitive and far-flung intelligence gathering apparatus in the world's
history. Here, and in the nine-story Operations Building Annex, upwards
of 15,000 employees work to break the military, diplomatic and
commercial codes of every nation in the world, analyze the de-crypted
messages, and send the results to the rest of the U.S. intelligence
Far less widely known than the CIA, whose Director
Richard Helms will occasionally grant public interviews, NSA silently
provides an estimated 80 percent of all valid U.S. intelligence. So
secret, so sensitive is the NSA mission and so highly indoctrinated are
its personnel, that the Agency, twenty years after its creation, remains
virtually unknown to those employees outside the intelligence community.
The few times its men have been involved in international incidents,
NSA's name has been kept out of the papers.
Nevertheless, the first American killed in Vietnam,
near what became the main NSA base at Phu Bai, was an NSA operative. And
the fact that Phu Bai remains the most heavily guarded of all U.S. bases
suggests that an NSA man may well be the last.
The scope of the NSA's global mission has been
shrouded in secrecy since the inception of the Agency. Only the haziest
outlines have been known, and then only on the basis of surmise.
However, Ramparts has recently been able to conduct a series of lengthy
interviews with a former NSA analyst willing to talk about his
experiences. He worked for the Agency for three and a half years -- in
the cold war of Europe and the hot one in Southeast Asia. The story he
tells of NSA's structure and history is not the whole story, but it is a
significant and often chilling portion of it.
Our informant served as a senior NSA analyst in the
Istanbul listening post for over two years. He was a participant in the
deadly international fencing match that goes on daily with the Soviet
Union, plotting their air and ground forces and penetrating their
defenses. He watched the Six Day War unfold and learned of the
intentions of the major powers -- Israel, the Soviet Union, the United
States, France, Egypt -- by reading their military and diplomatic radio
traffic, all of it duly intercepted, de-coded and translated by NSA on
the spot. As an expert on NSA missions directed against the Soviet Union
and the so-called "Forward Countries" -- Bulgaria, Hungary,
Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania and Yugoslavia -- he briefed such
visiting dignitaries as Vice President Humphrey. In Indochina he was a
senior analyst, military consultant and U.S. Air Force intelligence
operations director for North Vietnam, Laos, the northern-most provinces
of South Vietnam and China. He is a veteran of over one hundred Airborne
Radio Direction Finding missions in Indochina -- making him thoroughly
familiar with the "enemy" military structure and its order of
With the benefit of the testimony he provides, we can
see that the reason for the relative obscurity of NSA of less to do with
its importance within the intelligence community than with the limits of
its mission and the way it gets its results. Unlike the CIA, whose basic
functions are clearly outlined in the 1947 law that created it, NSA,
created in 1952, simply gathers intelligence. It does not formulate
policy or carry out operations. Most of the people working for NSA are
not "agents," but ordinary servicemen attached to one of
three semi-autonomous military cryptologic agencies -- the Air
Force Security Service, the largest; the Naval Security Group; and the
Army Security Agency, the oldest. But while it is true that the Agency
runs no spies as in the popular myth, its systematic Signal Intelligence
intercept mission is clearly prohibited by the Geneva Code. What we are
dealing with is a highly bureaucratized, highly technological
intelligence mission whose breadth and technological sophistication
appear remarkable even in an age of imperial responsibilities and
So that not a sparrow or a government falls without
NSA's instantaneous knowledge, over two thousand Agency field stations
dot the five continents and the seven seas. In Vietnam, NSA's airborne
flying platforms carrying out top-secret Radar Detection Finding
missions, supply U.S. commanders with their most reliable information on
the location of communist radio transmitters, and thus on the location
of NLF units themselves. Other methods, the use of sensors and seismic
detectors, either don't work or are used merely to supplement NSA's
results. But the Agency's tactical mission in Indochina,
intelligence support for U.S. commanders in the field, however vital to
the U.S. war effort, is subsidiary in terms of men, time and material to
its main strategic mission.
The following interview tells us a great deal about
both sides of the NSA mission -- everything from how Agency people feel
about themselves and the communist "enemy" to the NSA
electronic breakthroughs that threaten the Soviet-American balance of
terror. We learn for example that NSA knows the call signs for every
Soviet airplane, the numbers on the side of each plane, the name of the
pilot in command; the precise longitude and latitude of every nuclear
submarine; the whereabouts of nearly every Soviet VIP; the location of
every Soviet missile base; every army division, battalion and company --
its weaponry, commander and deployment. Routinely the NSA monitors all
Soviet military, diplomatic and commercial radio traffic, including
Soviet Air Defense, Tactical Air and KGB forces. (It was the NSA that
found Che Guevara in Bolivia through radio communications intercept and
analysis.) NSA cryptologic experts seek to break every Soviet code and
do so with remarkable success, Soviet scrambler and computer-generated
signals being nearly as vulnerable as ordinary voice and manual morse
radio transmissions. Interception of Soviet radar signals enables NSA to
gauge quite precisely the effectiveness of Soviet Air Defense units.
Methods have even been devised to "fingerprint" every human
voice used in radio transmissions and distinguish them from the voice of
every other operator. The Agency's Electronic Intelligence Teams (ELINT)
are capable of intercepting any electronic signal transmitted anywhere
in the world and, from an analysis of the intercepted signal, identify
the transmitter and physically reconstruct it. Finally, after having
shown the size and sensitivity of the Agency's big ears, it is almost
superfluous to point out that NSA monitors and records every
trans-Atlantic telephone call.
Somehow, it is understandable, given the size of the
stakes in the Cold War, that an agency like NSA would monitor U.S.
citizens' trans-Atlantic phone calls. And we are hardly surprised that
the U.S. violates the Geneva Code to intercept communist radio
transmissions. What is surprising is that the U.S. systematically
violates a treaty of its own making, the UKUSA Agreements of 1947. Under
this treaty, the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia erected
a white-anglo-saxon-protestant nation communications intelligence
dictatorship over the "Free World." The agreement
distinguishes between three categories of intelligence consumers, First,
Second, and Third Party consumers. The First Party is the U.S.
intelligence community. The Second party refers to the other white
anglo-saxon nations' communications intelligence agencies; i.e. Great
Britain's GCHQ, Canada's CBNRC, etc. These agencies exchange information
routinely. Non-WASP nations, the so-called Third Party nations, are
placed on short intelligence rations. This category includes all NATO
allies -- West Germany, France, Italy, as well as South Vietnam, Japan,
Thailand and the non-WASP allies in SEATO. But the idea of a closed club
of gentlemanly white men gets quickly dispelled when we learn that the
U.S. even intercepts the radio communications of its Second Party UKUSA
"allies." From the U.S. military base at Chicksands, for
example, and from the U.S. Embassy in London, NSA operatives busily
intercept and transcribe British diplomatic traffic and send it off for
further analysis to DIRNSA.
We feel that the information in this interview --
while not of a "sensitive" nature -- is of critical importance
to America for the light it casts on the cold war and the anti-communist
myths that perpetuate it. These myths about the aggressive intentions of
the Soviet Union and China and about North Vietnam's "invasion of a
democratic South Vietnam," can only be sustained by keeping the
American people as ignorant as possible about the actual nature of these
regimes and the great power relationships that exist in the world. The
peace of the world, we are told, revolves shakily on a "balance of
terror" between the armed might of the Soviet Union and the United
States. So tenuous is this balance that if the U.S. were to let down its
guard ever so slightly, if it were, for example, to reduce the
ever-escalating billions allocated for "defense," we would
immediately face the threat of destruction from the aggressive Soviets,
who are relentless in their pursuit of military superiority. Our
informant's testimony, based on years of dealing with the hard
information about the Soviet military and its highly defensive-oriented
deployment, is a powerful and authoritative rebuttal to this mythology.
But perhaps even an more compelling reason requires
that this story be told. As we write, the devastating stepped-up bombing
of North Vietnam continues. No one can say with certainty what the
ultimate consequences of this desperate act are likely to be. Millions
of Americans, perhaps a majority, deplore this escalation. But it would
be a mistake to ignore the other millions, those who have grown up in
fear of an entity known as "world communism." For them Nixon's
latest measures have a clear rationale and a plausible purpose. It is
precisely this political rationale and this strategic purpose that the
testimony of our informant destroys.
