Louis Menand at The New Yorker:
Essentially, the N.S.A. functioned as a glove that concealed the American government’s hand and allowed it to do business with people who would never knowingly have done business with the American government. These people thought that they were dealing with a student group that was independent of the government. They had no idea that the N.S.A. was a front.
And what did this permit the C.I.A. to do? First, the N.S.A. was used as a cutout. The C.I.A. funnelled financial support to favored foreign-student groups by means of grants ostensibly coming from the N.S.A. Second, the N.S.A. was a recruitment device. It enabled the agency to identify potential intelligence sources among student leaders in other countries. And, third, N.S.A. members who attended international conferences filed written reports or were debriefed afterward, giving the C.I.A. a huge database of information.
The C.I.A. did not buy into the adage that the student leader of today is the student leader of tomorrow. It calculated that the heads of national student organizations were likely some day to become important figures in their countries’ governments. When that happened (and it often did), the American government had a file on them. “Over time, witting staff reported on thousands of foreign students’ political tendencies, personality traits, and future aspirations,” Paget writes. “They submitted detailed analyses of political dynamics within foreign student unions and countries.”