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American Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) During The Cold War

Updated on January 1, 2015
Signals Intelligence
Signals Intelligence | Source


American SIGINT collection has significantly improved since the onset of the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, the SIGINT community underwent time periods of support, but as well as mistrust of its extensive capabilities. The SIGINT community was formalized by the National Security Agency. The National Security Agency was established in 1952 and designed to oversee all Signals Intelligence collection for the United States (Aid 2001, 27). The agency is in charge of all Communications Intelligence (COMINT), Foreign Instrumentation Signals Intelligence (Fisint) and Electronics Intelligence (Elint) with the purpose of intercepting and exploiting electronic radio traffic (Aid 2001, 27) (Aid & Wiebes, 2). The NSA does not produce finalized intelligence products, but does collect Signals Intelligence for the Department of Defense, Department of State, the National Security Council, FBI, CIA, and DIA (Aid 2001, 27). The creation of the NSA laid the groundwork for a more organized and formal SIGINT collection platform.

SIGINT, Radio Monitoring


SIGINT Defined

History of SIGINT

During the Cold War, the National Security Agency collected against numerous adversary nations, but its primary focus for SIGINT collection was the Soviet Union and its key allies throughout Europe (Aid 2001, 29). The end of World War II and the early years entering into the Cold War led to a few major structural changes throughout the SIGINT community. By the end of World War II, the Army and Navy COMINT organizations were well-equipped with over 36,000 support personnel, “37 strategic listening posts and direction finding stations and dozens of tactical mobile COMINT intercept units” operating with “2,500 radio intercept receivers” (Aid 2001, 32). By 1945, the military cryptologic units were reorganized and titled the Army Security Agency (ASA) and Communications Supplementary Activities (CSA). Postwar budget constraints led to a dramatic decline in ASA’s and CSA’s personnel strength. By 1948, the U.S. Air Force created the US Air Force Security Service. Although by 1949, the Armed Forces Security Agency was created to govern all Comint under the authority of the Army, Navy and Air Force (Aid 2001, 32).

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Great Britain formed an agreement to align both of their Comint assets against the Soviet Union known as the UKUSA agreement (Aid 2001, 33). This agreement allowed the NSA and Britain to share operations, but remain autonomous of each other. According to Aid (2001), recent reports suggest that the UKUSA partnership was very effective in ciphering codes against the Soviet Union (33). The U.S. and Great Britain were able to obtain information regarding the manpower and capabilities of the Soviet military as well as intelligence on the Soviet’s data on atomic energy (Aid 2001, 33). Prior to 1948, the U.S. was able to successfully exploit the Russian’s cryptographic systems, since these machines were acquired earlier from the U.S., Britain or from Germany during WWII (Aid 2001, 33). However on October 29th, 1948, the Russian’s implemented “a massive worldwide change of their cryptographic systems and communications operating procedures,” hindering the U.S. SIGINT community’s ability to intercept Russian traffic (Aid 2001, 35). Despite this setback, the UKUSA alliance continued to adapt and overcome the challenges of SIGINT collection during the Cold War.

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SIGINT Sensor System
SIGINT Sensor System | Source

Creation of the NSA

The start of the Korean War in 1950 facilitated the establishment of the National Security Agency. During the Korean War, many high-ranking military and civilian officials were unsatisfied with the poor collection of Communications Intelligence (Aid 2001, 35). By 1952, President Truman created a national directive, Communications Intelligence Activities, in an effort to reorganize all U.S. COMINT operations in a manner that was most effective and efficient for every agency to meet their intelligence requirements. This directive led to the establishment of the National Security Agency (Aid 2001, 36). During the 1950’s, the National Security Agency became a robust SIGINT community with over 30,000 personnel and by the 1960’s the NSA “doubled in size to approximately 65,000 military and civilian personnel” (Aid 2001, 36). The NSA built a multi-layered enterprise throughout the U.S. and abroad. The U.S. SIGINT community collaborated with numerous nations abroad that all strategically surrounded the Soviet Union and were able to intercept and share COMINT. Due to the NSA’s robust capabilities, the NSA was able to decrypt numerous “high-level Soviet machine cipher systems” throughout the Cold War (Aid 2001, 40). During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the U.S. and Britain began to heavily rely on clandestine operations to successfully intercept Signals Intelligence, since cryptographic machines became even more difficult to cipher (Aid 2001, 41). This led to the creation of a CIA unit known as Staff D, whose sole purpose was to “steal foreign cryptographic materials, recruit foreign government code clerks, tap communications lines, and plant audio surveillance devices” (Aid 2001, 41). Similar to Staff D, the FBI and the UK created their own tactical SIGINT teams to enhance their success for intercepting foreign message data.


By the 1960’s, SIGINT had proven to be a valuable intelligence asset that continued to yield results on the Soviet Union’s military capabilities and defense plans (Aid 2001, 37). The American SIGINT community became a robust and integrated network over the years; however, Signals Intelligence does have certain setbacks and limitations. For example, the secretive nature surrounding the Signals Intelligence impedes many high-level government and military officials from having access to certain desired information. Many Comint reports that were available during the 1950’s and 1960’s were only allowed to be seen by a handful of people who were indoctrinated and possessed the “need to know” (Aid & Weibes, 12). More often than not, security considerations and protocol are so severe that the people who require such information are not able to receive it. According to Aid and Wiebes, another limitation is that many intelligence consumers tend to not trust SIGINT reporting and its credibility or many consumers tend to rely too much on SIGINT without corroborating with other intelligence disciplines (15). America’s reliance on the SIGINT community continued to evolve throughout the Cold War and experienced many successes and limitations along the way. The SIGINT community experienced time periods of budget constraints and complete restructuring to building a robust SIGINT network in an effort to support the security interests throughout the Cold War.


Aid, Matthew. 2001. The National Security Agency and the Cold War. Intelligence
& National Security (Spring); 27-66.

Aid, Matthew & Weibes, Cees. Introduction: The Importance of Signals Intelligence in the Cold War. Intelligence & National Security 16, no. 1. (Spring); 1-26.

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, VA



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