A growing number of American politicians (and their constituents) are calling for the elimination of the National Security Agency (NSA). Yet the recent anniversaries of the World War II Battle of Midway (in 1942) and D-Day landings (in 1944) both stand as testaments as to why the NSA matters for grunts on the front line.
The NSA is best known for eavesdropping on communications – what is known as communications intelligence (COMINT) – often to get an idea of what a potential adversary’s intentions are. COMINT also can help by gaining insights into a foreign leader’s thinking as well – even allies. In time of war, COMINT has proven valuable in the past – notably by giving America advance warning of enemy intentions. When heeded, those warnings have greatly affected history.
In this sense, the NSA is an heir to the legacy of Joe Rochefort, the unsung hero of the Battle of Midway. Had Joe Rochefort not been able to crack the JN-25 code, the Japanese Navy’s plan at Midway might very well have succeeded and Hawaii occupied by Japanese troops. The United States might have lost aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet in addition to Yorktown, instead of sinking Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific. That one battle halted Japanese advances in the Pacific.
But D-Day also would have been affected had there not been forerunners to the type of work the NSA does today. Had Allied codebreakers, including Allan Turing, not broken the Enigma code, German U-boats would have inflicted much heavier losses for a longer period of time. D-Day would have certainly been delayed, if it was even possible. Germany might even have starved the United Kingdom into submission. In both cases, the American ability to read the mail of the Axis helped put Nazi Germany and Japan’s warlords on the ash heap of history, and save countless Allied lives.
So, while the NSA is seen as overly intrusive by some, especially in peacetime, those same capabilities can mean the difference between victory and defeat in wartime. Sadly, America’s enemies are all too aware of it, often due to the fact that some folks who should have kept quiet didn’t. While some people may celebrate Edward Snowden as a “whistleblower” – keep in mind, the NSA’s metadata collection wasn’t all he told the media about. Snowden also compromised a number of intelligence operations targeting potential adversaries of the United States.
How badly have those efforts been hurt? In June 2015, it was reported that the British had to cancel intelligence operations against the Chinese and Russians because of information provided by Snowden. In May 2014, it was reported that global terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had also taken steps to counter American communications intelligence efforts in the wake of Snowden’s revelations by launching new encryption systems.
When it comes to preventing the next 9/11, taking down a terrorist leader (whether it’s with ISIL, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, or some other group), combating drug cartels, or figuring out what foreign leaders are thinking, COMINT is crucial for America’s interests. America once made the mistake of giving up on its COMINT features in 1929, when then-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson pulled State Department funding for the Black Chamber. More Americans should learn from history, and re-consider calls to terminate the NSA. - Harold C. Hutchison