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Frequently Asked Questions

About NSA

  1. How and when was the National Security Agency established?
  2. Under what authorities was the National Security Agency created?
  3. What is the Central Security Service?
  4. What does the NSA/CSS do?
  5. What is Signals Intelligence?
  6. What is Information Assurance?
  7. Who is the head of NSA/CSS?
  8. What is the U.S. Intelligence Community?
  9. Who are NSA/CSS' Customers?
  10. Can you explain the NSA and CSS seals?
  11. What are the differences between NSA/CSS' and U.S. Cyber Command's roles?

1. How and when was the National Security Agency Established?

NSA was established on November 4, 1952, by order of President Harry Truman. This decision followed the Nation's important work in breaking German and Japanese codes during WWII, which contributed to Allied success against the German U-Boat threat in the North Atlantic and victory at the Battle of Midway in the Pacific, and other successes. President Truman's decision to establish NSA followed several studies on how best to continue this codebreaking work in the post-war era.

2. Under what authorities was the National Security Agency created?

President Truman created the National Security Agency in 1952 pursuant to the President’s authority under Section 2 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution to act as the Commander in Chief of the United States’ armed forces. In 1959, pursuant to its authority under Article I of the Constitution, Congress enacted the National Security Agency Act which provides a separate legislative basis for NSA’s activities. See, also, 50 U.S.C. 3038(b)(1). Consistent with his constitutional authority and Congressional legislation, the President has issued further direction to govern NSA’s activities. See, in particular, Section 1.3(b)(12)(A)(i) and Section 1.7(c) of Executive Order 12333, as amended by Executive Orders 13284 (2003), 13355 (2004), and 13470 (2008).

3. What is the Central Security Service?

The Central Security Service (CSS) includes the elements of the armed forces - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard - that perform codemaking and codebreaking work along with NSA. The CSS was established by Presidential Directive in 1972. The Director of NSA also serves as the Chief of the Central Security Service, enabling a unified cryptologic effort. Members of the CSS work side-by-side with NSA personnel at locations around the world, to ensure seamless support to leaders, policymakers, and decision makers, whether military or civilian, and from the White House to troops in the front lines.

4. What does the NSA/CSS do?

NSA/CSS has two interconnected missions: Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA). Through SIGINT, we respond to customer requirements for information relating to the plans, intentions, capabilities, and locations of foreign powers, organizations, terrorist groups, or persons, or their agents, who threaten America’s national security. Under Information Assurance, we protect our nation’s vital national security systems and information from theft or damage by others. Taken together, the SIGINT and Information Assurance missions are essential to a third function: enabling computer network operations on behalf of U.S. Cyber Command and other defense partners. In carrying out these critical missions, NSA/CSS saves lives, defends vitals networks, and advances national goals and alliances, all while strictly protecting the privacy rights and civil liberties of the American people.

The National Security Agency/Central Security Service is authorized by Executive Order 12333, National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 6, and other law and policy direction to conduct SIGINT activities for the purposes of foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and support to military operations. Authorization for the Information Assurance mission and NSA’s role as National Manager for National Security Systems across the U.S. government is derived from National Security Directive 42 and Executive Order 12333, while numerous Defense Department Directives and Instructions outline NSA’s responsibilities in providing IA support to the Department of Defense.

5. 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/CSS 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/CSS 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 do 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 also working constantly to help us anticipate and prepare for future developments.

6. What is Information Assurance?

Information Assurance involves preventing unauthorized access to sensitive or classified national security information and systems. The purpose of the Information Assurance mission is to keep others from stealing or tampering with our national security systems and information. This work not only keeps our vital information out of unauthorized hands, but helps ensure that the information our decision makers need is available and reliable when they need it.

Under National Security Directive 42, the Director of NSA has responsibility for the security of national security information systems, covering the Department of Defense and other Federal departments and agencies. NSA/CSS also helps improve the security of critical operations and information by providing know-how and technology to suppliers and clients.

