FORTY-​​FOUR years before German Chan­cellor Angela Merkel dis­cov­ered that the National Secu­rity Agency had been lis­tening to her cell­phone calls, Pres­i­dent Nixon met with South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Chung-​​Hee to dis­cuss a sub­stan­tial boost in Amer­ican mil­i­tary aid to thwart a wor­ri­some threat from North Korea.

That August 1969, summit meeting in San Fran­cisco was as lop­sided as a diplo­matic mis­match could be: Well before the two men sat down, Nixon had a detailed list of what Park would ask for — and another list of what he was willing to settle for — all thanks to the cryp­tog­ra­phers at the NSA, spying on yet another US ally. In that tech­no­log­i­cally prim­i­tive era, the agency easily inter­cepted scores of encrypted high-​​level South Korean gov­ern­ment cables, handily broke the codes, and let the US intel­li­gence com­mu­nity in on the most closely held secrets in the Seoul government.

That year, I was an Army Intel­li­gence officer based in Hawaii, assigned to watch over North Korea, and one among many ana­lysts who read those cables every day. For nearly two years, thanks to the NSA, my reg­ular reading also included the inter­cepted and decoded secrets of other Asian gov­ern­ments that posed no obvious threat to the United States — Japan, Thai­land, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore, Burma, the Philip­pines and, of course, South Vietnam. In the 1960s, NSA cryp­tog­ra­phers were also flies on the wall inside the osten­sibly secure for­eign min­istries of our allies across Europe, including the gov­ern­ment of one of Merkel’s pre­de­ces­sors, Willy Brandt.

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