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Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret…

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency (2001)

by James Bamford

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This was a frustrating book to read at times! Body of Secrets is a strangely two-tone book: the first 60% or so is historical, covering the National Security Agency's involvement in conflicts past. The last 40%, on the other hand, mostly covers the current-day (~2001) agency.

This is partially a practical melding—Bamford wanted to update his picture of the agency due to the long time since he published The Puzzle Palace, the first significant look at the NSA published in 1982—but it means the book gets a lot less interesting after the first 350 pages or so.

Quite simply, reading about the internal politics of the agency is far less interesting than studying how they've flitted around in the margins of history, occasionally reaching in to make a big mark but mostly trawling for understanding. Bamford is pretty great at cultivating sources and deploying FOIA requests strategically, so a lot of these accounts are much fuller than I'd seen before: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the near-sinking of the USS Liberty by Israel to cover up war-crimes, etc. Those historical accounts are fascinating, and would be almost five-stars on their own.

But then there comes the accounting for the present day organization. Bamford discovers an obsession with a mountain of factoids, telling us again and again how many acres of computers there are, how much wiring there is, how many miles of roads there are in Crypto City. Quite frankly, it's un-revelatory and boring as hell, and seems to be included simply because Bamford got present-day access from then-Director Hayden.

And as a larger issue, sometimes Bamford's writing is mostly workable, but sometimes falls flat. Could have used some more editing, and a few less metaphorical descriptions. Diagnosis: Thomas-Friedmanitis.

But if you skip over the boring shit, it's a great book if you want to learn more about the Cold War! ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
Be prepared to keep track an incredible array of organization names; the NSA is the archtypical bureaucratic labyrinth. The author relates the history of the NSA from its origins in the 1930s up to 2001 (the book clearly was written and published before 9/11. Now there's a tale I'd like to hear!). Startling revelations: the US communications security during the Vietnam war was completely compromised and made, for example, the bombings by B52s ineffective. The Israeli attack on the NSA intercept ship Liberty during the Six Day War (1967) was no mistake, but was deliberate in order to hide the massacre of surrendered Egyptian solders by Israel Defense Forces. The US decided to suppress the evidence, since 1967 was an election year and LBJ didn't want to anger the Jewish community. Of course, the NSA is about cryptology and has had more impact on the development of computers than I had realized. Basically, the NSA's needs drive the rapid technological development we've witnessed over the past 30 years.

There is a competing need for defense and so the need for secrecy and the need for transparency for accountability. The author relates a number of abuses and outright illegalitys committed by NSA personnel and directors. NSA officials have often invoked the "trust us" mantra; the problem is that such trust is inevitably abused. So the pendulum of accountability swings back and forth. Who guards the guardians at the NSA? The history of the NSA suggests, "No one." ( )
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
An interesting book - not the tell-all it claims to be, but still quite interesting.

The author does tell a great deal about the NSA, but also about the CIA, and seems to spend a lot of time going off topic. The Liberty incident, which is covered in great detail in the book, relies a great deal on speculation - a bit too much?

Not a bad book - if only the author would stop relying on awful cliched metaphors. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
This is the book to read about the NSA. ( )
  mcandre | Jul 6, 2010 |
This is by far the best book thus far written about the secret world of the National Security Agency. Bramford gives readers an amazing peak behind closed doors and dives into everything about the infamous NSA, from its foundations to its modern operations. ( )
  SGRA | Mar 14, 2009 |
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To Mary Ann

And to my father, Vincent

And in memory of my mother, Katherine
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Spying can prevent

danger but at hefty cost

to our privacy.


Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385499086, Paperback)

Everybody knows about the CIA--the cloak-and-dagger branch of the U.S. government. Many fewer are familiar with the National Security Agency, even though it has been more important to American espionage in recent years than its better-known counterpart. The NSA is responsible for much of the intelligence gathering done via technology such as satellites and the Internet. Its home office in Maryland "contains what is probably the largest body of secrets ever created."

Little was known about the agency's confidential culture until veteran journalist James Bamford blew the lid off in 1982 with his bestseller The Puzzle Palace. Still, much remained in the shadows. In Body of Secrets, Bamford throws much more light on his subject--and he reveals loads of shocking information. The story of the U-2 crisis in 1960 is well known, including President Eisenhower's decision to tell a fib to the public in order to protect a national-security secret. Bamford takes the story a disturbing step forward, showing how Eisenhower "went so far as to order his Cabinet officers to hide his involvement in the scandal even while under oath. At least one Cabinet member directly lied to the committee, a fact known to Eisenhower." Even more worrisome is another revelation, from the Kennedy years: "The Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans for what may be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. government. In the name of anticommunism, they proposed launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba."

Body of Secrets is an incredible piece of journalism, and it paints a deeply troubling portrait of an agency about which the public knows next to nothing. Fans of The Sword and the Shield will want to read it, as will anybody who is intrigued by conspiracies and real-life spy stories. --John J. Miller

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:27 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

James Bamford, bestselling author of The Puzzle Palace, has written another fascinating, unrestricted, and controversial look into the secretive, powerful, and massive National Security Agency. This scrupulously documented account of the NSA's tireless hunt for intelligence dissects an organization that monitors enemies and allies alike--a leviathan whose influence has both prevented and provoked world conflict. Relying on testimony and documents never meant for the public eye, Bamford reveals espionage activities and profiles the commanders and the soldiers responsible for the covert activities performed by this clandestine agency. A major work of history and investigative journalism, Body of Secrets is a riveting analysis of this powerful agency's history and its future. Annotation. The National Security Agency is the world's most powerful, most far-reaching espionage. Now with a new afterword describing the security lapses that preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001, Body of Secrets takes us to the inner sanctum of America's spy world. In the follow-up to his bestselling Puzzle Palace, James Banford reveals the NSA's hidden role in the most volatile world events of the past, and its desperate scramble to meet the frightening challenges of today and tomorrow. Here is a scrupulously documented account-much of which is based on unprecedented access to previously undisclosed documents-of the agency's tireless hunt for intelligence on enemies and allies alike. Body of secrets is a riveting analysis of this most clandestine of agencies, a major work of history and investigative journalism.… (more)

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