Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Overview


NSA is responsible for providing foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) to our nation's policy-makers and military forces. SIGINT plays a vital role in our national security by providing America's leaders with critical information they need to defend our country, save lives, and advance U.S. goals and alliances globally. SIGINT is intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems that provides a vital window for our nation into foreign adversaries' capabilities, actions, and intentions.

Our SIGINT mission is specifically limited to gathering information about international terrorists and foreign powers, organizations, or persons. NSA produces intelligence in response to formal requirements levied by those who have an official need for intelligence, including all departments of the Executive Branch of the United States Government.

At NSA, we must keep pace with advances in the high-speed, multifunctional technologies of today's information age. The ever-increasing volume, velocity and variety of current signals make the production of relevant and timely intelligence for military commanders and national policy-makers more challenging and exciting than ever. Modern telecommunications technology poses significant challenges to the SIGINT mission, and many languages are used around the world that are of interest to our military and national leaders. Thus, NSA is required to maintain a wide variety of language capabilities as well. Successful SIGINT depends on the skills of language professionals, mathematicians, analysts, and engineers, to name just a few.

The critical thinking and vitality required to accomplish our strategic goals depend on a diverse workforce, divergent points of view, and a fully-inclusive environment. NSA has a strong tradition of employing dedicated, highly-qualified people who are deeply committed to maintaining the nation's security. While technology will obviously continue to be a key element of our future, NSA recognizes that technology is only as good as the people creating it and the people using it.

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 What is Signals Intelligence?

SIGINT involves collecting foreign intelligence from communications and information systems and providing it to customers across the U.S. government, such as senior civilian and military officials. They then use the information to help protect our troops, support our allies, fight terrorism, combat international crime and narcotics, support diplomatic negotiations, and advance many other important national objectives.

NSA collects SIGINT from various sources, including foreign communications, radar and other electronic systems. This information is frequently in foreign languages and dialects, is protected by codes and other security measures, and involves complex technical characteristics. NSA needs to collect and understand the information, interpret it, and get it to our customers in time for them to take action. Our workforce is deeply skilled in a wide range of highly technical fields that allow them to this work, and they develop and employ state-of-the-art tools and systems that are essential to success in today's fast-changing communications and information environment. Our researchers are working constantly to help us anticipate and prepare for future developments.

 How are the activities of the NSA regulated and who monitors them?

The U.S. Constitution, federal law, executive order, and regulations of the Executive Branch govern NSA's activities. As a defense agency, NSA operates under the authority of the Department of Defense. As a member of the Intelligence Community, NSA also operates under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. NSA activities are subject to strict scrutiny and oversight both from the outside and from within. External bodies such as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice provide oversight to ensure the Agency's adherence to U.S. laws and regulations. Internally, the Office of the Inspector General conducts inspections, audits, and investigations to make certain that NSA operates with integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, while the Office of the General Counsel provides legal advice. Most importantly, each NSA employee is charged with knowing, understanding, and obeying to the fullest the laws of the nation.

 What defines the intelligence role of NSA?

Executive Order 12333 (EO 12333) authorizes agencies of the Intelligence Community to obtain reliable intelligence information, consistent with applicable Federal law and EO 12333, with full consideration of the rights of U.S. persons. Pursuant to EO 12333, NSA is authorized to collect, process, analyze, produce, and disseminate Signals Intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions, and to provide signals intelligence support for the conduct of military operations. The executive order, however, prohibits the collection, retention, or dissemination of information about U.S. persons except pursuant to procedures established by the head of the agency and approved by the Attorney General.

 Who is considered a U.S. person?

Federal law and executive order define a U.S. person as:

  • a citizen of the United States;

  • an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence;

  • an unincorporated association with a substantial number of members who are citizens of the U.S. or are aliens lawfully admitted for permanent residence; or

  • a corporation that is incorporated in the U.S.

 Are U.S. persons outside the United States afforded protection?

Yes, the privacy rights of U.S. persons are protected regardless of their location.

 Couldn't NSA simply ask its allies to provide them with information about U.S. persons?

No. NSA is prohibited from requesting any person to undertake activities that NSA itself is prohibited from conducting.

 How does the NSA ensure its employees are aware of and abide by the regulations?

The NSA conducts extensive training of its employees to ensure that the workforce is aware and understands the regulations governing NSA activities. The members of the NSA work force charged with foreign intelligence production receive very specific training advising them of their responsibility to protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Access to intelligence information is contingent upon the completion of such training sessions.