The NSA’s Research Directorate descends from the Black Chamber, the first group of civilian codebreakers in the United States tasked with spying on cutting-edge technology like the telegraph. The group only existed from 1919 to 1929 and, according to James Bamford’s 2001 book, decrypted over 10,000 messages from a dozen nations Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. In addition to their pioneering cryptanalytic work, the group managed to enlist surveillance help from American cable companies like Western Union, which could provide the newly minted US spies with sensitive messages for investigation.
The Black Chamber was shut down amid scandal when US Secretary of State Henry Stimson found out the group was spying on both American allies and enemies. The incident heralded the 1975 Church Committee investigating surveillance abuse by American intelligence agencies and the 2013 Snowden leaks, which uncovered vast electronic surveillance capabilities that sparked a global reckoning.
Just eight months after the Black Chamber was closed, faced with the prospect of crippled espionage capacities in the increasingly unstable world of the 1930s, the US reformed the efforts of the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service. One of only three people who worked with the Black Chamber’s ancient records, one of the founders of the SIS, which Bamford said was kept secret from the State Department, was mathematician Solomon Kullback.
Kullback was instrumental in breaking both Japanese and German codes before and during World War II, and he later led the research and development arm of the newly formed National Security Agency. Within a year, the management as we know it today developed from this: an independent research area that is not disturbed by everyday agency life.
“It’s important for a research organization, even in a mission-driven organization, to think beyond a crisis,” Herrera says, although he adds that the directorate devotes some of its work to the “crisis of the day.” It operates a program called Scientists on Call, which allows NSA mission analysts to face technical challenges while querying information to request help via email, giving them access to hundreds of scientists.
But the lion’s share of the Director’s work is imagining the technologies that are generations ahead of what we have today. It functions almost like a small elite technical college, organized around five academic departments – mathematics, physics, cyber, computer science and electrical engineering – each with 100 to 200 employees.
The Cybersecurity Division defends the federal government’s national security and the country’s military-industrial base. This is the most high-profile department, and on purpose. Over the past five years, the previously shadowy NSA has become vocal and more active on cybersecurity issues. It has launched public deliberations and research projects that would once have been anathema to an organization whose existence was only recognized 20 years after its inception.
Now the products of NSA research, like Ghidra, a free sophisticated reverse engineering tool that helps in technical analysis of hacking tools, and other software are popular, trusted and used all over the world. They serve as powerful cybersecurity tools, recruitment showcase and PR game all rolled into one.
The physics department that Herrera once headed runs dozens of labs that do most of the work in the field of quantum information science, but it has a much broader remit. As advances in raw computing power threaten to slow and halt 60 years of predictably rapid computer growth, their physicists are exploring new materials and novel computing architectures to propel the next generation of computers into a less predictable future, exactly the kind of task the Principals had existed when it first existed.
Since the advent of the Internet, the Department of Electrical Engineering has been working intensively on the physics and technology of telecommunications networks. In addition to topics related to 5G, it also deals with all facets of the digital world, from submarine cables to satellite communication.
Some prospects on the horizon don’t exactly fit into a particular box. The work of the computer science department on artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, overlaps with cybersecurity missions and data analysis work with the mathematicians.
Herrera repeatedly points out that management needs to develop greater skills and understanding of rapidly evolving areas such as synthetic biology. The NSA is not alone: Chinese military leaders have made biotechnology a national defense priority.
“A lot of the competition in the world now is non-military,” says Herrera. “Military competition is accelerating, but there is also a proliferation of other technologies, like synthetic biology, that are frankly alarming. The role of research is to help the NSA understand what impact these technologies will have. How committed we actually are I don’t know, but these are areas that we need to keep an eye on.”