Twelve years later, the cranes and earthmovers around the National Security Agency are still at work, tearing up pavement and uprooting trees to make room for a larger workforce and more powerful computers. Already bigger than the Pentagon in square footage, the NSA’s footprint will grow by an additional 50 percent when construction is complete in a decade.
And that’s just at its headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.
The nation’s technical spying agency has enlarged all its major domestic sites — in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Texas and Utah — as well as those in Australia and Britain.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, its civilian and military workforce has grown by one-third, to about 33,000, according to the NSA. Its budget has roughly doubled, and the number of private companies it depends on has more than tripled, from 150 to close to 500, according to a 2010 Washington Post count.
The hiring, construction and contracting boom is symbolic of the hidden fact that in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the NSA became the single most important intelligence agency in finding al-Qaeda and other enemies overseas, according to current and former counterterrorism officials and experts. “We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em” became a motto for one NSA unit, a former senior agency official said.
The story of the NSA’s growth, obscured by the agency’s extreme secrecy, is directly tied to the insatiable demand for its work product by the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, military units and the FBI.
The NSA’s broad reach in servicing that demand is at the heart of the controversy swirling around the agency these days. Both Congress and the public have been roiled by the disclosure of top-secret documents detailing the collection of U.S. phone records and the monitoring of e-mails, social-media posts and other Web traffic of foreign terrorism suspects and their enablers.
Lacking a strong informant network to provide details about al-Qaeda, U.S. intelligence and the military turned to the NSA’s technology to fill the void. The demand for information also favored the agency’s many surveillance techniques, which try to divine the intent of people by vacuuming up and analyzing their communications.
“There was nothing that gave you more insight into the inner workings of these organizations as the NSA,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “I can’t think of any terrorist investigation where the NSA was not a preeminent or central player.”
One top-secret document recently disclosed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who is on the run from U.S. authorities, revealed that 60 percent of the president’s daily intelligence briefing came from the NSA in 2000, even before the surge in the agency’s capabilities began.
“The foreign signals that NSA collects are invaluable to national security,” the agency said in a statement released Friday to The Post. “This information helps the agency determine where adversaries are located, what they’re planning, when they’re planning to carry it out, with whom they’re working, and the kinds of weapons they’re using.”
The NSA’s ability to capture, store and analyze an ever greater amount of people’s communications has never been accompanied by public explanations of new legal authorities, programs or privacy safeguards. Only the unauthorized disclosure of these secrets has forced officials to explain them in broad terms, reassure the public and complain about the damage from their public airing.
“I wish that I were here in happier times for the intelligence community,” said Robert S. Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, speaking at the Brookings Institution on Friday. “These disclosures threaten to cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
The story of the NSA’s post-Sept. 11 history could begin in many places, including the parking lot of the CIA. There, in late 2001, a burly Navy SEAL paced inside a trailer with a telephone to his ear. The trailer had been hastily converted from a day-care facility to an operations center for the CIA’s covert armed drone program, which was about to kill one of its first al-Qaeda targets, 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan.
On the line with the SEAL was the drone operator and a “collector,” an NSA employee at the agency’s gigantic base at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. The collector was controlling electronic surveillance equipment in the airspace over the part of Afghanistan where the CIA had zeroed in on one particular person. The SEAL pleaded with the collector to locate the cellphone in Afghanistan that matched the phone number that the SEAL had just given him, according to someone with knowledge of the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.