The National Security Agency workforce has grown by at least one-third, to about 33,000 employees, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the agency has expanded its headquarters and operations to rival the size of the Pentagon.
The NSA is adding to its massive headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., and has expanded sites in Colorado, Hawaii, Texas, Utah, and Georgia, as well as in Australia and Britain, according to The Washington Post.
Moreover, the NSA has beefed up its private contracts with outside companies to meet the increased demand for surveillance and other counterterrorism activities in the wake of 9/11.
It now uses nearly 500 private companies to help conduct electronic and other intelligence operations. Among them is Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that employed Edward Snowden, who leaked information about the NSA
's collection of private phone and Internet communications data.
Snowden's disclosures shook the government and roused outrage on Capitol Hill and with the public to a certain degree, but the agency has been monitoring e-mails, cellphone, social media, and other forms of communication for more than decade in the effort to track down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist groups.
"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 of Snowden's documents reveals that as far back as 2000, one year before the Sept. 11 attacks, 60 percent of the president's daily intelligence briefing already was coming from the NSA.
Agency officials told the Post that the foreign signals it collects are "invaluable to national security" and "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."
The NSA's covert surveillance capabilities have made it the spearhead of U.S. intelligence operations, a position that one NSA unit notes with its unofficial motto: "We Track 'Em, You Whack 'Em."
The motto stems from 2001 drone strike that took out an al-Qaida target in Afghanistan whom the NSA tracked by the usage of a cellphone, according to the Post.
The NSA's operation has grown from the early tracking of cellphones to other areas, including the mining of financial and biometric data, the movement of money overseas, and collection of phone and other communications information.
The growth led to more employees and bigger facilities to house new computer systems and other networks to collect, store, and analyze tons of information.
In 2007, for example, the NSA broke ground on a $1 billion facility at Fort Gordon, Ga., where 4,000 workers collect and process signal intelligence from the Middle East.
The agency also added 250,000 square feet to its workspace in Hawaii, where Snowden worked before stealing thousands of top-secret documents.
The growth also has stretched overseas, including a one-third increase in the size of the NSA station at RAF Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, England, where, according to the Post, electronic intelligence information is collected from parts of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Yet another overseas NSA site, Pine Gap in Australia, has added facilities and hundreds of workers in recent years.
An NSA official told the Post the upgrades were done to make the agency's "global enterprise even more seamless as we confronted increasingly networked adversaries."
But, this official added, the efforts "to exploit the foreign communications of adversaries and defend vital U.S. networks" are always conducted "in accordance with national priorities and in full accordance with U.S. law."
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