We are told by Nixon that South Vietnam has been
"invaded" by the North which is trying to impose its will on
the people of the South. This latest version of why we continue to fight
in Indochina -- the first version stressed the threat of China which
allegedly controlled Hanoi, even as Moscow at one time was thought to
control Peking -- emphasizes Hanoi's control over the NLF. Our evidence
shows that the intelligence community, including NSA, has long
determined that the NLF and the DRV are autonomous, independent
entities. Even in Military Region I, the northern-most province of South
Vietnam, and the key region in the "North Vietnamese"
offensive, the command center has always been located not in Hanoi but
in somewhere in the Ia Drang valley. This command center, the
originating point for all military operations in the region, is
politically and militarily under the control of the PRG. Known as
Military Region Tri Tin Hue (MRTTH) it integrates both DRV and NLF units
under the command. Hanoi has never simply "called the shots,"
although the DRV and PRG obviously have common reasons for fighting and
share common objectives. All of this information NSA has passed on
systematically to the political authorities who, equally systematically,
have ignored it.
Nixon's military objective -- halting supplies to the
South through bombing and mining of North Vietnamese ports -- turns out
to be as bogus as his political rationale. Military supplies for the DRV
and the NLF are stored along the Ho Chi Minh trail in gigantic
underground staging areas know as bamtrams. These are capable of storing
supplies for as long as twelve months, at normal levels of hostilities,
according to NSA estimates.Even at the highly accelerated pace of the
recent offensive, it would take several months (assuming 100 percent
effectiveness) before our bombing and mining wold have any impact on the
Taken together, teh experience of our informant in
Europe, in the Middle East, and in Indochina bears witness to the
aggressive posture of the United States in the late 1960s. It is hard to
see anything defensive about it. Our policy makers are well-informed by
the intelligence community of the defensive nature of our antagonists'
military operations. The NSA operations here described reflect the drive
of a nation to control as much of the world as possible, whose leaders
trust no one and are forced to spy on their closet allies in violation
of the treaties they initiated themselves; leaders, moreover, for whom
all nations are, in teh intelligence idiom, "targets," and who
maintain the U.S. imperium around the world in large part through threat
of actual physical annihilation.
At home, however, the favored weapon employed is
ignorance rather than fear. Like NSA headquarters itself, the United
States is surrounded by barriers -- barriers of ignorance that keep its
citizens prisoners of the cold war. The first obstacle is formed by the
myths propagated about communism and about its aggressive designs on
America. The second, and dependent for its rationale on the first, is
the incredible barrier of governmental secrecy that keeps most of the
questionable U.S. aggressive activities hidden nor from our
"enemies," who are the knowledgeable victims, but from the
American people themselves. The final barrier is perhaps the highest and
is barbe with the sharpest obstacles of all. It is nothing less than our
reluctance as Americans to confront what we are doing to the peoples of
the world, ourselves included, by organizations like the National
Q. Let's begin by getting a sense of the National
Security Agency and the scope of its operations.
A. O.K. At the broadest level, NSA is a part of
the United States intelligence community and a member of the USIB, the
United States Intelligence Board. It sits on the Board with the CIA, the
FBI, the State Department's RCI, and various military intelligence
bureaus. Other agencies also have minor intelligence-gathering units,
even the Department of the Interior.
All intelligence agencies are tasked with producing a
particular product. NSA produces -- that is, collects, analyzes, and
disseminates to its consumers -- Signals Intelligence, called SIGINT. It
comes from communications or other types of signals intercepted from
what we called "targeted entities," and it amounts to about 80
percent of the viable intelligence the U.S. government receives. There
is COMSEC, a secondary mission. This is to produce all the
communications security equipment, codes and enciphering equipment for
the United States and its allies. This function of the NSA involves the
monitoring of our own communications to make sure they are secure. But
SIGINT is the main responsibility.
As far as NSA's personnel is concerned, they are
divided into two groups: those that are totally civilian, and those like
me who derived from the military. As far as the collection of data is
concerned, the military provides almost all the people. They are
recruited through one of the service cryptologic agencies. The three
agencies are the U.S. Air Force Security Service (USAFSS), the Army
Security Agency (ASA), and the Navy Security Group (NSG). These agencies
may control a few intelligence functions that are primarily tactical in
nature and directly related to ongoing military operations. But
generally, DIRNSA, the Director of the National Security Agency, is
completely in control over all NSA's tasks, missions and people.
The NSA, through its sites all over the world, copies
-- that is, collects -- intelligence from almost every conceivable
source. That means every radio transmission that is of a strategic or
tactical nature, or is related to some government, or has some political
significance. NSA is powerful, and it has grown since its beginning back
in 1947. The only problem it has had has come over the last few years.
Originally it had equal power with the CIA on the USIB and the National
Security Council. But recently the CIA has gained more of a hegemony in
intelligence operations, especially since Richard Helms became director
of the entire intelligence community.
Q. Does the NSA have agents in the field?
A. Yes, but probably not in the way you mean.
It is different from other intelligence agencies in that it's not a
consumer of its own intelligence. That is, it doesn't act on the data it
gathers. It just passes it on. Generally, there's a misconception all
Americans have about spying. They think it's all cloak and dagger, with
hundreds of james Bonds wandering around the world in Aston-Martins,
shooting people. It just doesn't happen. It's all either routine or
electronic. I got to know a lot of CIA people in my three and a half
years with NSA, and it became pretty clear to me that most of them sit
around doing mundane stuff. You know, reading magazines, newspapers,
technical journals. Like some people say, they do a lot of translating
of foreign phone books. Of course I did meet a few who were out in the
jungles with guns in their hands too.
But as far as the NSA is concerned, it is completely
technological. Like I said, at least 80 percent of all viable
intelligence that this country receives and acts on comes from the NSA,
and it is all from signals intelligence, strategic and tactical. I saw
it from both angles -- first strategic in working against the Soviet
Union in Turkey and then tactical flying missions against the VC in Nam.
Information gathering by NSA is complete. It covers what foreign
governments are doing, planning to do, have done in the past: what
armies are moving where and against whom; what air forces are moving
where, and what heir capabilities are. There really aren't any limits on
NSA. Its mission goes all the way from calling in the B-52s in Vietnam
to monitoring every aspect of the Soviet space program.
Q. In practical terms, what sort of data are
collected by NSA?
A. Before going into that, I should get into
the types of signals NSA collects. There are three basic area. First is
what we called ELINT, electronics intelligence. This involves the
interception and analysis of any electronics signal. There isn't
necessarily any message on that signal. It's just the signal, and it's
mainly used by technicians. The only time I ever remember using ELINT
was when we were tracking a Russian fighter. Some of them has a
particular type of radar system. As I remember, we called this system
MANDRAKE. Anyhow, every time this system signalled, a particular type of
electronic emission would occur. Our ELINT people would be looking for
it, and whenever it came up, it would let them positively identify this
type of fighter.
The second type of signal is related to this. It is
intelligence from radar, called RADINT. This also involves the
technicians. Let me give you an example. There is a particular type of
Soviet radar system known in NSA by a code name which we'll call SWAMP.
SWAMP is used by the Soviet technical air forces, by their air defense,
by the KGB and some civilian forces. It is their way of locating any
flying entity while it is in the air. It had a visual read-out display,
so that, whenever a radar technician in the Soviet Union wanted to plot
something on his map, he could do it by shooting a beam of light on a
scope and then send it to whoever wanted to find out information about
that airplane. Our RADINT people intercepted SWAMP signals in our
European listening posts. From the data they got, NSA analysts were able
to go back to the headquarters at Fort meade and in less than eight
weeks completely reconstruct SWAMP. We duplicated it. This meant that we
were able to see exactly what the Soviet operators were seeing when they
used SWAMP. So, as far as this radar was concerned, the upshot was that
they were doing our tracking for us. We knew everything they knew, and
we knew what they were able to track over their airspace, and what they
Q. Does this mean that we can jam their radar?
A. Yes, part of the function of ELINT and
RADINT is to develop electronic counter measures. There's a counter
measure for every type of Soviet radar.
