Where Are All Those Tapes?

As anyone who has read my novel, McCurry’s War, or this blog for that matter, knows that we used a lot of reel-to-reel tapes. As I explained in an earlier blog post, each voice intercept operator worked with ten recorders that were voice activated. So, if a secretary picked up the phone to call her friend in another office, the recorder monitoring that channel would click on. It was up to the voice intercept operator to determine if the conversation had any value that warranted it being logged, monitored and noted for analysts who would later evaluate it further.


Typical reel-to-reel tape recorder

There were nine operators to a room with five rooms, three for German and two for Russian intercepts. That is a minimum of ninety tapes per room per shift, or 450 tapes for shift. With three shifts in a 24-hour period, that is about 1,350 per day. That is a minimum since traffic during the day shift often was heavy enough to require more than one tape per recorder, particularly among the German operators.

Quick, how many tapes would that be for a year? 492,750. Whew. That is a lot of magnetic tape. Granted, several reels a day were found to have no actionable intelligence, were degaussed and destroyed. Regardless of how you add it, we still produced, analyzed and shipped out an astronomical number of recorded tapes. What happened to all that tape?

Here’s how an old-timer explained it to McCurry one day when things were becoming particularly hectic:

“Man, this is insane,” McCurry replied, pushing one side of his headset back so he could hear Grimes and listen in on the conversations being recorded at the same time.

“You’re taking it too seriously, Mike. When it gets this busy, just let the recorders run and use your imagination to fill in the log. Just get the gist and pull any number out of the air for the duration of the calls. If there is really something important going on, you’ll see recorders start popping all around the room. Till then, figure it’s bullshit.”

“What about when the logs go back for analysis?”

“With all the shit that flows through here, do you think the analysts have time to sort through anything other than stuff marked ‘high priority’? They get enough of that from the newks and other guys who think everything’s important.”

Grimes explained that the analysts spend most of their time sorting the daily logs into color-coded folders indicating the day of the week and then using the duration numbers for a daily report on activity. Tapes had color codes to match them up with the logs in the folders.

He explained that at the end of the week, analysts package up the color-coded folders and tapes and put them in a color-coded box. When a month is complete, the color-coded boxes are sent back to NSA where other analysts unpack them, combine them with daily logs and tapes from other voice intercept sites and store them away on shelves, all marked “top secret.”

“They will probably still be packed away in a top secret storage facility when you’re telling your grandkids about the great years you spent as a spook in the Army Security Agency.”

From a few reports about the NSA that I have read recently, they probably are.


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