Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century
By James Bamford (Doubleday & Company, Incorporated, 2001. pp. 721. $29.95.)
James Bamford, author of the highly-acclaimed Puzzle Palace (1982), has spent most of his professional career as an investigative reporter and producer, most recently for ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. In his Body of Secrets, he continues his study of the inner workings of the National Security Agency, America’s largest and arguably most secretive intelligence-gathering agency. Seeing a potential conflict between the preservation of individual freedoms and government eavesdropping, the author believes it is his professional duty to inform the public about the NSA’s work so that they may judge for themselves how serious an invasion of privacy is taking place. The Church Committee’s 1970s reforms protecting privacy notwithstanding, the NSA’s legal authority to monitor the activities of American citizens world-wide remains substantial. During our present war against terrorism, it is unlikely that Congress or the president will further limit the scope of the NSA’s operations anytime soon. In his present volume, Bamford attempts to help the public test NSA Director, General Michael V. Hayden’s statement that “The American people have to trust us and in order to trust us they have to know about us.”
The NSA’s chief function is to monitor the communications of others. This is achieved via “sigint,” eavesdropping on spoken, written, or electronic messages, “comint,” eavesdropping on spoken or written messages, and “elint,” the monitoring of electronic signals. Bamford traces the history of the U.S. government’s efforts to develop a capability in this field from the 1930s to the present. He describes vividly the NSA’s role in numerous international incidents and casts a new light on much of our recent history. For instance, he explains the “real” reason FDR wanted to host the UN conference in San Francisco in 1945: American communications experts could listen in on the conversations of visiting delegations. Bamford also discovered that contrary to most accounts, President Dwight D. Eisenhower played an active role in planning the flights of U-2 spy planes, including that of Francis Gary Powers who was shot down over the USSR in 1960.
Bamford devotes over fifty emotion-laden pages describing the fate of the Liberty, an intelligence-gathering ship which the Israelis attacked and almost sank off the Sinai coast towards the end of the Six Day War in 1967. The author was correct in noting that the war commenced with an Israeli air attack on Egypt on June 5, but he goes too far in implying that Israel initiated the fighting along the Jordanian and Syrian borders. In fact, King Hussein, bound by written agreement and egged on by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, attacked the Israelis, who had used United Nations channels to inform the Jordanian monarch that they would not attack his forces if he did not first attack them. There was no major fighting along the Syrian border until June 9 when the Israeli Golani brigade and the Israeli air force launched a major surprise attack on the Golan Heights.
The author gives a gripping account of events on June 8 when the Liberty was—as ordered—busily intercepting Israeli and Egyptian messages about twelve miles off the Sinai coast near the town of El Arish. American military commanders were especially anxious to find out whether Soviet forces were aiding the Egyptians. They were aware, however, that the Liberty was so close to the battle area that it was in great danger and sent messages ordering the ship to withdraw some distance. Due to a series of glitches, the ship never received those orders and remained in harm’s way. In the early afternoon, the Israelis, who had the ship under surveillance for several hours, attacked it by air and subsequently by sea. The Liberty, which carried only machine guns for protection, suffered grievously. Thirty-four men died and 171 suffered wounds. The ship itself had over 800 holes, but it still managed to limp away to Malta.
Crew members of the Liberty insist that the U.S. flag was flying throughout the entire incident and that the ship had clear American markings. They claim that the flag and markings must have been obvious to the Israeli pilots whose planes had been flying over the ship all day long. Bamford also cites evidence from an American patrol plane flying high overhead and the corroboration of Dwight J. Porter, U.S. Ambassador to Beirut at the time. Both the pilot and Porter maintain that the Israeli planes did indeed report back to their headquarters that the ship had American markings and was flying the U.S. flag, thus raising the possibility that the Israeli attack was a deliberate act. The Israelis denied this interpretation of what happened and claim—as they have ever since—that the attack was a case of mistaken identity.
