Ronald Reagan

Address at the Dedication Ceremony for Operations Buildings 2A and 2B at the National Security Agency

delivered 26 September 1986, Fort Meade, Maryland

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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

I'm delighted to be here today -- and by the way, I mentioned to General Odom and Bill Casey the unseasonably warm weather predictions for today, but they told me to wear my trenchcoat anyway.  And then when I asked for directions to this great new building, all they would say is: "Mr. President, leave the White House, go to -- to 17th and K, and wait for the phone to ring."

I even offered to bring over some White House cufflinks as souvenirs for all of you, but I was told that you prefer the NSA cufflinks -- you can tune in the Redskins game.  Ladies -- But, ladies and gentlemen, I didn't come here today to tell you a lot of "speak into the potted plant" jokes. I do have some fairly high-grade intelligence, though. We've just learned that from now on KGB agents have been ordered to do all their work in groups of three: one agent to take notes and write the report and the other two to keep an eye on the intellectual.

If I -- but if I may be serious, I do have another story for you today, and it goes like this: In the spring of 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were planning a decisive naval engagement that would crush American power in the Pacific and open Hawaii and our west coast to attack. To accomplish this, the Japanese assembled the most powerful armada in history. Against their cruisers, battleships, and carriers, the United States could assemble really only three aircraft carriers -- one of which was still badly damaged from the Battle of the Coral Sea. And aware that the Japanese were preparing for this decisive battle, the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz, knew the odds against him and understood that his only chance of victory lay in the skill and daring of his outnumbered sailors and fliers -- and in his superior intelligence services.

        [Photo of Fleet Radio Unit (Hawaii) Working on JN-25]

Although aware of Japanese preparations, the Americans did not have the answer to the all-important question of where the Japanese would attack. A young naval officer who had, with a small group of cryptographers, been monitoring Japanese transmissions, successfully deciphered their code. From his intercepts, Commander Joseph Rochefort knew the target of the planned attack was a place the Japanese were calling "AF." And in his own mind, he felt certain he knew what AF was -- an island not far from Hawaii; it was called Midway.

But as always, there were those who dismissed him, who scoffed at the notion that intelligence based on radio or electronic data could be accurate or reliable. Fortunately, for America and for freedom, Admiral Nimitz had no such doubts. He authorized a message sent from Midway, a message they knew that the Japanese could decipher and would be sure to transmit to their own intelligence services. The message reporting water problems at Midway went out [low level encryption], and Commander Joseph Rochefort and his dedicated cryptographers listened as the Japanese intelligence services reported to Tokyo naval headquarters that AF reported a water shortage. Commander Rochefort had his confirmation: Midway was the target.1

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And what history it was and is. Because of that critical intelligence, Nimitz placed his outnumbered carriers on the Japanese flank and, with several devastating strikes, not only dealt a blow that guaranteed naval superiority to the United States but made Midway one of the most dramatic and decisive naval battles in all of history. And while few Americans know the story of Commander Rochefort and his colleagues, all of us are in their debt. Indeed, it's hard to think of any group that made a greater contribution to victory in World War II.

You of the National Security Agency are like them, part of a proud tradition, a tradition which is, in fact, older than the Nation, a tradition that has its beginnings with George Washington and the American Revolution.

             [Photo of the Cryptologic Memorial Wall at the NSA]

And you, too, make history quietly -- silently, aware that your greatest moments, your greatest victories, if ever known at all, will be divulged only to generations many years from now. This does not deter you. You have chosen this work because you know that in a world where the dangers to our nation's freedom and security are grave and great, you provide a vital line of defense.

You understand that since World War II, accurate, up-to-the-minute intelligence has saved lives, averted war, and kept alive the cause of freedom. You also understand that the loss of our own sensitive information can undermine the very foundations of our free society. And you work to get those twin challenges by -- or to meet those twin challenges by providing the crucial intelligence and safeguarding the security of our own communications and electronic networks.

Today your work continues not only to prevent conflict but to fight terrorism, protect our security from hostile intelligence threats, guard the men and women of our Armed Forces around the world, and generally protect the values that we, our friends, and our allies hold dear. Without the product of your painstaking and dedicated efforts, we would, in a dangerous world, be blind and deaf. Without your long hours of selfless duty, often in far and forgotten corners of the world, we could neither protect America nor advance the cause of freedom. Without your success in guarding our vital communications, information, and technology, our adversaries would rob us of the secrets we need to be strong and secure.

The simple truth is: Without you, I could not do my job; nor could Secretary Shultz conduct diplomacy; nor could Secretary Weinberger, nor Admiral Crowe, muster the forces that defend us. And so, while you serve in silence; while your success must go without recognition, often even by your own families; while you cannot share with them or your fellow Americans the pride you feel in protecting and guarding their future -- let me today, in this place, speak for all of them: We are grateful for what you do, for the sacrifices you make, for your selfless commitment to our country, and for the limitations on your personal freedom which you accept so your countrymen can live their lives in freedom and peace. We understand your burden, and we salute you. You carry on the struggle for freedom, and you, too, are heroes. America's proud of you, and we thank you.

