Spying NSA's failures

Bamford looks into the mistakes made by the secretive agency protecting the nation

review

October 26, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

The Shadow Factory

By James Bamford

Doubleday / $27.95 / 345 pages

The bad news in James Bamford's fascinating new study of the National Security Agency is that Big Brother really is watching. The worse news, according to this veteran journalist, is that Big Brother often listens in on the wrong people and sometimes fails to recognize critical information, like the fact that terrorists are gathering and plotting an attack. When it does find a critical nugget like that, it occasionally files it away somewhere and doesn't tell anybody.

This is a tale of bad news, told by a master whose two previous books on the NSA, The Puzzle Palace (1982) and Body of Secrets (2001), laid bare some of the machinations of the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated spy agency.

In brisk and colorful narrative, The Shadow Factory details the agency's failure on Sept. 11 (the hijackers, on whom the NSA had been eavesdropping for 18 months without sharing the intelligence with the FBI or CIA, were camped out late that summer virtually on the NSA's doorstep, in Laurel).

Bamford whisks the reader through the NSA's embarrassing failure to figure out that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and through the distressing post-Sept. 11 years when the agency demonstrated both technical gee-whizzery and brash law-breaking.

The book is certain to raise questions about whether the NSA, with headquarters in those huge, foreboding structures just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway on Fort Meade Road, ever can operate effectively and efficiently - and legally.

Bamford convincingly argues that the agency, grown from a few creative code-breakers into a vast network of sensors, wiretaps, robo-eavesdroppers, secret data-miners and storage bunkers, broke the law and spied on Americans and nearly got away with it. His detailed descriptions of secret underground fiber-optic wiretaps and clandestine operations centers persuasively describe the NSA's expanding reach.

Yet Bamford might have acknowledged that reporting on a complex organization whose effectiveness requires secrecy is an inherently incomplete work: Its successes are unknown. Surely, the NSA has done valuable work in identifying and tracking terrorists, achievements not noted by Bamford.

The book is "a disservice" to the NSA employees who seek to protect the nation while safeguarding Americans' privacy, an agency spokeswoman, Judith A. Emmel, said in a statement. Of course, the agency's eavesdroppers and analysts are motivated, hard-working people, often forward-deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Sgt. Trista Leah Moretti, an NSA cryptologist killed in a mortar attack in southern Iraq on June 25, 2007, is the most recent entry on the agency's Memorial Wall.

The NSA's former director, Michael Hayden, once described the NSA's eavesdroppers as "people who ... go shopping in Glen Burnie and their kids play soccer in Laurel. And they know the law. They know American privacy better than the average American, and they're dedicated to it."

But as history has proved time and time again, dedicated and well-intentioned people can be overwhelmed by the imperatives of the institution within which they work.

Can the NSA itself be trusted, in secret, to make the fine judgment calls between protecting Americans and spying on them?

Bamford's history is not reassuring. It was Hayden, after all, who authorized Operation Highlander. It siphoned all phone and e-mail traffic off the Inmarsat satellite communications system used by American troops, the Red Cross, the U.N. and journalists, including those at The Baltimore Sun, to call home from Iraq. NSA analysts listened in on and recorded "incredibly intimate personal conversations," one analyst told Bamford, who said she was shocked and distressed (her story has been corroborated by some of her NSA colleagues and disputed by others). On any given day, Bamford writes, the NSA had been spying on as many as 500 Americans at home and 7,000 abroad.

Even now, he writes, the NSA has "the capacity to make tyranny total in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss."

Despite Bamford's burning distrust of the agency, he got and shares astonishing access to No Such Agency, as the NSA is sometimes known. Here, courtesy of the eavesdroppers, is Osama bin Laden's phone number: 00-873-6825-0533 (surely disconnected by this time).

Most convincingly, Bamford guides the reader through the NSA's greatest challenge: staying ahead of the explosive growth in volume and types of communications.

Voice traffic alone increases 20 percent a year. Digital cell phones and fiber-optic cables vastly complicate the eavesdroppers' job. Today, the NSA's colossal Cray supercomputer, code-named the "Black Widow," scans millions of domestic and international phone calls and e-mails every hour. That's harder than it sounds: For purposes of speed and encryption, many of these communications are transmitted in fragments. The Black Widow, performing hundreds of trillions of calculations per second, searches through and reassembles key words and patterns, across many languages. Storing all this data, Bamford reports, is already an enormous headache for the NSA.

But the larger and more disturbing issue is not so much collecting all that data, but analyzing, digesting and using it.

"Our ability to collect stuff," a senior NSA official acknowledged to Bamford, "far outstrips our ability to understand what we collect."

David Wood is The Baltimore Sun's national security correspondent.

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