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Remarks at the Dedication Ceremony for New Facilities at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland

September 26, 1986

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 trench coat anyway. [Laughter] 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 17th and K, and wait for the phone to ring." [Laughter]

I even offered to bring over some White House cuff links as souvenirs for all of you, but I was told you prefer the NSA cuff links—you can tune in the Redskins game. [Laughter] 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. [Laughter]

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.

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, 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.

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. 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 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.

Of course, you cannot perform your work without proper support from the Department of Defense, the Director of 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 effectively to make this building possible. When we took office 5 1/2 years ago, we promised to make America strong again. 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, 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 data bases. 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.

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.

Note: The President spoke at 3:25 p.m. at the National Security Agency complex. In his remarks, the President referred to Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, Director of the National Security/Central Security Service; Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger; William J. Casey, Director of Central Intelligence; Secretary of State George P. Shultz; and Adm. William J. Crowe, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A tape was not available for verification of the content of these remarks.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Dedication Ceremony for New Facilities at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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