Q. You said there were three areas. You've gone
over ELINT and RADINT. What's the third?
A. This is by far the most important. It's
communications intelligence. COMINT. It involves the collection of radio
communications of a targeted entity. NSA intercepts them, reproduces
them in its equipment and breaks down any code used to encipher the
signal. I should say that what I call a "targeted entity"
could mean any country -- NSA gathers data on them all -- but in
practical terms it's almost synonymous with the Soviet Union.
COMINT is the important function. It's what I was in,
and it represents probably 95 percent of relevant SIGINT intelligence.
As a matter of fact, the entire intelligence community is also known as
the COMINT community.
Q. It would probably be good to backpedal for a
moment before we go into your experiences in NSA and get into the way
you joined the organization.
A. Well, I'd been in college, was bored, and
wanted to do something different. I come from the Midwest, and we still
believed those ads about joining the military and seeing the world. I
enlisted in the Air Force. Like everybody else, I was shocked by basic
training, but after that, when it came time to choose what I'd be doing
for the rest of my time, it wasn't too bad. I tried for linguist's
training, but there weren't any openings in the schools. I was then
approached by three people I later found were a part of the National
Security Agency. They interviewed me along with four other guys and
asked us if we'd like to do intelligence work. We took a battery of
tests, I.Q. and achievement tests, and had some interviews to determine
our political and emotional stability. They really didn't go into our
politics very much, I guess because were all so obviously apathetic.
Their main concern was our sex life. They wanted to know if we were
At this point, it was 1966, I suppose I had what you
would call an analysis of the world situation. But it was primarily
based on a belief in maintaining the balance of power. I really didn't
see anything wrong with what our government was doing. Also, the few
hints about what we might be doing in NSA were pretty exciting:
world-wide travel working in the glamorous field of intelligence, being
able to wear civilian clothes.
After getting admitted, I was bussed to Goodfellow Air
Force Base at San Angelo, Texas. Originally, it was a WAC base or
something like that, but now it's entirely an intelligence school for
NSA. The whole basis of the training was their attempt to make us feel
we were the absolute cream of the military. For most GIs, the first days
in the military are awful, but as soon as we arrived at the school we
were given a pass to go anywhere we wanted, just as long as were were
back in school each morning. We could live off base; there was no
hierarchical thing inside the classroom.
Q. What sort of things did you focus on in school?
A. At first it was basic stuff. For about two
months we just learned primary analysis techniques, intelligence terms,
and a rough schematic of the intelligence community. We learned a few
rudimentary things about breaking codes and intercepting messages. A lot
of people were dropped out of the program at this time because of
inadequate school performance, poor attitude, or because of something in
their backgrounds didn't prove out. Actually, of fifteen people with me
in this class, only four made it through. We had been given access only
to information rated "confidential" all the time, but then we
got clearance and a Top Secret cryptologic rating.
The first day of the second phase of school began when
we walked into the classroom and saw this giant map on the wall. It was
marked "Top Secret," and it was of the Soviet Union. For the
next three months, we learned about types of communications in
operations throughout the world and also in-depth things about the
political and administrative makeup of various countries. The Soviet
Union, of course, was our primary focus. And we learned every one of its
military functions: the entire bureaucratic structure, including who's
who and where departments and headquarters are located; and a long
history of its military and political involvements, especially with
countries like China and the East European bloc, which we called
"the forward area."
We learned in-depth analysis -- how to perform
different types of traffic analysis, cryptic analysis, strategic
analysis. A lot of the texts we used were from the Soviet Union, and had
been translated by the CIA.
I'm not especially proud of it now, but I should tell
you that I graduated at the head of the class. We had a little ceremony
inside a local movie theater. I was called up with two guys from other
classes and given special achievement certificates. We were given our
choice of assignments anywhere in the world. I chose Istanbul. It seemed
like the most far-out and exotic place available. After that I left San
Angelo and went to Monterey to the Army's language school for a month
and a half. I learned a bit of very technical Russian -- basically how
to recognize the language -- and then to Fort Meade NSA headquarters for
a couple of weeks indoctrination about Istanbul, our operation there at
Karmasel, and the whole European intelligence community.
Q. When did you get to Istanbul?
A. That was January 1967.
Q. What did you do there?
A. I was assigned to be one of the flight
analysts working primarily against the Soviet tactical Air Forces and
Soviet long range Air Forces. I had about twenty-five morse operators
who were listening to morse signals for me, and about five non-morse and
voice operators. It was a pretty boring job for them. A morse operator,
for instance, just sits there in front of a radio receiver with
headphones, and a typewriter for copying morse signals. They would
"roll onto" their target, which means that they would go to
the frequency that their target was using. The list of likely
frequencies and locations and the call signals that would be used -- all
this information was made available by the analyst as technical support
to the operator. In return the operator would feed the copy to me: I'd
perform analysis on it and correlate with other intelligence collected
there in Istanbul, and at the NSA installations in the rest of Europe.
Q. Where were the other NSA installations in
A. The major ones aside from Karmasel are in
Berlinhof and Darmstadt, West Germany; Chicksands, England; Brindisi,
Italy; and also at Trabesan and Crete. Some of these sites have gigantic
Feranine antennas. This is a circular antenna array, several football
fields in diameter, and it's capable of picking up signals from 360
degrees. They're very sensitive. We can pick up hundreds of signals
simultaneously. We pick up voices speaking over short-range radio
communications thousands of miles away.
The whole Air Force part of NSA, the USAFSS units, is
known as the European Security region. It is headquartered at the I.G.
Farben building in Berlin. The Army ASA has units attached to every Army
installation in Europe. The Naval NSG has its sites aboard carriers in
the 6th Fleet. But mainly it was us.
Q. What does this apparatus actually try to do?
A. Like I said, it copies -- that is,
intercepts for decoding and analysis -- communications from every
targeted country. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, we know the
whereabouts at any given time of all its aircraft, exclusive of small
private planes, and its naval forces, including its missile-firing
submarines. The fact is that we're able to break every code they've got,
understand every type of communications equipment and enciphering device
they've got. We know where their submarines are, what every one of their
VIPs is doing, and generally their capabilities and the dispositions of
all their forces. This information is constantly computer correlated,
updated, and the operations go on twenty-four hours a day.
Q. Let's break it down a little. How about starting
with the aircraft. How does NSA keep track of the Soviet air forces?
A. First, by copying Soviet Navair, which is
their equivalent of the system our military has for keeping track of its
own planes. And their Civair, like our civilian airports: we copy all of
their air controllers' messages. So we have their planes under control.
Then we copy their radar plotting of their own air defense radar, which
is concerned with flights that come near their airspace and violate it.
By this I mean the U.S. planes that are constantly overflying their
territory. Anyhow, all this data would be correlated with our own radar
and with the air-to-ground traffic these planes transmitted and our
operators picked up. We were able to locate them exactly even if they
weren't on our radar through RDF -- radio direction finding. We did this
by instantaneously triangulating reception coming through these gigantic
antennas I mentioned. As far as Soviet aircraft are concerned, we not
only know where they are: we know what their call signs are, what
numbers are on the side of every one of their planes, and, most of the
time, even which pilots are flying which plane.
Q. You said that we overfly Soviet territory?
A. Routinely as a matter of fact -- over the
Black Sea, down to the Baltic. Our Strategic Air Force flies the planes,
and we support them. By that I mean that we watch them penetrate the
Soviet airspace and then analyze the Soviet reaction -- how everything
from their air defense and tactical air force to the KGB reacts. It used
to be that SAC flew B-52s. As a matter of fact one of them crashed in
the Trans-Caucasus area in 1968 and all the Americans on board were
Q. Was it shot down?
A. That was never clear, but I don't believe
so. The Soviets know what the missions of the SAC planes are. A lot of
times they scramble up in their jets and fly wing-to-wing with our
planes. I've seen pictures of that. Their pilots even communicate with
ours. We've copied that.
