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How the NSA spied on Americans before the Internet

An illustration that appeared with a Washington Post article about warrantless NSA surveillance ... in 1977. (The Washington Post)

In May 1984 — an apt year for columns about “Big Brother” — The Post’s Michael Schrage warned of a future in which the government could snoop on unsuspecting citizens by subpoenaing their floppy discs. Personal computers were new, expensive and not particularly common; the first dot-com domain wasn’t even registered until the following year.

“In a very real way, your personal computer can be a warehouse of private information about you. It can be as revealing to others as Orwell's telescreen was to Big Brother,” Schrage wrote of the new technology. “He can access the personal computer to find out what's going on. Be careful.”

Schrage’s warning was prophetic in many ways: Thanks to information leaked by Edward Snowden, we now know that the National Security Agency operates a vast surveillance network with creeping fingers in many aspects of our Internet life. According to previously classified court documents released Wednesday, the NSA secretly collected thousands of e-mails from Americans that had nothing to do with terrorism.

But in the uproar over Upstream and PRISM, we often forget that widespread, overreaching government surveillance has been around since before Edward Snowden was  born. Let’s put it this way: The NSA’s very first scandal involved telegrams.

A "giant vacuum cleaner"

The NSA has been secretive since its inception — despite employing thousands of people at a very large office park in suburban Maryland, it declined to put a sign on the building until 1991. Early stories on the agency, written in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, frequently complained that it was “hush hush,” and none of its employees would discuss their job titles, let alone their mission.

Still, it’s clear that the NSA had two broad mandates during the Cold War years: Intercept and decode foreign intelligence, and stop other countries from doing the same to the U.S. “Intelligence” was a broad term in this case, encompassing any information that “would be useful to an adversary” — which, as the New York Times’ David Burnham wrote in a piece adapted from his 1983 book “The Rise of the Computer State,” could theoretically include everything from train timetables to newspaper stories.

As such, the NSA cast a wide net. From August 1945 to May 1975, a program started by the military and adopted by the NSA screened virtually every international telegram sent from the U.S. Initially the program, code-named SHAMROCK, "did not require any special technology," per a later Congressional review — the major telegraph companies simply passed microfilm or paper tape copies of messages to the NSA, where analysts would screen them by hand.

But the technological advancements of the 1960s made surveillance easier. Using a technique called dragnet surveillance, the NSA of the '60s and '70s “swept up entire streams” of phone calls and telegrams “like a giant vacuum cleaner,” presumably ingesting the calls at satellite and microwave relay stations, which bounce communications signals on to distant points. A 1976 Post article, nonchalantly titled “Who’s Listening?”, theorized that the NSA collected phone conversations, as well as telex and telegram messages, by positioning a “receiving station” on high ground between microwave towers or near satellite ground stations and stored it in huge, computerized databases.

The telex and telegram messages were searched against a watch list of names, subjects and locations. Sources from IBM, citing the primitiveness of voice-recognition at the time, guessed that military recruits listened to and transcribed recorded phone calls. By 1983, The Post’s Jerry Knight reported, the agency had enough computing power to read and analyze every international telegram sent to and from the U.S. — 13.6 million, in 1976 — as well as millions of international telephone calls.

Spying on Americans

The cover of book 2 of the Church committee The cover of book two of the Church Committee's 1976 final report on intelligence activities. (U.S. Senate)

The problem then, however, was much the same as the problem today: The logged calls and telegrams often involved U.S. citizens. A 1975 investigation into Nixon-era intelligence practices, organized under the so-called the Church Committee, found that the NSA had eavesdropped on 1,200 Americans between 1967 and 1973, often because of their political activities. In the early '60s, the agency monitored every telephone call between the U.S. and Cuba before moving on to spy on civil rights activists, anti-war demonstrators and celebrities. Under SHAMROCK, NSA analysts logged and read millions of telegrams sent to and from Americans, including an estimated 150,000 telegrams per month in the last three years of the program.

“NSA officials told [the House Intelligence Committee] in closed session that at present NSA is not eavesdropping on domestic or overseas telephone calls placed by [Americans],” reads a brief about the Church hearings in the New York Times. It continues: “Many [committee] members still have ‘doubts’ that NSA is not intruding on telephone calls placed in US by Amer citizens.”

As a result of the Church hearings, Congress passed a number of reforms that tried to narrow the use of wiretaps to cases where critical national security information was at stake. But Congress struggled to address another issue identified in the hearings: The NSA’s technology was quickly becoming so advanced, and so secretive, that the government didn’t know how to legislate it. In the words of the Church committee in 1976:

The watch list activities and the sophisticated capabilities that they highlight present some of the most crucial privacy issues facing this nation. Space-age technology has outpaced the law.

That problem, as we’ve learned recently, never really went away. For one thing, oversight didn’t exactly improve: A 1990 series in The Post delved into the agency’s regulation and found that fewer than 10 congressmen even had the clearance to see everything the agency was doing and what it produced, let alone to exercise any oversight. Former representative Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) told The Post’s Vernon Loeb in 1999 that Congress had not asked the NSA a single “hard question about electronic surveillance” in the preceding 24 years.

The fiber age

But as much as many aspects of the NSA’s operations stayed the same, the technology behind them changed. The advent of the Internet and the gradual adoption of fiber-optic cable deluged the agency with so much information that the House Intelligence Committee concluded, in 1999, that it was “in serious trouble.” It reportedly spent the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, without enough money or leadership to process “the huge volumes of TV, fax, telephone and other signals” that fiber-optic cables transmit, the L.A. Times reported in 2000. Plus, the Times said of those cables: “They are harder to tap.”

Not that hard, apparently — in the late '90s, only 15 years after Michael Schrage warned of “Big Brother” watching our brand-new PCs, the European Parliament launched a furious investigation into allegations that the NSA “routinely intercepted” e-mails, phone calls and faxes in Europe.

This summer’s NSA revelations likewise shocked and infuriated some observers on both sides of the Atlantic. But given the NSA's past 60 years, Snowden’s leaks look less like a surprise and more like a pattern — a pattern predicted, in fact, by prescient skeptics 30 years ago.

“But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans — the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends,” David Burnham wrote in 1983, before the Internet was even available for personal use. He concludes:

Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation's security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (



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