ASA History (Army Security Agency).

United States Army Security Agency

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Army Security Agency

The United States Army Security Agency (ASA) was, from 1945 through 1976, the United States Army’s electronic intelligence branch. Its motto was “Vigilant Always.” The Agency was the successor to a number of Army signals intelligence operations dating back to World War I. As well as intelligence gathering, it also had responsibility for the security of Army communications and for electronic countermeasures operations. In 1976, the USASA was merged with the US Army Military Intelligence component in a process which formed the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM).

Composed primarily of soldiers with the very highest 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. ASA was directly subordinate to the National Security Agency and all field stations had NSA tech reps on site.

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. In some cases such as Eritrea, it was the primary military presence. Although not officially serving under the ASA name, cover designation being Radio Research, ASA personnel were among the earliest U.S. military advisors in Vietnam. The first ASA combat fatality in Vietnam took place in 1961. This was Specialist James T. Davis for whom Davis Station in Saigon was named. President Lyndon Johnson later termed Davis “the first American to fall in the defense of our freedom in Vietnam”. All ASA personnel processed in country through Davis Station. 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.

ASA military occupational specialties (MOS’s) included linguists (“Monterey Marys”), morse code intercept operators (“Ditty Boppers” or sometimes “Hogs” for their 05H designation), non-morse (teletype and voice) intercept operators, communications security specialists, direction-finding equipment operators (“Duffy’s” for their 05D designation), cryptographers (crippies), communications traffic analysts, and electronic maintenance technicians[1] and a 42 man Special Operations Detachment to conduct clandestine combat operations, among others. ASA had its own separate training facilities, MP corps, communication centers and chain of command.

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).

ASA Human Resources (1945-1965)

The ASA, during the majority of the years of its existence, from 1945 to 1965, was largely a “Cold War” operation within a conscripted Army (the draft ended in 1973). It is a simple fact that, during the draft era, about 20% of all enlisted service members were in the bottom third of the Army’s aptitude scoring range and the overwhelming majority fell slightly below the mid-point of the range. As has been noted, the ASA enlisted troops were recruited from the top 10% of the aptitude scoring range until 1965, which ultimately proved to be a very serious problem for the civilian National Security Agency that largely exercised control over the ASA until that time. To complicate matters, while today’s armed forces retain nearly 50% of service members, during the draft only 12% of the troops re-enlisted. The vast majority of the ASA enlisted staff were given very simplistic training and performed secret, but routine, basic tasks far below their potential. Of all the Army organizations that recruited from the top 10% (OCS Programs, Warrant Officer Programs, Special Forces Programs, etc.), only the ASA failed to gain the benefits inherent in having such staff, just as the average member of the enlisted staff gained little or no benefit from the ASA experience. Never in Army history, since the end of WW II, has there been such a waste of outstanding human resources. However, as we are dealing with what was a highly classified organization, the full story will never be written.

The Army, itself, exhibited very little to no 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 Defense that enlisted technicians of all kinds should be given recognition and adequate pay in order to retain them. Accordingly, in 1954, Regulation 615-15 created the grades of Specialist E-5, E-6, and E-7 in order to get around the general Table of Organization and Equipment restrictions on the number of individuals (normally regular NCO’s), who could be placed in these grades. In 1958, DA 344303 also created Specialist grades E-8 and E-9. Sadly, there were never more than a handful of Specialist E-7’s in the ASA and no individual in the ASA was ever promoted to the grades of Specialist E-8 and E-9 before these grades were eliminated in 1965. The ASA managed to completely frustrate the intentions of the Department of Defense and the massive turnover of highly intelligent ASA staff proved to be an administrative nightmare. Without the draft, it would also have been an operational disaster. The entire organization was, understandably, eliminated as soon as possible after the creation of the all-volunteer, professional Army.

It should be noted that all ASA enlisted staff, until 1965, had an actual M.O.S. which was classified and they were carried in the Army’s general records under the fictional M.O.S. of “General Duties”. The sad truth was that, while their various specialties were recognized within the ASA, their expertise was often not known and given any consideration outside of the ASA and the NSA. The officers within the ASA were designated as Signal Corp officers and this, of course, was also generally a complete fiction.