Q. Do we still use U-2s for reconnaissance?
A. No, and SAC doesn't fly the B-52s anymore
either. Now the plane they use is the SR-71. It has unbelievable speed
and it can climb high enough to reach the edge of outer space. The first
time I came across the SR-71 was when I was reading a report of Chinese
reaction to its penetration of their airspace. The report said their air
defense tracking had located the SR-71 flying at a fairly constant
pattern at a fairly reasonable altitude. They scrambled MIG-21s on it,
and when they approached it, the radar pattern indicated that the SR-71
had just accelerated with incredible speed and rose to such a height
that the MIG-21s just flew around looking at each other. Their
air-to-ground communications indicated that the plane just disappeared
in front of their eyes.
I might tell you this as a sort of footnote to your
mentioning of the U-2. The intelligence community is filled with rumor.
When I got to Turkey, I immediately ran into rumors that Gary Powers'
plane had been sabotaged, not shot down. Once I asked someone who'd been
in Istanbul for quite a while and he told me that it was reported in a
unit history that this had happened. The history said it had been three
Turks working for the Soviets and that they'd put a bomb on the plane. I
didn't read this history myself, however.
Q. You have explained how we are able to monitor
Soviet air traffic to the extent indicated, but it's hard to believe
that we could know where all their missile submarines are at any given
A. Maybe so, but that's the way it is. There
are some basic ways in which we can keep track of them, for example
through the interpretation of their sub-to-base signals which they
encode and transmit in bursts that last a fraction of a second. First we
record it on giant tape drops several feet apart, where it is played
back slowly so that we get the signal clearly. Then the signal will be
modulated -- that is, broken down so we can understand it. Then the
codes are broken and we get the message, which often turns out to
contain information allowing us to tell where they are.
Another way in which we keep track of these subs is
much simpler. Often they'll surface someplace and send a weather
Q. But don't submarines go for long periods without
communicating, maneuvering according to some pre-arranged schedule?
A. Actually, not very often. There are times
during a war exercise or communications exercise when they might not
transmit for a week or even longer. But we still keep track of them.
We've discovered that they're like all Soviet ships in that they travel
in patterns. By performing a very complicated, computerized pattern
analysis, we are able to know where to look for a particular ship if it
doesn't turn up for a while. The idea is that they revert from that
pattern only in extreme emergency situation: but during such a situation
they'll have to be in communication at least once. We know how many subs
they have. And in practical terms, when one of them is not located, NSA
units tasked with submarine detection concentrate all their energies on
Q. How do you know this? Did you ever have
responsibility for submarine detection?
A. No. My information comes from two sources.
First, the fact that there were analysts sitting right next to me in
Karmasel who were tasked on subs. Second, I read what we called TEXTA.
TEXTA means "technical extracts of traffic." It is a
computer-generated digest of intelligence collected from every
communications facility in the world -- how they communicate, what they
transmit, and who to. It is the Bible of the SIGINT community. It is
constantly updated, and one of an analyst's duties is reading it. You've
got to understand that even though each analyst had his own area to
handle, he also had to be familiar with other problems. Quite often I
would get through my operators base-to-base submarine traffic and I'd
have to be able to identify it.
Q. The implications of what you're saying are very
serious. In effect, it means that based on your knowledge there is no
real "balance of terror" in the world. Theoretically, if we
know where every Soviet missile installation, military aircraft and
missile submarine is at every moment, we are much closer than anyone
realized to a first-strike capacity that would cripple their ability to
Q. How many NSA people were there at Istanbul and
in the rest of the installations in Europe?
A. About three thousand in our operation. It
would be hard to even guess how many in the rest of Europe.
Q. What were the priorities for gathering
information on Soviet operations?
A. First of all, NSA is interested in their
long-range bombing forces. This includes their rocket forces, but mainly
targets on their long-range bombers. This is because the feeling is
that, if there is conflict between us and them, the bombers will be used
first, as a way of taking a step short of all-out war. Second, and very
close to the bombing capabilities, is the location of their missile
submarines. Next would be tasking generated against the Soviet
scrambler, which is their way of communicating for all of their services
and facilities. After this would be their Cosmos program. After that
things like tasking their KGB, their air controllers, their shipping,
and all the rest of the things tend to be on the same priority.
Q. All this time, the Soviets must be doing
intelligence against us too. What is its scope?
A. Actually, they don't get that much. They
aren't able to break our advanced computer generated scrambler system,
which accounts for most of the information we transmit. They do a lot of
work to determine what our radar is like, and they try to find out
things by working on some of the lower level codes used by countries
like Germany and the Scandinavian countries we deal with. Their SIGINT
operation is run by the KGB.
The key to it is that we have a ring of bases around
them. They try to make up for the lack of bases by using trawlers for
gathering data, but it's not the same. They're on the defensive.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. That they're on the defensive? Well, one of
the things you discover pretty early is that the whole thing of
containing the communist menace for expansion is nonsense. The entire
Soviet outlook of their military and their intelligence was totally
different from ours. They were totally geared up for defense and to meet
some kind of attack. Other than strategic capacities relating to the
ultimate nuclear balance, their air capabilities are solidly built
around defending themselves from penetration. They've set up the
"forward" area -- our term for the so-called bloc countries of
eastern Europe -- less as a launching pad into Europe than as a buffer
zone. The only Soviet forces there are air defense forces, security
forces. Put it this way: their whole technology is not of an offensive
nature, simply, don't have the kind of potential for a tactical
offensive that we do. They have no attack carriers, for instance. Soviet
ships are primarily oriented toward protection of their coasts. Actually
they do have carriers of a sort, but they are helicopter anti-submarine
carriers. Another thing: they have a lot of fighters, but hardly any
fighter-bombers. They do have a large submarine force, but given the
fact that they are completely ringed by the U.S., this too is really of
a strategic nature.
Everything we did in Turkey was in direct support of
some kind of military operation, usually something clandestine like
overflights, infiltrations, penetrations. If all we were interested in
was what they call an "invulnerable deterrent," we could
easily get our intelligence via satellite. We don't need to have these
gigantic sites in Europe and Asia for this.
Q. You mentioned a few minutes ago that one of
NSA's main targets was the Soviet space program. What sort of material
were you interested in?
A. Everything. Obviously, one of the things we
wanted to know was how close they were to getting a space station up.
But w knew everything that went on in their Cosmos program. For
instance, before I had gotten to Turkey, one of their rockets had
exploded on the launching pad and two of their cosmonauts were killed.
One died while I was there too. It was Soyuz, I believe. He developed
re-entry problems on his way back from orbit. They couldn't get the
chute that slowed his craft down in re-entry to work. They knew what the
problem was for about two hours before he died, and were fighting to
correct it. It was all in Russian, of course, but we taped it and
listened to it a couple of times afterward. Kosygin called him
personally. They had a video-phone conversation. Kosygin was crying. He
told him he was hero and that he made a great achievement in Russian
history, and that they were proud and he'd be remembered. The guy's wife
got on too. They talked for a while. He told her how to handle their
affairs, and what to do with the kids. It was pretty awful. Towards the
last few minutes, he began falling apart, saying, "I don't want to
die, you've got to do something." Then there was just a scream as
he died. I guess he was incinerated. The strange thing was that we were
all pretty bummed out by the whole thing. In a lot of ways, having the
sort of job we did humanizes the Russians. You study them so much and
listen to them for so many hours that pretty soon you come to feel that
you know more about them than your own people.
Q. While you were monitoring the Soviet Union what
sort of intelligence would have been considered but very
important or serious?
A. In a way you do this almost routinely.
That is, there are certain times that the activities of the targeted
the entity are of such an important nature that a special type has
to be sent out. It is called a CRITIC. This is sent around the world to
a communications network called CRITICOM. The people in this network,
besides NSA, are those in other intelligence or diplomatic capacities
who might come across the intelligence of such importance themselves
that the president of the United States would need to be
immediately notified. When a CRITIC goes out, one analyst working alone
can't do it can't do it. There is just too great a volume of material to
Q. What would be an example of something sent out
as a CRITIC?
