Bamford's Secrets

November 03, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

You can credit Monica Lewinsky for the shove James Bamford needed to write his second mammoth book on the National Security Agency, the mammoth eavesdropping agency at Fort Meade.

Bamford, working as an investigative producer for ABC News, had been intending for a while to write a chapter to update his 1982 book The Puzzle Palace, working in his spare time. But jetting around for television reports on everything from campaign finance corruption to terrorism, he found he had no spare time.

"I was working 12 hours a day and then trying to find time for the book," Bamford says. "I'd get into it, and then I'd have to go to Kuwait."

To add to his frustration, the moments he stole for research showed him there was far too much material to be squeezed into a single new chapter. He was amazed that since 1982, no one had written another book on the world's largest intelligence agency, even as its capabilities had ballooned.

"You're talking about an agency that's at the forefront of technology. It's an agency in motion," he says. "I realized I'd have to change every page."

Then scandal came to the rescue. "When Monica Lewinsky came along, it was three conference calls a day on `What's Monica doing next?' That's not what I went into journalism for."

Fed up, Bamford left ABC in April 1998 and went to work full-time on what he now realized would have to be a new book.

Then came countless interviews with aging veterans of U.S. listening posts, weeks rooting in archives no one had looked at, and duels with bureaucrats standing guard over agency records. The result was the 721-page Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century.

Bamford, 55, who spent seven years living on a motor yacht moored on the Potomac River before becoming a Georgetown landlubber, will be signing books tomorrow with other authors at Book Bash 2001, an annual fund-raiser for Literacy Works. He joins authors Andrew Carroll, Manil Suri, Matthew Klam and other notables at the 6 p.m. event in The Atrium at Towson Circle.

Released in April, Body of Secrets landed at an auspicious time: the Chinese had recently forced down a U.S. spy plane loaded with NSA equipment, and FBI agent Robert Hanssen - an acquaintance of Bamford - had been arrested and charged with selling NSA secrets to Russia.

Despite its sober subject and daunting size, the book became a best-seller. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it has experienced a second sales run, as Americans seeking to understand the intelligence failure pushed Body of Secrets back onto the best-seller lists.

But for Bamford, the biggest surprise was the book's reception at NSA. When The Puzzle Palace came out, top officials seriously discussed prosecuting the author for revealing secrets, and then-NSA director William E. Odom called him a "an unindicted felon." This time, NSA sponsored a book-signing on the agency's campus. The line of buyers reached the parking lot, and the one-hour event stretched to four hours.

"A lot of people brought hardcover copies of The Puzzle Palace for signing," Bamford recalls. "It was gratifying. Back when they bought it, they really weren't allowed to be seen with it."

There may be no other author whose only two books, written almost 20 years apart and on the same subject, are both best-sellers. But Bamford's entry into authorship may also be unique.

"When I started The Puzzle Palace, I'd never even written a letter to the editor," he says. "Obviously I was a bit naive. But I never really had any doubts I could do it."

Raised in Natick, Mass., Bamford joined the Navy after high school, then attended Suffolk University and its law school on the GI Bill. Inspired by the exposes of Watergate, he was drawn to journalism. But he didn't want to go to a newspaper.

"I thought I'd try to start off writing a book," says Bamford, who's married and works from home. "I didn't have any money, so I didn't have much to lose."

He'd been enthralled by a couple of non-fiction spy books - on the U-2 affair by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, and another on international espionage by Sanche de Gramont. "I looked around," he says. "There were lots of books on the CIA. But nothing had ever been done on NSA."

There were good reasons other authors had not tackled NSA. Bamford had to threaten a lawsuit to get access even to unclassified agency newsletters. When he came to review them, he found the hundreds of pages from years of publication had been photocopied, shuffled and provided in completely random order.

This time around, Bamford's initial reception at the agency was almost as cool. "It was again the stonewall approach," he says.

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