When James Bamford’s first book, “The Puzzle Palace” came out some 20 years ago, the ultra-secret National Security Agency did everything it could to hinder its publication. Things have changed over the years. Last week, the NSA hosted a book party for Bamford’s new book “Body of Secrets,” bringing the Agency’s activities up to date.
The earlier book, still in print, is considered the most comprehensive and authoritative account of an agency barely known to the American public at the time of its publication. No mere update of the first book, “Body of Secrets’ is an equally impressive achievement.
Since the publication of “The Puzzle Palace,” the Cold War has ended and there has been an enormous worldwide revolution in communications technology. This has led inevitably to vast changes within the NSA itself
The reader should realize that the NSA is the largest, most secretive, and most advanced intelligence agency in the world, with a staff of 38,000. It dwarfs the CIA in budget, manpower, and influence — not to mention notoriety.
Bamford recollects that his first tour of the intelligence agency was given him with gritted teeth, as it were. It was impossible for him to meet with the then director whereas, the second time around, all had changed. Michael Hayden, the new director as of two years ago, a former three-star Air Force general, “is the first director,” says Bamford, “the first ever to understand the difference between excessive secrecy and realistic secrecy.”
He claims 90 percent of the book is very favorable to NSA and shows the “great things NSA has done over the years,” while protecting “sources and methods.” For his first book, Bamford had to do extensive legwork, exploiting, for example, a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act that allowed him to obtain 6,000 pages of internal NSA newsletters.
In “Body of Secrets,” the agency appears to have been much more forthcoming. He recounts among other exploits how U.S. and British officials tracked down a huge German code-breaking machine in the immediate aftermath of World War II and, aided by German cryptographers located in prisoner of war camps, were able to use Soviet codes until 1948.
Bamford gives readers a look inside the NSA today, situated between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, protected by motion detectors, hydraulic anti-tank devices, and meteor-size anti-truck bomb boulders. The massive Headquarters-Operations Building is a complex so gargantuan, the U.S. Capitol could handily fit inside it four times over. He describes how NSA can listen in on private communications throughout the world, and sometimes this has led to occasional mistakes on the part of the agency in tagging innocent people as terrorists.
Bamford writes both clearly and vividly, particularly when describing various major operations held secret to the present day, which makes for some exciting reading. Spy-thriller writers can find material for many a novel from “Body of Secrets.”
Among other inside operations only revealed now, Bamford shows how the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam led to what he describes as one of the biggest breaches in U.S. intelligence history. In the haste to evacuate Saigon, NSA left behind more than 700 cipher machines, in perfect condition, as well as hundreds of other cipher material in a warehouse near an airfield. North Vietnamese forces captured the rich lode, no doubt passing it along to Russia.
Fascinating as the operations are that Bamford recounts, the reader must, on occasion, raise the question, cui bono? In a long, detailed account of the sinking of the USS Liberty some miles off the Sinai peninsula by the Israelis during the 1967 war, some very heavy and damning charges are laid against Israel. Charges that even nearly thirty years later could be deeply injurious to Israel, her Arab neighbors and, indeed, disturbing to most of the civilized world.
The evidence Bamford mounts to support his shocking charges seems pretty slim when examined closely. Could Bamford have let his clear distaste for the Israeli state warp his analysis? He does write, “Throughout its history, Israel has hidden its abominable human rights record behind pious religious claims.” He also claims: “Critics are regularly silenced with outrageous charges of anti-Semitism,” and calls the House and Senate “weak-kneed,” not wanting to offend “powerful pro-Israeli groups and lose their fat campaign contributions.”
Wherein lies the morality on the part of the author, his editors and publishing house to spread such potentially dangerous information? The book is no doubt richly interesting, and quite possibly accurate and informative on the whole as well. But does it justify touching off a hornet’s nest? It’s going to be most instructive to see how author and publisher handle this singularly hot topic in the days and weeks to come.