A. Well, one of the strangest I ever read was
sent out by our base at Crete. One of the analyst traced a Soviet bomber
that landed in the middle of Lake Baikal. He knew it hadn't
crashed from the type of communications he monitored, and he thought
they had developed a new generation of bombers able to land on water.
It turned out to be a bad mistake because he neglected to remember
that about three-fourths of the year this lake is completely frozen
But actually this sort of thing is rare. Most
CRITICs are based on good reasoning and data. You work around the
clock, sometimes for 30 hours at a stretch putting things together.
These are the times that the job stops being routine. I guess that's why
they have a say about the work in NSA: "Hours of boredom and
seconds of terror."
Q. Did you ever issue a CRITIC.
A. Yes, several. During Czechoslovakia,
for instance, when it became clear the Soviets were moving their troops
up. We also issued a number of CRITICs during the Mideast war of
A. Well, I was part of an analysis team that
was predicting the war at least two months before it began. I
guess we issued our first CRITIC on this in April. We did it on
the basis of two sources. One, we and the Crete station had both been
picking up data as early as February that the Israelis had a massive
build-up of arms, a massing of men and materiel, war exercises,
increased level of Arab territory -- just everything a country does
to prepare for war. Two, there were indications that the Soviets
were convinced there was going to be a war. We know this from the
traffic we had on diplomatic briefings sent down from Moscow to a
commanding general of a particular region. And by April they
had sent their VTA airborne, their version of Special Forces
paratroopers, to Bulgaria. Normally they're based in the Trans-Caucasus,
and we knew from their contingency plans that Bulgaria was a launching
point for the Middle East. Because some of these forces were being given
to cram-courses in Israeli and Arabic languages.
Q. All this leaves the sequence of events that
immediately preceded the Six Day War -- the various countercharges, the
U.N. pullout, the closing of the Straits -- still pretty obscure. Did
NSA evidence clear this up?
A. No. Not really. But one of the
things that confused us at first was the fact that until last days
before the war the Arabs weren't doing anything to prepare. They
weren't being trained to scramble their air force. This is why
there was a total chaos when the Israelis struck.
Q. How did the White House react to your reports
about all this?
A. Well, in every message we sent out, we
always put in our comments at the end -- there's a place for this in the
report form -- and they'd say something like "Believe there is some
preparation for an expected Israeli attack . Request your
comments." They didn't exactly ignore it. They'd send back,
"Believe this deserves further analysis," which means
something like, "We don't really believe you, but keep sending us
information." Actually, we all got special citations when the whole
thing was over.
Q. Why didn't they believe you?
A. I suppose because the Israelis were assuring
them that they were not going to attack and Johnson was buying it.
Q. You remember about the "Liberty," the
communications ship we sent in along the coast which was torpedoed by
Israeli gunboats? The official word at the time was that the whole thing
was a mistake. Johnson calls it a "heartbreaking episode" in The
Vantage Point. How does this square with your information?
A. The whole idea of sending the
"Liberty" in was that at that point the U.S. simply didn't
know what was going on going on. We sent it in close so that we could
find out hard information about what the Israelis' intentions were. What
it found out, among other things, was that Dayan's intentions were to
push on to Damascus and to Cairo. The Israelis shot at the
"Liberty," damaged it pretty badly and killed some of the
crew, and told it to stay away. After this it got very tense. It became
pretty clear that the White House had gotten caught with its pants down.
Q. What were the Russians doing?
A. The VTA airborne was loaded into
planes. They took off from Bulgaria and their intention was
clearly to make a troop drop on Israel. At this point became
pretty clear that we were approaching a situation where World War III
could get touched off at any time. Johnson got on the hot line and told
them we were headed for a conflict if they didn't on those planes
around. They did.
Q. Was it just these airborne units that were on
A. No. There was all kinds of other action
too. Some of their naval forces had started to move, and there was
increased activity in their long-range bombers.
Q. What about this idea that Dayan had decided to
push on to the cities you mentioned. What happened there?
A. He was called back, partly because of U.S.
pressure, partly by people in the Israeli political infrastructure. he
was somewhat chastened and never given back total control of the Army.
Q. How do you know this?
A. Like I said earlier, NSA monitors every
government. This includes Tel Aviv. All the diplomatic signals from the
capital to the front and back again were intercepted. Also at this same
time we were copying the French, who were very much involved on both
sides playing a sort of diplomatic good offices between Cairo and Tel
Aviv. As far as Dayan is concerned, the information came from informal
notes from analysts at Crete who were closer to the situation than we
were. Analysts send these informal notes from one station to another to
keep each other informed about what is happening. One of the notes I got
from Crete said Dayan had been called back from the field and
reprimanded. Obviously, by this time the Israelis were getting heat from
Q. What did the Russians do after the situation
cooled down a bit?
A. Immediately after the war -- well, not even
afterwards, but towards the end -- they began the most massive airlift
in the history of the world to Cairo and Damascus. Supplies, food, and
some medical equipment, but mostly arms and planes. They sent in MIG-21s
fully assembled, fueled, and ready to fly in the bellies of their big
101-10s. At landing the doors would open, and teh MIGs would roll out,
ready to go. Also there was quite a bit of political maneuvering inside
the Soviet Union right afterwards. I don't quite remember the details,
but it was mainly in the military, not in the Politbureau.
Q. We routinely monitor the communications of
allies like Israel?
A. Of course.
Q. What other sorts of things do we learn?
A. Practically everything. For instance, we
know that the Israelis were preparing nuclear weapons at their
development site at Dimona. Once the U.S. Ambassador to Israel visited
there. They had been calling it a textile plant as a cover, and when he
went there they presented him with a new suit. It was a charade, you
know. They didn't have warheads deployed then, but they were close to
it. I'm sure they must have a delivery system in operation b now. It was
said that American scientific advisors were helping them in this
development. I mean it was said on the intelligence grapevine. I didn't
know it for a fact. But this grapevine is usually fairly accurate.
Q. All the material you've been discussing is
A. Almost all of it.
Q. Who classified it?
A. I did. Analysts in NSA did. In the Agency,
the lowest classification is CONFIDENTIAL. Anything not otherwise
classified is CONFIDENTIAL. But SIGINT data is super-classified, meaning
that only those in the SIGINT community have access to it, and then only
on a "need-to-know" basis. A lot of the stuff I'd work with
was SECRET and TOP SECRET, which is the highest classification of all.
But after a while it occurred to me that we classified our stuff only
partly because of the enemy. It seemed like they were almost as
interested in keeping things from the American public as the Soviets.
Hell, I'd give top secret classifications to weather reports we
intercepted from Soviet subs. Certainly the Soviets knew that data. I
remember when I was in school back at San Angelo one of the instructors
gave us a big lecture about classifying material and he said that it was
necessary because it would only confuse the American people to be let in
on this data. He used those exact words. As a matter of fact, I used
those words when I was training the people who worked under me.
Q. How did you relate to our allies in intelligence
A. I'll have to digress a moment to answer
that. The SIGINT community was defined by a TOP SECRET treaty signed in
1947. It was called the UKUSA treaty. The National Security Agency
signed for the U.S. and became what's called First Party to the Treaty.
Great Britain's GCHQ signed for them, the CBNRC for Canada, and DSD for
Australia.New Zealand. They're all called Second parties. In addition,
several countries have signed on -- ranging from West Germany to japan
-- over the years as Third parties. Among the First and Second Parties
there is supposed to be a general agreement not to restrict data. Of
course it doesn't work out this way in practice. The Third party
countries receive absolutely no material from us, while we get anything
they have, although generally it's of pretty low quality. We also worked
with so-called neutrals who weren't parties to the UKUSA treat. They'd
sell us everything they could collect over radar on their Russian
As it works out, the treaty is a one-way street. We
violate it even with our Second party allies by monitoring their
Q. Do they know this?
A. Probably. In part, we're allowed to do it
for COMSEC purposes under NATO. COMSEC, that's communications security.
