by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Harrison E. Salisbury, respected Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and foreign and domestic correspondent for the New York Times, described the difference between a free democracy and a totalitarian state: We had no censorship; we had freedom of communication; no one listened in when we talked on the telephone; our mails were secure; no government spy read our telegrams or cables.”

But then he added “That was before I heard of the NSA. Those initials are not exactly your household acronym. If I ask my neighbor what is the country’s biggest security agency, he will name the CIA or FBI. He will be wrong. The National Security Agency is the biggest, and not one American in 10,000 has even heard its name. In all the years I worked as a correspondent in Moscow I never knew it existed. I should have. So should every American.”

The NSA is described as the behemoth of U.S. security outfits with an annual appropriation of more than $2 billion and a payroll of more than 22,000. Little is known about the NSA since everything it does is classified. However, Salisbury noted that “It generates such a volume of classified materials that it must destroy 20 tons of documents each day … the quantity is so great that the disposal furnace is used to generate gas for heating the NSA complex” at Fort Meade, Maryland, which is just a bit smaller than the Pentagon.

The NSA monitors all message traffic in the world — cable, wireless, satellite, telephone, coded, uncoded, scrambled, private, business, diplomatic, military.  Every telephone call, wireless and cable message to and from the U.S. is automatically recorded. In 1973 alone, the NSA reportedly retrieved more than 24 million individual communications including private, personal, supposedly inviolable messages of ordinary Americans. The latter are reputedly screened out and fed into the 20-ton-a-day destruct furnace. But no one knows for sure.

Salisbury asks “How does this affect the ordinary American?” and responds “In the simplest terms it means that Uncle Sam is listening — or may listen or is capable of listening — to every electronic impulse we incite, be it a corner pay phone or telex message to our Swiss banker.” He notes that all this is 100 percent against the law and violates every provision of the Bill of Rights and concludes “The fact that all this NSA activity is totally forbidden by the First Amendment’s guaranteeing freedom of the press has made no difference to the NSA and its masters.”

And now it appears that information about the NSA is going to be even more difficult to obtain. In the summer of 1980, a public research group, including several academics whose work had been censored by the NSA, surprisingly advocated the implementation of strong prior-restraint laws against independent published works in cryptography. The group also recommended that the National Science Foundation submit all applications it receives for cryptology funding to the NSA for “peer review.”  It is suggested that all research in cryptology and computer security will eventually be controlled by the NSA.

The lack of media coverage given the magnitude of NSA intrusion on private citizens qualifies this as a nomination for “best censored “story” of 1980. Or, as Salisbury  says, every American should know about the NSA.


Penthouse, Nov. 1980, “Big Brother is Listening to You,” by Harrison Salisbury; and The Progressive, Nov. 1980, “Somebody is Listening,” by Loring Wirbell.