7. Who is the head of NSA/CSS?

The Director, NSA/Chief, CSS, is a commissioned military officer with a rank of four stars, who also serves as the Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, in a dual assignment. The Director is appointed by the Secretary of Defense and approved by the President of the United States. Please visit our Current Leadership page for more information.

8. What is the U.S. Intelligence Community?

The Intelligence Community (IC) is a federation of executive branch agencies and organizations that work separately and together to conduct intelligence activities necessary for the conduct of foreign relations and the protection of the national security of the United States. Members include: Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy (Office of Intelligence & Counterintelligence), Department of Homeland Security (Office of Intelligence & Analysis), Department of State (Bureau of Intelligence & Research), Department of Treasury (Office of Intelligence & Analysis), Drug Enforcement Administration (Office of National Security Intelligence), Federal Bureau of Investigation (National Security Branch), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Security Agency/Central Security Service, and specified elements of the United States Air Force, United States Army, United States Coast Guard, United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) serves as the head of the Intelligence Community (IC), overseeing and directing the implementation of the National Intelligence Program and acting as the principal advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security.

9. Who are NSA/CSS' Customers?

NSA/CSS provides intelligence products and services to the White House, executive agencies (such as CIA and the State Department), the Chairman and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), military combatant commanders and component commands, military departments, multinational forces, and U.S. allies. In addition, we provide Information Assurance products and services to users of national security information systems and to government contractors, as required.

10. Can you explain the NSA and CSS seals?

The NSA seal was designed in 1965 by direction of NSA Director LTG Marshall S. Carter, United States Army. The seal shows an eagle within a circle, holding a key. The eagle - a symbol of courage, supreme power, and authority - represents the national scope of NSA's mission. The shield on the eagle's breast is drawn from the Great Seal of the United States, and represents the states drawn together under a single chief that unites them and represents Congress. The key in the eagle's talons represents security. It evolved from the emblem of St. Peter the Apostle, and his power "to loose and to bind." The circular shape of the seal is a symbol of eternity. For more information, read the History of the Insignia.

The 1996, at the direction of NSA Director Lt Gen Kenneth A. Minihan, an emblem was created for the Central Security Service, which includes the elements of the armed forces that perform codemaking and codebreaking work along with NSA. The current version of the seal includes the Naval Network Warfare Command, Marine Corps, the Army Intelligence and Security Command, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Each is equally balanced around a five-pointed star that bears the symbol of NSA, which provides the funding, direction, and guidance for all of America's SIGINT activities. For more information, read the History of the CSS Insignia.

11. What are the differences between NSA/CSS' and U.S. Cyber Command's roles?

While both organizations share the same leader, NSA/CSS and U.S. Cyber Command do not share the same mission. NSA conducts SIGINT and Information Assurance for national security information and systems." USCYBERCOM operates under U.S. Code Title 10 (traditional military activities) and Title 32 (National Guard and Reserve).

NSA/CSS has two interconnected missions: Signals Intelligence (known as SIGINT) and Information Assurance. Through SIGINT, NSA gathers information that America's adversaries wish to keep secret. Through Information Assurance, NSA protects America's vital national security information and systems from theft or damage by others. Taken together, the SIGINT and Information Assurance missions are essential to a third function: enabling Network Warfare, a military operation. Through carrying out its missions, NSA/CSS helps save lives, defend vital networks, and advance our Nation's goals and alliances, while strictly protecting privacy rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and laws.

USCYBERCOM is a sub-unified command under U.S. Strategic Command. It directs the operation and defense of the military's information networks (dot mil domain). USCYBERCOM plans, coordinates, integrates, synchronizes and conducts activities to lead the day-to-day defense and protection of DoD information networks and coordinates DoD cyberspace operations providing full spectrum support to military missions.

USCYBERCOM is one of NSA/CSS' customers to whom the Agency, with its unique strengths, capabilities and authorities, provides critical support to enable DoD cyberspace operations planning and execution.