There's supposed to be a random checking of security procedures. But I
know we also monitor their diplomatic stuff constantly. In England, for
instance, our Chicksands installation monitors all their communications,
and the NSA unit in our embassy in London monitors the lower-level stuff
from Whitehall. Again, technology is the key. These allies can't
maintain security even if they want to. They're all working with
machines we gave them. There's no chance for them to be on par with us
There's the illusion of cooperation, though. We used
to go to Frankfurt occasionally for briefings. The headquarters of NSA
Europe, the European Security region, and several other departments in
the SIGINT community are located there, inside the I.G. Farben building.
We'd run into people from GCHQ there, and from the other countries. It
was all fairly cordial. As a matter of fact, I got to respect the
English analysts very highly. They're real professionals in GCHQ, and
some are master analysts. They'll stay on the job for twenty-five or
thirty years and learn a lot. The CGG is also located in the I.G. Farben
building. That's the West German COMINT agency. Most of them are
ex-Nazis. We used to harass them by sieg heil-ing them whenever we say
Once I briefed Hubert Humphrey at the I.G. Farben
building. It was in 1967, when he was vice-president. The briefing
concerned the Soviet tactical air force and what was capable of doing.
It was all quite routine. He asked a couple of pretty dumb questions,
that showed he didn't have the foggiest notion of what NSA was and what
Q. But you said that you often sent reports
directly to the White House.
A. yes, I did. But the material that goes there
is cleaned of any reference as to where the intelligence comes from.
Every morning the President gets a daily intelligence summary complied
by the CIA. This information will probably contain a good deal from the
NSA in it, but it won't say where it came from and the means used to
collect it. That's how a man like the vice-president could be totally
ignorant of the way intelligence is generated.
Q. So far we've been talking about various kinds of
sophisticated electronic intelligence gathering. What about tapping of
A. I'm not sure on the extent of this, but I
know that the NSA mission in the Moscow embassy has done some tapping
there. Of course all trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific telephone calls to
or from the U.S. are tapped.
Every conversation, personal, commercial, whatever, is
automatically intercepted and recorded on tapes. Most of them no one
ever listens to, and after being held available for a few weeks, are
erased. They'll run a random sort through all the tapes, listening to a
certain number to determine if there is anything in them of interest to
our government worth holding on to and transcribing. Also, certain
telephone conversations are routinely listened to as soon as possible.
These will be the ones that are made by people doing an inordinate
amount of calling overseas, or are otherwise tapped for special
Q. What about Africa? Does the NSA have
A. Yes, one in Ethiopia on the East Coast and
in Morocco on the West Coast. These cover northern Africa, parts of the
Mediterranean, and parts of the Mideast.
Q. Do they ever gather intelligence on African
A. I went to Africa once for a vacation. I
understood that there were DSUs, that's direct support units, working
against Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, those countries. These DSUs are in
naval units off the coast. They are tasked with two problems: first,
they copy the indigenous Portuguese forces; and second, they copy the
Q. Is the information used in any way against the
A. I don't know for sure. But I'd be surprised
if it wasn't. There is information being gathered. This intelligence is
fed back to NSA-Europe, of course. It has no strategic value to us, so
it's passed on to NATO -- one of our consumers. Portugal is part of
NATO, so it gets the information. I know that U.S. naval units were DF-ing
the liberation forces. That's direction finding. The way it worked was
that the ship would get a signal, people on board would analyze it so
see if it came from the guerillas, say, in Angola. then they'd correlate
with our installation in Ethiopia, which had also intercepted it, and
pinpoint the source.
Q. Did you ever have any doubts about what you were
A. Not really, not at this time. It was a good
job. I was just 21 years old; I had a lot of operators working under me;
I got to travel a lot -- to Frankfurt, for instance, at least twice a
month for briefings. I was considered to be a sort of whiz kid, and had
been since i'd been in school back in San Angelo. I guess you could say
that I had internalized all the stuff about being a member of the elite
that they had given us. I was advancing very rapidly, partly because of
a runover in personnel that happened to hit at the time I came to
Turkey, and partly because I like what I was doing and worked like crazy
and always took more than other analysts. But, like I said earlier, I
had developed a different attitude toward the Soviet Union. I didn't see
them as an enemy or anything like that. Everyone I worked with felt
pretty much the same. We were both protagonists in a big game -- that's
the view we had. We felt very superior to CIA people we'd occasionally
come in contact with. We had a lot of friction with them, and we guarded
our information form them very carefully.
Q. Was there a lot of what you'd call esprit de
corps among the NSA people there.
A. In some ways, yes; in other ways, no. Yes,
in the sense that there were a lot who were like me -- eating, drinking,
sleeping NSA. The very fact that you have the highest security clearance
there makes you think a certain way. You're set off from the rest of
humanity. Like one of the rules was -- and this was first set out when
we were back at San Angelo -- that we couldn't have drugs like sodium
pentothol used on us in medical emergencies, at least not in the way
they're used on most people. You know, truth-type drugs. I remember once
one of our analysts cracked up his car in Turkey and banged himself up
pretty good. He was semi-conscious and in the hospital. They had one
doctor and one nurse, both with security clearances, who tended to him.
And one of us was always in the room with him to make sure that while he
was delirious he didn't talk too loud. Let me say again that all the
material you deal with, the codes words and all, becomes part of you.
I'd find myself dreaming in code. And to this day when I hear certain
TOP SECRET code words something in me snaps.
But in spite of all this, there's a lot of corruption
too. Quite a few people in NSA are into illegal activities of one kind
or another. It's taken to be one of the fringe benefits of the job. You
know, enhancing your pocketbook. Practically everybody is into some kind
of smuggling. I didn't see any heroin dealings or anything like that,
like I later saw among CIA people when I got to Nam, but most of us, me
included, did some kind of smuggling on the side. Everything form
small-time black marketeering of cigarettes or currency all the way up
to transportation of vehicles, refrigerators, that sort of thing. One
time in Europe I knew of a couple of people inside NSA who were
stationed in Frankfurt and got involved in the white slave trade. Can
you believe that? They were transporting women who'd been kidnapped from
Europe to Mideast sheikdoms aboard security airplanes. It was perfect
for any kind of activity of that kind. There's no customs or anything
like that for NSA people. Myself, I was involved in the transportation
of money. A lot of us would pool our cash, buy up various restricted
currencies on our travels, and then exchange it at a favorable rate. I'd
make a couple of thousand dollars each time. It was a lark. My base pay
was $600 a month, and looking back I figure that I made at least double
that by what you'd call manipulating currency. It sounds pretty gross, I
know, but the feeling was, "What the hell, nobody's getting
hurt." It's hard for me to relate to the whole thing now. Looking
back, it's like that was another person doing those things and feeling
Q. All this sounds like a pretty good deal -- the
job, what you call the fringe benefits, and all that. Why did you go to
A. Well, I'd been in Istanbul for over two
years, that's one thing. And second, well, Vietnam was the big thing
that was happening. I wasn't for the war, exactly, but I wasn't against
it either. A lot of people in Europe were going there, and I wanted to
go see what was happening. It doesn't sound like much of a reason now,
but that was it.
Q. You volunteered?
A. Right. For Vietnam and for flying. They
turned me down for both.
A. Because of my classification. What I knew
was too delicate to have me wandering around in a war zone. If I got
captured, I'd know too much. That sort of thing. But I pulled some
strings. I'd made what you'd call high-ranking friends, you know.
Finally, I got to go. First I had a long vacation -- went to Paris for a
while and that sort of thing. Then I was sent back to the U.S. for
Q. What sort of schooling?
A. It was in texas, near Brownsville. I learned
a little Vietnamese and a lot about ARDF -- that's airborne radio
direction finding. It was totally different from what I'd been doing. It
was totally practical. No more strategic stuff, just practical analysis.
I had to shift my whole way of thinking around. I was going to be in
these big EC-47s -- airborne platforms they were called -- locating the
enemy's ground forces.
