The start of the National Security Agency's rise in power can be traced to the first years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when new laws, secret presidential orders and lots of cash emboldened it to sweep up billions of communications.
The NSA that stands today at Fort George G. Meade, Md. — and has been exposed by leaker Edward J. Snowden — bears faint resemblance to the underfunded, technologically challenged outfit in 2001 that had trouble penetrating basic cellphones, former officials say.
"I think the NSA today is light-years ahead of where it was on 9/11," says former Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
"There have been major investments made to it," Mr. Hoekstra says. "They've been very, very creative in terms of gathering data. They've been very, very creative in fusing different data sets and coming up with answers, which is their job.
"Rather than just collecting data, they're collecting it from a lot of different sources. They're fusing the data and giving them a much better picture of what the battlefield looks like," he says.
Deep budget cuts during the Clinton administration left the NSA "going deaf," several officials said at the time.
The NSA's sorry state on the day al Qaeda struck America broke into the open five years later when Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the director, did the unthinkable for the "No Such Agency," as critics had dubbed it: He answered questions at the National Press Club.
"By the late 1990s ... the explosion of modern communications in terms of volume, variety, velocity threatened to overwhelm us," the Air Force general said. "The agency took a lot of criticism in those days, I know, criticism that it was 'going deaf,' that it was ossified in its thinking, that it had not and could not keep up with the changes in modern communications."
Former CIA Director George Tenet, who left office in 2004 bitter over a lack of funding in the 1990s for tracking terrorists, wrote in his memoirs: "You don't simply tell NSA to give you more signals intelligence when their capabilities are crumbling and they are 'going deaf' — unable to monitor critical voice communications."
What a difference a decade makes, as revealed by Mr. Snowden, former NSA contractor. He has leaked more top-secret NSA sources and methods than any other government employee in history.
The world now knows the scope of NSA's renaissance. It is collecting and storing every phone call made in and out of the United States. In an instant, it can intercept a foreign terrorist's email or phone call routed through this country. It has computer programs to penetrate all social media. It can bug embassies in Washington, their fax machines and personal computers.
This chutzpah began in the first few years after 9/11. The George W. Bush administration interpreted the Patriot Act as granting broad eavesdropping powers to capture and store a record of every phone call — a practice continued by President Obama.
Funding spiked dramatically as the NSA asked the high-tech industry to start devising new ways to track terrorists and listen in.
Annual spending on national intelligence hovered around $25 billion in the late 1990s. It more than doubled after 9/11.
Gen. Hayden spent the money on new units, such as the Target Reconnaissance and Survey (OTRS) Office at Fort Meade, a former official said.
One of its firsts products was a remote, battery-powered sensor that was studded along Afghanistan mountain ranges pointed toward suspected al Qaeda sites in Pakistan. What it scooped up could be sent instantly to NSA translation and transcription units in the area. In two years, more than 30 boxes were affixed along the border, the former official said.
The boxes have helped analysts locate terrorists' havens and identify camps that pose as schools.
Another new NSA gizmo was the Tailored Access Operations System (TAO). It can penetrate phone-switching stations, collect phone numbers and find links between terrorists. The U.S. has required the Iraqi and Afghan governments to install telephone networks that can be readily tapped.
NSA also started the Digital Network Intelligence program to focus on intercepting Internet messages.
The high-tech advancements came into play big time in the hunt for the most deadly al Qaeda operative in the Middle East at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
By the mid-2000s, NSA analysts and technicians were part of a tactical war against terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. They joined task forces along with CIA operatives and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the supersecret units of Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs.
The most-wanted in Iraq in 2006 was al-Zarqawi. One technique used to find his couriers was to bug computer chat rooms so that emails and instant messages could be spied on in real time. Using that and other intelligence collections, JSOC was able to follow al-Zarqawi's spiritual adviser to his hideout, where the terrorist chief was killed by an airstrike.
"The National Security Agency's ability to collect, store and analyze data is exponentially better today than it was before 9/11," the former official said. "Society has created a system where information is stored indefinitely, organized to be easily searched, and can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
"The NSA pursued a parallel strategy of accessing that information in real time to support tactical operations and storing it for future analysis to support long-term operations and strategic objectives," the former official said. "If you send a piece of information from Point A to Point B anywhere in the world, it is safe to assume that the NSA has access to it or will have access to it in the future"