FORT MEADE, Md. — Since its ribbon-cutting on February 21, 1973, the National Security Operations Center (NSOC) has served as the National Security Agency's (NSA)
nerve center, responsible for managing its cryptologic posture for time-sensitive actions and crisis response to optimize the agency’s global effectiveness and provide actionable intelligence to decision-makers.
NSOC personnel have never left the watch, ensuring that NSA is responsive 24 hours a day, every day.
Five rotating teams in NSOC, led by a Senior Operations Officer (SOO), not only have been witness to history, they have made it-delivering valuable SIGINT information
to commanders, Special Forces teams, and national-level decision makers when it matters most.
“Over the past 50 years, that center has never slept,” said GEN Paul M. Nakasone, Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, Director, NSA/Chief, Central Security Service.
Standing up NSOC
Years before NSOC was made official in 1973, real-world events dictated a need for improved crisis response at the agency, with Major General John E. Morrison, Jr., USAF
, leading the charge for change.
Morrison’s concept was simple: a centralized watch center to better process and distribute SIGINT so that it got to the right people at the right time, with the goal of saving lives.
The biggest catalyst for the creation of the center occurred following the 1969 North Korean attack on a U.S. Navy EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft
which resulted in the death of 31 service members. Morrison was frustrated during the attack as he sped between watch centers at the Agency attempting to piece together a complete picture for military and policy leaders.
NSA’s performance during the EC-121 crisis further drew the ire of Morrison and directly resulted in the creation of a new solution to the agency’s crisis response: the National SIGINT Operations Center, known today as the National Security Operations Center.
NSOC achieved initial operating capability in December 1972 and held its official inauguration on 21 February 1973.
The first 50 years
After being established, NSOC began operations in OPS1 at NSA Washington, spending the next 50 years supporting events
such as the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War and Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the national pivot to strategic competition.
One such event that illustrates NSOC’s critical role as NSA’s nerve center was during the Iran hostage crisis in 1981.
On January 18, 1981, President Carter called NSOC and spoke directly with the SOO to receive status updates about preparations in Tehran.
On the morning of the inauguration, President Carter spoke with the SOO multiple times, asking questions about NSA’s collection capabilities and Iranian air traffic control tower procedures. President Carter insisted that the line with NSOC be kept open so he could follow the progress of events in real time — even as he was riding to the Capitol, the link with NSOC was reestablished in the car and an aide maintained contact at the Capitol throughout the inauguration ceremonies.
Though the Iranians allowed the planes containing the hostages to depart only once President Reagan had assumed office, President Carter was reassured that the hostages were safely homeward bound as he boarded his own aircraft to return to his home in Georgia. President Carter graciously expressed his gratitude to the entire NSA team in one of the last thank-you notes of his presidency.
While preparing for the transition to NSOC’s newest home, current staff reflected on relics from the organization's 50-year history, including dictionaries from the 1970s and worn maps from the Soviet Union era.
"It's been an amazing 50 years in OPS1," said current NSOC SOO. "This team has had some unfortunate challenges over the decades where we've had to rise to the challenge, and rise to the challenge we did."
The next 50 years
While the first 50 years of NSOC’s history lie in OPS1 at NSAW, the next 50 will live on at the state-of-the-art Morrison Center—named in honor of Maj Gen Morrison, a Cryptologic Hall of Honor
inductee—on NSAW’s East Campus.
The Morrison Center is a world-class, next-generation facility that will continue to house the crisis-response center that Morrison envisioned five decades ago, and embodies the operational excellence that NSA is known for across the globe.
NSOC Director Doug Nieman commented on the historic move to the Morrison Center, “State-of-the-art technology, modern working spaces, and the excitement of being the first to occupy the newest building on NSA’s East Campus together provide a great starting point for the next 50 years of NSOC’s history.”
In a message to NSOC staff the day of the transition from OPS1 to the Morrison Center, Nieman recognized the Agency-wide team that spent almost a decade to make the new space a reality. “We don’t often pick up and move NSOC, and I am extremely proud of all the hard work done by so many people which ensured a successful transition of operations without impacting mission,” he said.
“It is quite an honor to be serving as the NSOC director at this critical period in our history.” He also emphasized that it’s the NSOC team members who brought this world-class nerve center to life. “Without the people, this place just represents potential — an opportunity to put a brand new facility to use in support of national security. Only when staffed and utilized does it fulfill its purpose. With our arrival, NSOC is now fully operational and will continue to serve our Nation and allies every day and under all conditions. Today marks a proud moment in our history.”