After this first phase in Texas, I went to a couple of
Air Force bases here in California and learned how to jump out of
planes, and then up to Washington state to survival school. This was
three weeks and no fun at all. It was cold as hell. I guess so we could
learn to survive in the jungle. Never did figure that one out. We did
things like getting dropped in the mountains in defense teams and learn
E&E -- that's the process of escape and evasion. You divide the
three-man team up into certain functions -- one guy scrounges for food,
the other tires to learn the lay of the land, that sort of thing. We
were out for two days with half a parachute and a knife between us.
Strangely enough, we did manage to build a snare and catch a rabbit. We
cooked it over a fire we built with some matches we'd smuggled. it was
awful. We'd also smuggled five candy bars, though, and they were pretty
good. Then we got captured by some soldiers wearing black pajamas. They
put us in cells and tried to break us. It was a game, but they played it
serious even though we didn't. it had its ludicrous moments. They played
Joan Baez peacenik songs over the loudspeaker.This was supposed to make
us think that the people back home didn't support us anymore and we'd
better defect. We dug the music,of course. After this, I shipped out.
Q. How long were you in Vietnam?
A. Thirteen months, from 1968 to 1969.
Q. Where were you stationed?
A. In Pleiku most of the time.
Q. Is that where the major intelligence work is
A. No, there's a unit in Da Nang that does most
of the longer-range work, and the major unit is at Phu Bai. It's the
most secure base in Vietnam. An old French base, just below Hue and
completely surrounded by a mine field. It's under attack right now. The
people based there -- a couple of thousand of them -- will probably be
the last ones out of Vietnam. I don't know if you know of this or not,
but the first American killed in Vietnam was at Phu Bai. He was in NSA,
working on short-range direction finding out of an armored personnel
carrier -- you know, one those vans with an antenna on top. It was in
1954. We were told this to build up our esprit de corps.
Q. So what kinds of things did you do there?
A. Like I said, radio direction finding is the
big thing, the primary mission. There are several collection techniques
used there. Almost all of them are involved with the airborne platforms
I mentioned. They are C-47s, "gooney birds," with an E in
front of the C-47 because they're involved in electronic warfare. The
missions go by different names. Our program was Combat Cougar. We had
two or three operators on board and an analyst, which was me. The plane
was filled with electronic gear, radios and special DF-ing equipment,
about $4 million worth of it, all computerized and very sophisticated.
The technology seemed to turn over every five months. As a sideline, I
might tell you that an earlier version of this equipment was used
in Bolivia, along with infrared detectors, to help track down Che
Q. So what would be your specific mission?
A. Combat Cougar planes would take off and fly
a particular orbit in a particular part of Indochina. We were primarily
tasked for low-level information. that is, we'd be looking for enemy
ground units fighting or about to be fighting. This was our A-1
priority. As soon as we locate one of these units through our direction
finding, we'd fix it. This fix would be triangulated with fixes made by
other airborne platforms, a medium-range direction finding outfit on the
ground, or even from ships. Then we'd send the fix to the DSUs on the
ground -- that's direct support units -- at Phu Bai or Pleiku. They'd
run it through their computers and call in B-52s or artillery strikes.
Q. How high did you fly?
A. It was supposed to be 8000 feet, but we
couldn't get close enough, so we went down to 3000.
Q. You hear a lot about seismic and acoustic
sensors and that sort of thing being used. How did this fit into what
you were doing?
A. Not at all. They weren't that effective. A
lot of them get damaged when they land; some of them start sending
signals and get stuck; others are picked up by the Vietnamese and
tampered with. Those that come through intact can't tell civilian from
military movements. Whatever data is collected from sensors on the trail
and at the DMZ is never acted on until correlated with our data.
Q. How did the NVA and NLF troops communicate their
battle orders? They seem to take us by surprise, while from what you
said earlier the Soviet Union can't.
A. That's because there are no grand battle
orders except in a few cases. Almost everything is decided at a low
level in the field. That's why most of our intelligence was directed
toward those low-level communications I've been talking about. NSA
operations in Vietnam are entirely tactical, supporting military
operations. Even the long-range stuff, on North Vietnamese air defense
and diplomacy, on shipping in and out of Haiphong -- the data collected
at Da Nang, Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and somewhat in
Thailand -- is used in a tactical sense only. It's for our bombers going
into North Vietnam. they aren't engaged in probing or testing the
defenses of a targeted entity like in Europe. It's all geared around the
location of enemy forces.
Q. What would be the effect if the U.S. had to
vacate ground installations like the ones you've mentioned?
A. Well, we wouldn't have that good
intelligence about the capabilities of the North Vietnamese to shoot our
planes down. We wouldn't know what their radar was doing or could do,
where their ground-to-air missile sites were, when their MIGs were going
to scramble. We'd still be able to DF their troops in the field of
course. that won't change until our air forces, including the airborne
platforms I flew on, go out too.
Q. NVA and NLF troops must have some sort of
counter-measures to use against operations like the ones you were in.
Otherwise they wouldn't be as effective as they are.
A. Basically, you're right, although you
shouldn't underestimate the kind of damage done by the strikes we called
in as a result of our direction finding. To a certain extent, though,
the Vietnamese have developed a way to counteract our techniques. Their
headquarters in the North is known as MRTTH -- Military Region Tri Tin
Hue. It is located on the other side of the Valley, somewhere just into
Laos. MRTTH has a vast complex of antennas strung all over the jungle.
When they're transmitting orders, they play with the switchboard, and
the signal goes out over a several-mile area from these different
antennas. When you're up in one of these airborne platforms, the effect
is like this: you get a signal and fix it. First it will be nine miles
in one direction and then, say, twelve miles in another, and fifteen in
another. We never found MRTTH. It's one of the high priorities.
Q. But you'd say that the sort of data you
collected through DF-ing had some effect?
A. Right, generally. At least in locating field
units. It also leads to some large actions. For instance, the first
bombing that ever occurred from ARDF data occurred in 1968. There was an
area about 19 kilometers southwest of Hue that we'd been flying over.
Some of the communications we collected and pattern analysis that was
performed on it indicated that there were quite a few NVA or VC units
concentrated in a small area, about a mile in diameter. General Abrams
personally ordered the largest B-52 raid that had ever taken place in
Vietnam at that time. There was one sorties and hour for thirty-six
hours, thirty tons dropped by each sortie on the area. Afterwards it was
just devastated. I mean it was wasted. It was along time before they
could even send helicopters into that area to evaluate the strike
because of the stench of burning flesh. On the perimeter of the area
there were Vietnamese that had died just from the concussion. The thing
of it was, though, there wasn't any way to tell which of the dead were
military and which were civilian. It was pretty notorious. Afterwards it
was called Abrams Acres. It was one of the things that began to turn me
off to the war.
Q. You said that your A-1 priority was locating
enemy units on the ground. What were the other targets?
A. Mainly supplies. We tried, not too
successfully, to pinpoint their supply capabilities. All along the Trail
the Vietnamese have these gigantic underground warehouses known as
"bantrams," where either men or supplies are housed. The idea
is that in case of an offensive like the one that's going on now, they
don't have to go north for supplies. They've got them right there in
these bantrams, enough to last for a long time at a fairly high level of
military activity. They had about 11 bantrams when I was there. We knew
where they were within twenty-five or thirty miles, but no closer. I
remember the first Dewey Canyon invasion of Laos. I flew support for it.
It happened because the 9th Marines went in there to locate a couple of
bantrams. Their general was convinced he was going to end the war. It
was a real macho trip. He got called back by the White House
pretty quick, though, when his command got slaughtered.
Q. What about the idea of an invasion from the
north. How does this equate with what you collected?
A. It doesn't. There's no invasion. The entire
Vietnamese operation against Saigon and the U.S. is one unified military
command throughout Indochina. Really, it's almost one country. They,
don't recognize borders: that's seen in their whole way of looking at
things, their whole way of fighting.
Q. But you made a distinction between VC and NVA
forces didn't you?
