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The United States Army Security Agency (ASA) was the United States Army's signal intelligence branch. Its motto was "Vigilant Always." The Agency existed between 1945 and 1976 and was the successor to Army signal intelligence operations dating back to World War I. The ASA was under the command of the Director of National Security (DIRNSA) at the National Security Agency, located at Fort Meade. Besides intelligence gathering, it had responsibility for the security of Army communications and for electronic countermeasures operations. In 1977, the ASA was merged with the US Army's Military Intelligence component to create the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM).
Composed of soldiers with high scores on Army intelligence tests, the ASA was tasked with monitoring and interpreting military communications of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and their allies and client states around the world. The ASA was directly subordinate to the National Security Agency and all field stations had NSA technical representatives present.
All gathered information had time-sensitive value depending on its importance and classification. Information was passed through intelligence channels within hours of intercept for the lowest-priority items, but in as little as 10 minutes for the most highly critical information.
ASA personnel were stationed at locations around the globe, wherever the United States had a military presence – publicly acknowledged or otherwise (Peshawar, Pakistan). In some cases such as Eritrea, it was the primary military presence. The 13th USASA Field Station, outside of Harrogate, England in what is now North Yorkshire was and is a primary listening post. It was subsequently turned over to the British and became an RAF station. It is called RAF Menwith Hill, and was the site of peace protests.
Although not officially serving under the ASA name, covertly designated as Radio Research, ASA personnel of the 509th Radio Research Battalion were among the earliest U.S. military advisors in Vietnam.
The first battlefield fatality of the Vietnam War was Specialist 4 James T. Davis (from Livingston, Tennessee) who was killed on 22 December 1961, on a road near the old French Garrison of Cau Xang. He had been assigned to the 3rd Radio Research Unit at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, along with 92 other members of his unit. Davis Station in Saigon was named after him. President Lyndon Johnson later termed Davis "the first American to fall in the defense of our freedom in Vietnam".
Most ASA personnel processed in country through Davis Station; others attached to larger command structures prior to transport to Vietnam processed in with those units. For example, the 601st Radio Research Unit, attached to the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, processed in with that brigade. ASA personnel were attached to Army infantry and armored cavalry units throughout the Vietnam War. Some select teams were also attached to MACV/SOG and Special Forces units. Some teams were independent of other army units, such as the 313th Radio Research Brigade at Nha Trang.
ASA military occupational specialties (MOSs) included voice intercept operators, linguists (98G "Monterey Marys"), morse code intercept operators ("Ditty Boppers" or sometimes "Hogs" for their 05H designation), non-morse (teletype and voice) intercept operators (05K), communications security/signal security specialists (05G) ("Buddy Fuckers" because their investigations often led to soldiers being punished), direction-finding equipment operators ("Duffys" for their 05D designation),
Crypto-Clerks (72B), Cryptanalysis/Cryptanalytic Technician (crippies),(98B), communications traffic analysts (98C), non-communications intercept/analysts (98J – RADAR and telemetry) and electronic cryptographic maintenance technicians(32F-G, and 33S)
Electronic Maintenance Techs 33C Intercept Receiver Repairman, 33D Intercept Record System Repairmen, 33F Digital Demultiplex Intercept Systems Repairman, 34F Digital Systems Terminal Equipment Repairman and 33G Electronics Countermeasures System Repairmen and a 44 man Special Operations Detachment or field teams to conduct clandestine combat operations, among others. ASA had its own separate training facilities, communication centers and chain of command. In 1976, all 33 MOS designations were consolidated into one field, 33S Electronic Repairman.
These occupations, which required top secret clearance, were essential to U.S. Cold War efforts. ASA units operated in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. ASA troops were not allowed to discuss their operations with outsiders – in fact, they could not talk among themselves about their duties unless they were in a secure location. Even today, decades after they served, some of the missions still cannot be discussed. Owing to the sensitivity of the information with which they worked, ASA soldiers were subject to travel restrictions during and long after their time in service. The activities of the U.S. Army Security Agency have only recently been partially declassified. This turn of events has been accompanied by the appearance of a small number of ASA memoirs and novels (see the list below).
The ASA, during the majority of the years of its existence, from 1945 to 1978, was largely a “Cold War” operation. ASA enlisted troops were recruited from the top aptitude test scoring range.
The Army itself exhibited little concern for the ASA until 1965, as it was a "Joint venture" essentially under the control of a civilian organization. However, there was a general concern in the Department of the Army that enlisted technicians of all kinds should be given recognition and adequate pay in order to retain them. Accordingly, in 1954, Army Regulation 615–15 created the grades of Specialists Four, Five, Six, and Seven, (SP4, SP5, SP6, SP7) corresponding to Corporal (E4), Sergeant (E5), Staff Sergeant (E6), and Sergeant First Class (E7), in order to get around the general Table of Organization and Equipment restrictions on the total number of individuals (normally regular NCOs), who could be placed in these grades. In 1958, DA Reg 344–303 also created Specialist Grades Specialist Eight and Nine. There were never more than a handful of Specialist 7’s in the ASA and no individual in the ASA was ever promoted to the grades of Specialist 8 or 9 before these top grades were eliminated in 1965.
The officers within the ASA were generally commissioned into the Signal Corps branch since there was no separate branch for ASA. Effective in 1967, the Military Intelligence (MI) branch stood up and officers were commissioned into MI.
In today’s Army, modern technology has largely replaced the specific tasks performed by most ASA troops. The current Army MOS Military Intelligence 35 series involving SIGINT, requires the same high security clearance levels as the old ASA standards. However, the modern Soldier in the MOS 35 series actually perform the full range of now computer-driven SIGINT functions that the average ASA trooper never came close to performing.
The educational level of a "Monterey Mary" (an ASA linguist) in the late 1950s is typified in a memoir by a graduate of ALS class R-12-80, the school’s 80th 12-month class in Russian. He had an M.A. in one of the humanities, and had been working on a PhD Contrary to opinion, not all linguists were "Monterey Marys". Native speakers in Spanish, German and others were common, as well as personnel whose previous assignments and experience had gained them professional-level knowledge of the language. Though "Marys" were required to periodically test their continued proficiency, those who gained the skill outside of Monterey were considered 'native' and not tested, which was an arguable weak spot in the profession. To these, the term 'Monterey Mary' was uncomplementary and even used as a term of 'class' disdain. Periodic testing of job-related skills was required, and on leaving the ASA, those who carried a language digit were then required periodically to prove proficiency, whether native or not, to maintain the MOS qualification suffix digits.
From 1965 to 1973, Major General Charles Denholm, supervised the integration of the ASA with the rest of Army Military Intelligence and the organization underwent a dramatic change, including a vast increase in size and scope and a completely changed relationship with the NSA during the final period of its existence. By this point in time it was not, of course, the traditional "ASA".