Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bamford Breaks Out: Shadow Factory exposes NSA, CIA, Hayden, Bush, 9/11

When it comes to books about the US intelligence agencies there's a lot of mumbo-jumbo and plain old BS out there. The shining exception has been the work that James Bamford has published about the National Security Agency [NSA]. And Bamford's latest book, the just released Shadow Factory, is really going to shake things up in the IC (spook-speak for Intelligence Community).

I ordered my copy from Amazon today and I urge you to do the same. But before your copy arrives you can get an idea of some of the shocking information it contains by checking out this explosive interview available in mp3 and Real Video. If the world was not in the middle of an economic meltdown right now, revelations like this would be headline news. Spoiler Alert: This interview includes explanations of how:

  • the NSA pays foreign companies and private contractors to create copies of all your Internet traffic;

  • the CIA prevented the FBI from tracking the 9/11 terrorists in America;

  • contractors in America swap tapes of our soldiers in Iraq calling home to their wives and girlfriends;

  • the head of the NSA, now the head of the CIA, General Hayden, agreed to Cheney's demands for an illegal domestic surveillance program to avoid personal embarrassment.


Bamford first brought the National Security Agency to the world's attention in 1982 with The Puzzle Palace. Back then the very existence of the NSA was classified, the book was essentially banned in the US, and Bamford was...well Bamford darn near landed in jail. Of course, today's NSA, now officially "out" and openly recruiting on college campuses, takes a "never happened" view of those events. Fortunately, I learned of The Puzzle Palace in 1989 while living in Scotland and researching my first book on computer security.

[Just in case you missed a meeting, the NSA is a clandestine agency that is many times larger than the CIA in terms of manpower and budget. It conducts surveillance operations around the world, in space, and under the ocean. The NSA is also in charge of code-breaking for the US government and actually owns any bright ideas you have about encryption--having the right to review all crypto-related patent applications and seize any it deems a risk to national security.]

Before I dig deeper into the reasons why you should read Shadow Factory I should make it clear that James Bamford is no fringe journalist. He spent nearly a decade as the Washington Investigative Producer for ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Furthermore, while I can't say that my wife and I know Jim well, we have had several long conversations with him. We think he is fair and pragmatic in his views. Despite some very disturbing things he has learned about the way the IC has been run over the last twenty years, he remains respectful and supportive of the many thousands of dedicated professionals who serve diligently and responsibly in that community (as a former contractor to the NRO, an agency in some ways even bigger than the NSA, my wife knows something about the subject matter of Jim's books).

Jim followed up The Puzzle Palace with Body of Secrets in 2002. By that time the NSA was "out" and aparently prepared to accept that Jim was a decent American just trying to document, often with admiration for its postive accomplishments, this huge agency which consumes an untold amount of taxpayer money (untold as in, the agency budget is a matter of national security and you can't find out how big it is or what exactly it is used for). We heard Jim speak and spoke with him shortly after Body Secrets came out. The impression we formed was that Jim had a great deal of respect for many of the NSA personnel he had met during his intensive research (which includes some great examples of open source investigation).

But although Body of Secrets came out in 2002, it was researched and largely written before the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Those attacks are the kind of thing that the existence of an NSA and a CIA and an FBI and the dozen or so other taxpayer-funded intelligence agencies are supposed to prevent. And I think, and this is a personal assumption on my part, the failure of the IC to prevent those attacks really got to Mr. James Bamford. He decided to find out what went wrong and why. Now he is telling the world what he found and he is not being coy about it. He's naming names, and places, and dates. And Jim probably knows more of these than anybody outside the IC.

The 9/11 Commission partially documented the failure of the NSA, CIA and FBI to share vital information prior to 9/11. Bamford goes into a lot more detail and leaves you with the clear impression that 9/11 would never have happened if those agencies had shared. And as if that failure to communicate was not bad enough, he shows how it led to a huge invasion of privacy in America and the lives of Americans living and serving abroad, including our own troops. This massive expansion of government powers--strongly resisted it must be said, by many NSA employees--has probably not produced useful intelligence. Instead, and partly through the expanded use of shady contractors, it has likely led to faulty intelligence upon which our military has acted unwittingly, with tragic consequences.

I could go on, but this is already too long for a blog post. Let me just say that if you're concerned about your government spying on you, this is the book to read. This in not conspiracy theory stuff. No tinfoil-hats are involved. This is the way things really are. And it is probably going to upset you quite a bit.

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