Bamford claims that the Israelis attacked the Liberty in order to suppress information about an Israeli slaughter of Egyptian POWs. If the attack was indeed deliberate, then another reason seems more likely, although both could have played a role. The day before Israel’s assault on the Golan Heights, an Israeli Foreign Office official informed the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv that his government could not yet accept the current UN cease fire resolution because it had a minor problem to clear up first with Syria. After the major attack occurred, this Israeli official was accused of deliberately deceiving the embassy, which he later admitted was the case. His trick succeeded in that it led Washington to expect some activity along the Syrian border and hence be less prepared for the major attack, which resulted in the capture of the entire Golan Heights. It seems possible that the motive for the attack on the Liberty was to shield the communications required for the assault from the prying eyes and ears of the Americans. In any case, Bamford’s account of what happened and especially his accusation that the Israelis lied to Washington, has led to controversy with Israel’s friends in this country.
In his treatment of Cold War hotspots, Bamford argues that during the late 1950s and 1960s, top Pentagon officials were eager to foment a war, first against Cuba and then against North Viet Nam. His particular target is General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, whom he accuses of planning a bloody incident to take place in the United States, which could serve as a pretext for starting a war against Castro’s Communist regime. In his account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Bamford maintains that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had “become a sewer of deceit.” Although he writes most interestingly on the subject of America’s right-wing military leadership, this topic is not always linked to his main theme concerning the NSA.
Bamford is, however, right on target when he points out that while Washington and London were able to break the codes of their Axis enemies during World War II, they failed to break the top Soviet and Chinese codes during the Cold War. He argues that the NSA has nevertheless, accomplished a great deal. In this connection, he introduces the reader to the chilling subject of information warfare. This involves penetrating, controlling, and ultimately destroying the information transmission systems of an enemy. Happily, the NSA’s present director, General Hayden, is an expert in this field and his agency is working hard to give us a lead in this and other areas that involve the latest in technology. The proliferation of new, faster means of communication, such as fiber optic cable, has nonetheless, become a serious challenge to the NSA’s role as the nation’s premier eavesdropper.
The author describes at length the NSA’s huge physical plant and he provides an interesting account of the daily life of its 38,000 employees. Another 25,000 man the Agency’s scores of listening posts all over the world. He explains how employees store and dispose of its mountain of classified material. Bamford maintains that in spite of its large staff, there is far more traffic than there are people or machines to analyze it. He also provides a fascinating account of the NSA’s major contribution to the development of computers.
Bamford points out that the NSA, with its signals intelligence capability, is becoming increasingly more important, while the role of the CIA’s human intelligence arm has declined. In retrospect, it would appear, however, that neither agency won any gold stars for predicting the recent attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. During a September 19, 2001, National Public Radio discussion on terrorism, Bamford mentioned that for several years the NSA listened in on Osama Bin Laden’s unencrypted conversations, including some with his mother. He added that a couple of years ago, Bin Laden’s communications disappeared off the screen. While Bamford’s book refers to the eavesdroping, it does not mention that the NSA can no longer pick up Bin Laden’s communications.
From a research point of view, Body of Secrets is a monumental achievement which must have required years of painstaking work. General Hayden personally provided information to the author and a legion of intelligence experts helped complete the picture. Bamford made the most of the Freedom of Information Act and utilized presidential libraries as well. He made extensive use of the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum, numerous collections of records, and personal visits to Fort Meade. Considering the limitations imposed by security, Bamford covers his subject about as thoroughly as anyone could. In spite of a few questions of fact, this volume is a masterpiece of investigative reporting that gives the reader a new slant on much of America’s role in the post-1945 world.
William N. Dale is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer, whose lengthy career includes service on the staff of the National Security Council and the Department of State’s Policy Planning Council. He also served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Ankara, Turkey, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tel Aviv, and U.S. Ambassador to the Central African Republic. He is a member of the Board of Directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.