It is certainly true that, until 1965, the ASA contained some of the brightest enlisted soldiers in the Army. Few stayed very long, although a very few did wind up as professionals in the National Security Agency and a small number, associated with the hardware side of the operation, transferred to the Signal Corps (where they had often come from in the first place). ASA bases, frequently shoved up against the Soviets and Red Chinese, from northern Europe to the Near East, southern Asia, and northern Japan and Korea, were often rather crude, isolated outposts. In short, the ASA was notoriously the worst job assignment area in the Army and the organization would certainly not have been sustainable in today’s all-volunteer Army. The ASA “4R” practice of No Rank, No Recognition, No Respect, and No Record, did not work even in a conscripted Army, let alone in an all-volunteer Army.

In today’s Army, modern technology has largely replaced the specific tasks performed by most ASA troops. The modern Army M.O.S. 98 series involving SIGINT, requires the same high security clearance levels as the old ASA standards, but the personal qualification standards are far below those of the lowest level of pre-1965 ASA standards. However, the modern troopers in the M.O.S. 98 series actually perform the full range of now computer-driven SIGINT functions that the average ASA trooper never came close to performing. Nevertheless, if a modern SIGINT Officer was confronted with an old ASA type Spec 4 from the Agency’s mid-life point of 1960, with a college degree and an I.Q. of 120 to 130, he or she would probably be quite shocked. Still, the officer would no doubt be delighted to get such a trooper for $27 a week, as was the NSA and their Rent-a-Trooper operation.

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 Ph.D. As he neared the end of his draft deferment eligibility at age 26, he decided to avoid the draft and enlisted in the ASA. Today, of course, if someone with graduate degree and test scores in the top ten percent volunteered for the Army at a starting pay rate of $1000 a year, the recruiting NCO would probably faint from shock.

The ASA certainly remains as the ultimate example of the severe waste and abuse of some of the Army’s best and brightest enlisted troops in the course of the Army conscription period during the 20th century. Just as in so many “joint venture” operations, neither the Army nor the NSA was looking out for the troops and, accordingly, there was a total failure in effective human resources management. It is clear that such a situation would not, and could not, be tolerated in the modern, all-volunteer Army. Given today’s recruiting issues and the challenges of modern Army technology, the continual annual loss of a substantial percentage of the very brightest technicians would be a catastrophe!

Today, the simple loss of a linguist in intelligence is taken to be a serious problem. The fact that the linguist was lost because he or she was a long-serving E-4 being paid $1400 a year, would result in such efficiency ratings for the officers involved as to cause their dismissal from the service. Of course, in this day and age, such a situation is extremely hard to imagine, as an intelligence linguist with a graduate degree would be an officer being paid at least 35 times the pay rate noted and would not be spending time on KP peeling potatoes or driving a truck to pick up supplies and mail.

NOTE: From 1965 to 1973, the WW II hero, 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”.

List of ASA Memoirs and Novels

#1 Code Break Boy: Communications Intelligence in the Korean War (memoir) by John Milmore (2002). ASA in Korea.

C Trick: Sort of a Memoir (memoir) by Don Cooper (2000). An ASA German linguist in Berlin in the mid-1960s.

Dress Rehearsals: The Education of a Marginal Writer (memoir) by Charles Deemer (2004). While primarily about his life as a writer, it has two chapters on his life as an ASA linguist who learned Russian at ALS (the predecessor to DLI) in the late 1950s, he then served a tour in Germany at Baumholder in the early 1960s. The rest of the book is about how he went on to become “like a man without a country: a writer without readers.”

Lübeck: A Wonderful Moment in Time (memoir) by Don E. Johnson (2004). An ASA ditty bopper at the border site in Lübeck in the mid-1950s.

One to Count Cadence (novel) by James Crumley (1969). ASA in Vietnam.

Potsdam Mission: Memoir of a U.S. Army Intelligence Officer in Communist East Germany (memoir) by James R. Holbrook (2008). While primarily about USMLM, there is a very good chapter on the life of an ASA Russian linguist in Berlin.

Soldier Boy: At Play in the ASA (memoir) by Timothy James Bazzett (2008). An ASA ditty bopper in Turkey and in Germany in the mid-1960s.

Stay Safe, Buddy (novel) by J. Charles Cheek (2003). ASA in Korea.

Top Secret Missions by John E. Malone (2006). ASA in Vietnam.

Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary (novel) by T.H.E. Hill (2008). An ASA Russian linguist in Berlin ostensibly in the mid-1950s, but closer in reality to the mid-1970s.