United States Air Force Security Service
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The United States Air Force Security Service (often abbreviated USAFSS) was essentially the United States Air Force's cryptographic intelligence/Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) branch; its motto was Freedom through Vigilance. It was created in October 1948 and operated until 1979, when the branch was re-designated the Electronic Security Command. It was later re-designated Air Force Intelligence Command, Air Intelligence Agency, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, and is currently designated as the Twenty-Fifth Air Force (25 AF).
Composed primarily of airmen selected from the cream of the Air Force's enlisted recruits (the top 1/2 of 1 percent), the USAFSS was a secretive and tight-knit branch of Air Force cold warriors tasked with monitoring, collecting and interpreting military voice and electronic signals of countries of interest (which often were Soviet and their satellite Eastern bloc countries). USAFSS intelligence was often analyzed in the field, and the results transmitted to the National Security Agency for further analysis and distribution to other intelligence recipients.
Individual airmen—stationed at locations scattered across the globe, ranging from Northeast Cape Air Force Station, Alaska to Pacific Islands to The Far East to Mediterranean Countries to The Middle East to Western Europe to North Africa—did a variety of jobs, almost all of them related to listening to and interpreting Eastern Bloc, Communist Chinese, and North Vietnamese military communications. Some airmen were linguists who listened to voice communications. Others—known as morse intercept operators, or "ditty-boppers"—monitored Soviet and other nations' military Morse code broadcasts. Others, such as non-morse intercept operators, were engaged in monitoring other types of radio signals such as single and multi-channel radio printer signals and facsimile transmissions. All communications were reviewed and interpreted by analysts.
Locations like Elmendorf AFB and Clark AB were equipped with direction finding shops from which "fixes" on targets could be obtained by requesting a line of bearing from other direction finding shops in other locations around the world. This would give a triangulation fix on a target and that target could then be plotted on a board and the coordinates then forwarded to take proper action on the targets. All this was accomplished by using the AN/FLR-9 antenna (the "Flare 9" or "elephant cage", as it was sometimes called). The antenna array covered 35 acres (140,000 m2) of ground and was composed of A, B and C band elements that covered the high frequency (HF) range of signals that targets of interest transmitted on.
Some were assigned to clandestine missions to monitor telephone exchanges in the European Theater of Operations.
The information collected in the field was usually sent via encrypted land-line and radio systems to a co-located group of USAFSS analysts who would interpret the data, format reports and send them on to the National Security Agency or other recipients. The NSA shared these reports with all the government agencies involved in intelligence, including every branch of the Armed services, the FBI, and the CIA. Many[who?] feel that if this kind of inter-agency cooperation had existed in 2000, the plans for the 9/11 attacks would have been detected and the attacks prevented.
These jobs, which required top secret codeword clearance, were extremely high pressure and were considered essential to U.S. Cold War efforts. Members of the USAFSS were not allowed to discuss their jobs with outsiders—in fact, USAFSS members could not talk amongst themselves about their jobs unless they were in a secure location. Because of their value as targets (in Cold War Berlin, the capture of a USAFSS member was worth several thousand dollars), their off-base travel was severely restricted. Many adopted "cover jobs" to more easily conceal their real work.
The USAFSS had two major areas of operations: ground-based and airborne. Ground-based units were scattered throughout the globe and collected information from fixed sites with large antenna arrays. Airborne units flew from bases around the world, skirting sensitive areas and collecting data in a variety of aircraft, including C-47s, RB-47s C-130s, EC-121s, and RC-135s. Some airborne units were associated with the strategic reconnaissance units of Strategic Air Command, and flew aboard SAC (and non-SAC) reconnaissance flights to collect data from shorter range communication systems and other types of signals. A primary job of USAFSS airborne linguists and Morse Intercept Operators aboard SAC reconnaissance aircraft was to provide self-protection early warning of impending fighter or missile response by a target nation's air defense system. Of equal value were the "ferret missions" flown into Soviet Bloc countries to gather intel on their air defense systems.
The command also maintained a cadre of TRANSEC (Transmission Security), later known as COMSEC (Communications Security) personnel. Their mission consisted of monitoring and analyzing US military radio and telephone communications to identify practices and individual communications that could compromise and endanger sensitive or classified operations. TRANSEC/COMSEC teams operated in both tactical and strategic environments, utilizing both fixed locations and deployed (TDY) teams, and their reports were frequently provided directly to field commanders involved in the targeted operations. Many USAFSS personnel were dedicated to this mission throughout their Air Force careers, while others moved between TRANSEC/COMSEC and the more traditional intelligence operations. The TRANSEC/COMSEC mission was occasionally used as a cover story by the intelligence gathering operations. Likewise, deployed TRANSEC/COMSEC teams occasionally used USAFSS SIGINT units as cover for their missions.
The Air Force Security Service had TRANSEC detachments serving in Vietnam throughout the war. Primarily stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base (Saigon) and Danang Air Force Base (Danang). These detachments consisted of only a small number of select Airmen often working twelve hours on and twelve hours off, day after day, for months at a time. Individually and in small groups, TRANSEC Airmen were also deployed TDY to other locations in South Vietnam. The Airmen of Detachment 5, of the 6922nd Security Wing, were awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit ribbon with the Bronze "V" for valor designation.
The activities of the USAFSS were declassified in 1997.
Country music icon Johnny Cash was a USAFSS member and Morse code intercept operator stationed in Germany in the early 1950s. Adrian Cronauer was an Air Force DJ at AFRTS in 1964 at the USAFSS installation, Iraklion Air Station, Crete, Greece. Cronauer, unlike Cash, was in a radio-TV support squadron, attached to the security service operation. Cronauer's life was depicted by Robin Williams in the film Good Morning, Vietnam.
The USAFSS command emblem seen here was designed by Airman Second Class (A2C) William "Bill" Rogers of Miami, Florida. His design was selected from a command-wide contest of entries.
- Body of Secrets by James Bamford