                               [Photo of the NSA Facilities]

Of course, you cannot perform your work without proper support from the Department of Defense, the Director of General -- or Central Intelligence, the White House, and the Congress. And today we're celebrating an example of that support -- a new building complex, the most modern of its kind in the world. I want to congratulate you all, Cap Weinberger, Bill Casey, Bill Odom, and the members of the intelligence committees of the Congress who cooperated so -- so effectively to make this building possible. When we took office five and a half years ago, we promised to make America strong again.2 And today we see a monument to that reassertion of American strength and security.

And yet we're also aware today of a growing threat to that security. Especially in the espionage trials of the last several years,3 you've glimpsed the terrible damage that espionage does. And as events of recent days have highlighted, the intelligence threat to our country remains very real. Our adversaries are employing all the means we associate with spies, including electronic espionage against sensitive communications and databases. Our most sensitive defense secrets and most advanced technology have been stolen, given to our adversaries out of misguided motives or attempts at financial gain. Such losses eliminate the technological advantage on which our defense rests. Similar efforts to infiltrate long-term agents into sensitive government departments and agencies are underway.

Those around the world who would seek to steal our secrets and technology, to subvert our values and institutions, and to violate the privacy of our communications must realize this fact: The American people will no longer tolerate this conduct. Already we have taken steps to demonstrate that we will not allow our adversaries to abuse the great freedoms of this country to our detriment. The recent flurry of espionage indictments and convictions expresses our unwillingness to tolerate betrayal of the special trust given to those who guard the Nation's secrets.

So, too, recent efforts by NSA have helped the private sector make it profitable to provide secure telecommunications and information systems to both government and industry. But on the issue of espionage, let me say again: We will root out our spies; we will punish them severely. And on this point, let me assure you, we have broad bipartisan support in the Congress and the overwhelming backing of the American people. And let me add, nor will we tolerate the imprisonment of innocent American citizens in retaliation for protecting ourselves from espionage.4

So -- So to you also falls the task of being especially vigilant against threats from hostile espionage services, as well as other unauthorized disclosures of the information that you hold in safekeeping. "Professional honor" -- these are code words. You protect the secrets and hold them in trust for your fellow citizens, and there can be no excuse for breaking that trust. Let us remember that those who would take it on themselves to declassify vital information endanger all of our lives, our freedom, and our way of life.

So, you remain the guardians of freedom.

Let nothing sway you in this noble endeavor, no matter how trying the struggle, how little the reward. Know that the American people support you in your efforts and rest easier because of your devotion to country. As the words on your new building say,

In grateful tribute to the men and women of the National Security Agency who have devoted their lives to the service of their nation.

Thank you, and God bless you.

[Photo of the building plaque at the dedication of OPS 2A and 2B]

1 A more complete account of this widely acknowledged episode is offered by Schorreck here. In that account, however, there is a subtle but seemingly important explanatory anomaly, namely whether the Japanese "intelligent report," as noted by Schorreck, was itself intercepted. The authoritative view --  see here and here -- avers that U.S. code breakers (OP-20-G) intercepted Japanese transmissions referencing a water shortage regarding "AF," thereby revealing Midway Island as the operational target in question. However, Schorreck' account seems to draw an explicit distinction between 1) a specific Japanese intelligence report and 2) a separate and highly significant message intercepted by the U.S. immediately following: Referring to 6th Communication Units #621, as we plan to make attacks from a general northwesterly direction from N-2 to N day inclusive, please send weather three hours prior to take-off on the said day. Also, would like to be informed of enemy air activity or anything else which might be of importance. Reference to Combined Fleet #1 on the day of the attack we will endeavor to --- at a point 50 miles NW of AF and move pilots off as quickly as possible. This message is the lone material piece of evidence offered at this juncture to substantiate the claim that U.S. code breakers figured out the real meaning of "AF" on the basis of the planted story.  The evidence, however, appears to be insufficient. There is, of course, a reference to "AF" but no mention of water at all, still less of any need for extra water to support the mission (targeting Midway). While NSA code breakers may well have decoded a Japanese message, or messages, that individually and/or collectively established the correct referent of "AF," Schorreck's treatment of the episode -- viewed in this narrow light -- seems not to get us there.

2 One of President Reagan's campaign slogans during his successful 1980 campaign for the U.S. presidency was "Let's Make America Great Again"

3 For examples, see John Anthony Walker, Ronald William Pelton, Jerry Whitworth

4 The 1980s witnessed several high profile hostage situations involving Americans abroad, each of which President Reagan and his Administration played a central role in negotiating. These included the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the hostage crisis in Lebanon, and, closest in time to this particular speech, the Iran-Contra Affair. The latter, whose successful outcome saw the release of seven American hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, was particularly controversial, garnering both ardent support and criticism.

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Page Updated: 10/2/21

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