'Body of Secrets': NSA, fascinatingly

April 29, 2001|By Scott Shane | By Scott Shane,Sun Staff

"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. 720 pages. $29.95.

Like a mountaineer making a second assault on Everest, James Bamford has returned to the largest and most secret of U.S. intelligence agencies and brought back a book worthy of the scale, importance and mystery of its subject.

"Body of Secrets" is a magnificent achievement and a compelling read for anyone interested in espionage, technology and the Cold War. It adds some astonishing footnotes to 20th century history and vividly portrays both the awesome power and growing troubles of the National Security Agency's army of eavesdroppers. For Marylanders whose relatives or neighbors work at the Fort Meade headquarters of the state's largest employer, the book will be of particular interest.

Even more convincingly than "The Puzzle Palace" (1982), Bamford's first book on NSA, "Body of Secrets" makes clear that no account of the last half-century will be complete until the intercepts of NSA are finally declassified decades hence. NSA's giant dish antennas have captured verbatim prime ministers' telephone calls, diplomats' cables and pilots' distress calls in nearly every world crisis since the 1950s.

Bamford, until recently an investigative producer for ABC News, has interviewed scores of veterans of NSA's global web of listening posts and reviewed hundreds of secret documents. He has a knack for bringing history to life, and the book's historical scoops have already made news. His accounts of the Cuban missile crisis, Israel's coldblooded 1967 attack on the NSA eavesdropping ship U.S.S. Liberty, and the fall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975 -- all punctuated with NSA's bulletins -- are riveting.

Just as intriguing are the details of the agency's work between crises. A submariner gives an eerie description of watching Soviet nuclear tests while lurking in the waters off the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. An NSA official tells of secretly organizing the shipment of RCA tubes and other electronic components to Cuba, bypassing the U.S. embargo, to keep its military radios operating -- so that NSA can keep listening in. Veterans of Drifting Station Alpha, a listening post built atop a mile-long iceberg near the North Pole, tell of terrifying storms in which huge chunks of the ice island simply broke away. NSA officials tell how they monitor international e-mail: take apart the Cisco Systems machines that run the Internet to figure out how best to tap into them.

The book is not without faults. Its chronology is somewhat jumbled, and the anatomical chapter titles ("Blood," "Spine," "Adrenaline," etc.) are a gimmick that doesn't help. Bamford spends too many pages listing facilities and quoting vacuous agency documents ("The key to our success is a strong dynamic partnership between DT [the Directorate of Technology and Systems] and DO [the Directorate of Operations]. ...")

Curiously, Bamford omits any mention of Crypto AG, the Swiss maker of encryption equipment with which NSA had a secret relationship starting in the 1950s, a remarkable intelligence coup that belongs in this book.

In recent years, NSA has been blasted in Europe as a menacing global Big Brother -- and criticized in Congress and the U.S. press for "going deaf" as encryption becomes unbreakable and communications move to hard-to-tap fiber optic cable. Bamford is evenhanded, noting that NSA almost never targets U.S. citizens but does invade the privacy of innocent foreign nationals. He describes the genuine technical challenges the agency faces but suggests it is finding ways to overcome them.

The current NSA director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, was prompted to crack open the door to the agency -- and talk to Bamford -- partly because he was horrified at the distortion of the agency in the recent movie "Enemy of the State," in which Will Smith and Gene Hackman are hunted by NSA assassins. In "Body of Secrets," the true story of NSA is less ominous than the fictional version, but even more fascinating.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, co-wrote with Tom Bowman a six-part series on the National Security Agency, published in December 1995. A former Moscow correspondent, he is also the author of "Dismantling Utopia," a 1994 book on the fall of the Soviet Union. He is currently on leave writing a novel.

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