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.”