A. There are forces we'd classify as VC and
others as NVA, yes. But it was for identification, like the call signs
on Soviet planes. The VC forces tended to merge, break apart, then
regroup, often composed differently from what they were before. As far
as the NVA is concerned, we'd use the same names they were called back
home, like the 20th regiment. Hanoi controls infiltration, some troops
and supplies coming down the Trail. But once they get to a certain area,
MRTTH takes over. And practically speaking. MRTTH is controlled by the
Q. How did you know that?
A. We broke their messages all the time. We
knew the political infrastructure.
Q. You mean that your intelligence would have in
its official report that this MRTTH base which was on the other side of
the Ashau Valley, was controlled by the NLF?
A. Of course. Hanoi didn't control that area
operationally. MRTTH controls the whole DMZ area. Everything above Da
Nang to Vinh. The people in control are in the NLF. MRTTH makes the
decisions for its area. Put it this way: it is an autonomous political
and military entity.
Q. What you're saying is that in order to gather
intelligence and operate militarily, you go on the assumption that there
is one enemy? That the NLF is not subordinate to the North Vietnamese
A. Right. That's the way it is. This is one
thing I wish we could bring out. Intelligence operates in a totally
different way, from politics. The intelligence community generally
states things like they are. The political community interprets this
information. changes it, deletes some facts and adds others. Take the
CIA report that bombing in Vietnam never really worked, That was common
knowledge over there. Our reports indicated it. Infiltration always
continued at a steady rate. But of course nobody back at the military
command or in Washington ever paid any attention.
Q. What were some of the other high intelligence
priorities besides locating ground units, MRTTH and the bantrams?
A. One of the strange ones came from
intelligence reports we got from the field and copies from North
Vietnam. These reports indicated that the NLF had two Americans
fighting for them in the South. We did special tasking on that. We were
on the lookout for ground messages containing any reference to these
Americans. Never found them, though.
Q. When you were there in Vietnam did you get an
idea of the scope of U.S. operations in Southeast Asia or were you just
involved with these airborne platforms exclusively?
A. I was pretty busy. But I took leaves, of
course, and I saw a lot of things. One thing that never came out, for
example, was that there was a small war in Thailand in 1969. Some of the
Meo tribesmen were organized and attacked the Royal Thai troops for
control of their own area.
Q. What happened to them?
A. Well, as you know, Thailand is pretty
important to us. A stable Thailand, I mean. CAS-Vientiane and CAS-Bangkok
were assigned to put down the uprisings.
Q. What does CAS mean?
A. That's the CIA's designation. Three of our
NSA planes were taken to Udorn, where the CIA is based in Thailand, and
flew direct support for CIA operations against the Meos. We located
where they were through direction finding so the CIA planes could go in
and bomb them.
Q. You mean CIA advisors in Thai Air Force planes?
A. No. The CIA's own planes. Not Air America --
those are the commercial-type planes used just for logistics support.
I'm talking about CIA military planes. They were unmarked attack
Q. What other covert CIA operations in the area did
you run into?
A. From the reports I saw, I knew there were
CIA people in southern China, for instance, operating as advisors and
commanders of Nationalist Chinese commando forces. It wasn't anything
real big. They'd go in and burn some villages, and generally raise hell.
The Chinese always called these "bandit raids."
Q. What would be the objectives of these raids
A. There's some intelligence probing. And quite
a bit of it is for control of opium trade over there. Nationalist
Chinese regular officers are occasionally called in to lead these
maneuvers. For that matter, there are also CIA-run Nationalist Chinese
forces that operate in Laos and even in North Vietnam.
Q. Did you ever meet any of these CIA people?
A. Sure. Like I said, I flew support for their
little war in Thailand. I remember on the guys there in Vientiane that
we were doing communications for, said he'd been into Southern China a
couple of times.
Q. You got disillusioned with the whole Vietnam
A. Well, practically everybody hated it.
Everybody except the lifers who were in the military before Vietnam.
Even after that wasting of the area called Abram's Acres that I told you
about before, everybody else was really sick about it, but these lifers
kept talking about all the commies we had killed.
For me, part of it was when we crashed our EC-47. We'd
just taken off and were at about 300 feet and it just came down. We
crash-landed in a river. We walked out of it, but I decided that there
was no easy way to get me into an airplane after that. We got drunk that
night, and afterwards I spent two weeks on leave in Bangkok. When I got
back to Saigon i got another three days vacation in Na Trang. The whole
thing was getting under my skin. I told them that I wasn't going to fly
any more. And mainly they left me alone. They figured I'd snap out of
it. But finally they asked me what my reasons for refusing to fly were.
I told them that it was crazy. I wasn't going to crash anymore, I wasn't
going to get shot at anymore, I was afraid. I told the flight operations
director that I wasn't going to do it anymore, I didn't care what was
done to me. Strangely enough, they let me alone. They decided after a
few days to me Air Force liaison man up at Phu Bai. So I spent the last
three months up there correlating data coming in from airborne
platforms. Like the one I'd flown in and sending DSU reports to the
B-52s. It happened all of a sudden, my feeling that the whole war was
rotten. I remember that up at Phu Bai there were a couple of other
analysts working with me. We never talked about it, but we all wound up
sending the bombers to strange places -- mountain tops, you know, where
there weren't any people. We were just biding our time till we got out.
We were ignoring priorities on our reports, that sort of thing.
It's strange. When I first got to Nam, everybody was
still high about the war. But by the time I left at the end of 1969,
morale had broken down all over the place. Pot had become a very big
thing. We were even smoking it on board the EC-47s when we were supposed
to be doing direction finding. And we were the cream of the military,
I loved my work at first. It was very exciting --
traveling in Europe, the Middle East, Africa; knowing all the secrets.
It was my whole life, which probably explains why I was better than
others at my job. But then I went to Nam, and it wasn't a big game we
were playing with the Soviets anymore. It was killing people. My last
three months in Nam were very traumatic. I couldn't go on, but I wasn't
able to quit. Not then. So faked it. It was all I could do. Now I wish I
had quit. If I had stayed in Europe, I might still be in NSA. I might
have re-enlisted. In a way, the war destroyed me.
Q. What happened when you mustered out?
A. Well, having the sort of credentials I had,
I had my pick of a lot of jobs. Some ex-NSA people get jobs with private
corporations. A lot of them run their own SIGINT operations. For
instance, oil companies will have SIGINT against Middle East sheikdoms
that have pretty primitive intelligence operations. But I didn't want to
do this sort of thing. NSA offered me a nice civilian job. The CIA said
they'd pay me a $10,000 bonus in two installments if I'd come to work
with them -- $5000 on signing up, and $5000 at the end of two years.
They said they'd give me a GS-9 rating -- that's about $10,000 a year --
and promote me to GS-11 in a year. But I didn't want any of it.
Q. Why is it you wanted to tell all this?
A. It's hard for me to say. I haven't digested
it all; even though I've been out almost two years now, I still feel as
though I'm two people -- the one who did all the things I've laid out
and another, different person who can't quite understand why. But even
being against the war, it's taken a long time for me to want to say
these things. I couldn't have done it nine months ago, not even three
months ago. Daniel Ellberg's releasing the Pentagon Papers made me want
to talk. It's a burden; in a way I just want to get rid of it. I don't
want to get sentimental or corny about it, but I've made some friends
who love the Indochinese people. This is my way of loving them too.
Excerpt from The Puzzle
Palace, James Bamford, Penguin, 1983, (paper), p. 334:
In August 1972 a twenty-five-year-old former staff
sergeant in the Air Force Security Service decided to bare his top
secret soul to the magainze Ramparts. A latent Vietnam War
protestor and former traffic analyst at listening posts in Turkey, West
Germany, and Vietnam, Perry Fellwock wove a tale of much fact and some
fancy in a question-and-answer session with the magazine, using the
pseudonym Winslow Peck. The Joplin, Missouri, native's claim that NSA
was able to break all Soviet code systems ("We're able to break
every code they've got"), was most likely an exaggeration, but the
majority of the sixteen-page article was, unfortunately for the Agency,
quite accurate. Once the magazine hit the stands there was little the
red-faced officials of the Puzzle Palace could do except to hold their
tongues in embarassed silence. Prosecution, they must have reasoned,
would only serve to confirm all that Fellwock had said.
information on NSA electronic interception: