National Security Adviser Richard C. Allen sat on the deck of his home in Arlington, Va., in August 1981 listening on his secure phone as NSA provided a second-by-second account of Israeli fighters destroying an Iraqi nuclear reactor. The agency was listening to the pilots' communications and the Iraqis' panicked response.
"They kept us virtually in real time," Mr. Allen recalls. "NSA performed, in my view, absolutely invaluable services."
Yet such intercepts are the rare electronic nuggets plucked from masses of ore dug by rank-and-file miners. An NSA career, says a Russian linguist, is "months and months of boredom and drudgery, punctuated by a few minutes of unbelievably intense excitement."
Often NSA adds to an intelligence mosaic whose pieces come from CIA spies, satellite photos, foreign newspapers and academic experts. "For every hot report that ends up in the president's hands," the linguist says, "there's probably 10 years of database development behind it."
When a Pan Am jetliner was downed in Lockerbie, Scotland, by a terrorist bomb just before Christmas 1988, NSA responded quickly. Analysts searched massive computer files for scraps of threatening dialogue and mentions of the Pan Am flight. Eavesdroppers scanned the messages of militant groups around the world for incriminating reactions to the bombing.
"Everybody in the world was flagged to look for anything on that," an Arabic linguist recalls. "We happened to be working on an area of Lebanon where they thought people might be involved."
Ultimately, the agency helped identify two Libyan agents, since indicted in the blast. Nonetheless, says this linguist, Lockerbie was a failure for NSA and the rest of U.S. intelligence because the tragedy wasn't prevented. Every year, he says, NSA's tips to the CIA and FBI head off terrorist attacks - and the public never hears a word.
"There's no question that the information obtained from NSA has been an integral part in preventing terrorist acts in the United States," says Oliver B. Revell, the FBI's counterterrorism chief until 1991.
It is through its widespread monitoring that NSA is able to spot potential terrorists or predict a change in government, listening for trouble like a doctor with a stethoscope pressed to the world.
There are few prime ministers or presidents whose voices have never echoed in the headphones of an NSA linguist, whether they were caught on the phone in their office or in a hotel room during a U.S. visit. Before American leaders meet a top foreign official, NSA helps them prepare by providing the target's latest conversations and written directives.
One former CIA analyst recalls hearing an NSA tape of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu chewing out a subordinate for failing to meet an agricultural production target. A former White House Middle East expert remembers hearing Syrian President Hafez el Assad engaging in "spectacular gossip," culminating in a foul-mouthed tirade against the Iranians, laced with potent Arabic slurs.
During negotiations, from arms control to trade, American officials turn to NSA for help daily - sometimes hourly. They use the agency as a sort of global lie detector.
"If you find that in private conversation, Minister A is saying the same thing he's saying to you, that's reassuring," says Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years.
U.S negotiators often know the cards held by the other side. NSA has provided copies of the orders the foreigners have just received from their bosses. "There were moments when you'd go into a negotiation and you'd have the instructions the other side had received," Mr. Abrams says. "That was not trivial."
NSA provided just such assistance to U.S. negotiators during tense talks with Japan this year over luxury car imports. One American trade envoy who works closely with NSA says he sometimes struggles at the negotiating table not to betray what he knows.
"You have to make sure," he says, "there's no extra spring in your step."
An $8 billion effort
Keeping the world wired isn't easy. And it isn't cheap.
NSA listens from a fleet of billion-dollar satellites and through an ordinary electrical socket on the wall of a foreign mission. The eavesdroppers are in the van along Embassy Row in Washington and in the bunker at Misawa Air Base on the northern tip of Japan. They're aboard that U.S. Navy cruiser steaming through the Mediterranean and in the cockpit of the U-2 spy plane above the Bosnian landscape.
The price tag for the entire bugging network is secret, but it only begins with NSA's annual budget of about $3.5 billion. Those eavesdropping satellites may cost another $3 billion, from the budget of the National Reconnaissance Office. The Army, Navy and Air Force provide NSA with 30,000 or so servicemen and women who staff listening posts, adding about $2 billion.