The prime targets of the monitoring are Soviet-bloc diplomats, military officers and espionage agents in the U.S. But almost any communication may be of value to Washington's intelligence analysts. The NSA apparently is interested in data transmitted by multinational corporations, especially oil companies and arms suppliers. Intelligence sources also assume that the NSA monitors news organizations overseas at least occasionally; one reason is that when covering sensitive stories or fast-breaking events, they may have more up-to-date information than government agencies. "Never send the name of a secret source over the air," cautions one official. "They'll get it."
Often, intercepted messages deal only indirectly, if at all, with national security. It is clear from the Rockefeller commission report that for a time the NSA monitored all telephone calls between the U.S. and Latin America as part of President Nixon's war on narcotics smuggling. One of NEWSWEEK's intelligence sources believes that the NSA has monitored all communications traffic having to do with the sales of grain to the Soviet Union. The agency also played a role in Operation Chaos, the surveillance of antiwar activists between 1967 and 1974. Government officials have identified the NSA as the source of 1,100 pages of material given to the CIA on antiwar activities and foreign-travel plans by U.S. dissidents. Indeed, some defenders of the NSA complain that it is too often burdened with work that has nothing to do with catching Russian spies or cracking codes.