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The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National…

The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most…

by James Bamford

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810717,049 (3.65)7
  1. 10
    Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age by Steven Levy (kevinashley)
    kevinashley: Levy's book is about one specific technique in making and breaking codes, and how its independent discovery provoked strong reactions from NSA and GCHQ. It's telling a simpler story than Banford's book and tells it much more clearly. If you're interested in the cryptologic aspects that Banford covers, rather than the military or political history, Levy's book is an excellent read.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The first book of three on the NSA, written over the years. I'm reading all three in honor of the current PRISM brouhaha. Main takeaway: the NSA is the largest, most expensive agency in government. It also has no basis in law for its existence, just a 1952 presidential executive order. And PRISM is hardly the first illegal project for the NSA. It most does illegal intercepts... ( )
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
A critical, detailed -- and the first major -- look at the National Security Agency. A classic of espionage history. ( )
  RandyStafford | Jun 14, 2012 |
This book, dating from 1982, is a description of the current and past activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA), the largest and most expensive of the intelligence organisations in the US but, for many, the least visible - and most protected by statute and by government. The edition I have was updated in 1983, but the changes mainly seem to concern an appendix about the case of Geoffrey Prime, a UK worker at GCHQ who was found to be a Soviet agent. It is, therefore, a somewhat dated book, and it is also written in the style one would expect of an investigative journalist. The end result is very uneven - the book is very good in parts, extremely frustrating in other ways, and incomplete in ways that may or may not have been obvious to the author at the time.

The core of the book was likely to have been the information about the current (in the early 1980s) and immediate past of the NSA that the author gleaned from existing sources, many interviews and persistent use of the US Freedom of Information Act. Much of the information he gained is well-presented and well-referenced in the notes at the end of the book; we're always clear who his sources are. He has chosen to expand on this by going back to the earliest days of signals intelligence in World War I and tracing the genesis of the organisations, laws and politics that underpin these activities in the US and elsewhere (and in the case of the UK, takes the history of espionage back to Elizabethan times.) Much of this is interesting, but much seems patchy - to this reader, the portrayal of the breaking of codes in World War II is surprisingly silent on British contributions, although many of these were still classified in 1980. Some of these sections also seem somewhat slapdash - of which more later.

There's also a fair amount of anecdotal tales of adventurous episodes in the book, which probably make good journalism but make this less of a decent history or description of the agency. Sometimes these episodes are useful in showing how intelligence is gathered and why and how one's opponents can frustrate this, such as the description of the fate of those gathering information in the Mediterranean at the time of the six day war. But others just feel out of place, more military reminiscence than anything else.

For a book that's so meticulous about some of its facts, there are frustrating inconsistencies in the narrative, some of which show signs that the book was written in pieces over a period of time, hurriedly re-edited and re-ordered and then not checked. One example: on p121 we read of the National Security Medal awarded to Tordella , the 'highest intelligence decoration of all'. On p122 Oliver Kirby gets the 'highest civilian award of all;, the distinguished civilian service awrd. On p129, Sears receives the exceptional civilian service award, and doubts begin to creep in - surely 'exceptional' is better than 'distinguished' ? On p133 our doubts are confirmed: Mit Matthews first receives the distinguished award and, a year later, the exceptional award. The latter is clearly higher, and the statement on p122 incorrect. It may or may not be relevant that the index entries for these awards only list the appearance on p133.

In the prelude, dates jump back and forth without it being apparent why. On pp32/33 we learn that intercept traffic was dropping after the war ended, being close to zero in fall 1924 and only 11 messages in all of 1926. This 'eventually' leads to a reduction in staff - in May 1923, some years before the reported drops (although there's no doubt that traffic began to fall very soon after 1918.)

These shortcomings aside, the book is good, if not comprehensive, introduction to the activities of NSA, and the author clearly understood the risks the country faced in not knowing what NSA was up to and having very little legal means of controlling it. As technology advanced, many of his fears (and those of others interviewed for the book) became reality. This book gives a very clear explanation of the how the USA, a country which otherwise has effective cross-checks on all other aspects of its government and legislature, ended up in such a position. ( )
  kevinashley | Jun 6, 2010 |
Very outdated, but it was fun to read it as a kind of historical resource. Computer science has advanced enough in 25 years that it's like reading about the Enlightenment. ( )
  pilarflores | Apr 29, 2010 |
A bit dated, but a good read none-the-less. This book will satisfy nearly every cold-war espionage/covert enthusiast out there. ( )
  improbus | Apr 10, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140067485, Paperback)

In 1947, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand signed a secret treaty in which they agreed to cooperate in matters of signals intelligence. In effect, the governments agreed to pool their geographic and technological assets in order to listen in on the electronic communications of China, the Soviet Union, and other Cold War bad guys--all in the interest of truth, justice, and the American Way, naturally. The thing is, the system apparently catches everything. Government security services, led by the U.S. National Security Agency, screen a large part (and perhaps all) of the voice and data traffic that flows over the global communications network. Fifty years later, the European Union is investigating possible violations of its citizens' privacy rights by the NSA, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public advocacy group, has filed suit against the NSA, alleging that the organization has illegally spied on U.S. citizens.

Being a super-secret spy agency and all, it's tough to get a handle on what's really going on at the NSA. However, James Bamford has done great work in documenting the agency's origins and Cold War exploits in The Puzzle Palace. Beginning with the earliest days of cryptography (code-making and code-breaking are large parts of the NSA's mission), Bamford explains how the agency's predecessors helped win World War II by breaking the German Enigma machine and defeating the Japanese Purple cipher. He also documents signals intelligence technology, ranging from the usual collection of spy satellites to a great big antenna in the West Virginia woods that listened to radio signals as they bounced back from the surface of the moon.

Bamford backs his serious historical and technical material (this is a carefully researched work of nonfiction) with warnings about how easily the NSA's technology could work against the democracies of the world. Bamford quotes U.S. Senator Frank Church: "If this government ever became a tyranny ... the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government ... is within the reach of the government to know." This is scary stuff. --David Wall

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:21 -0400)

"Inside the National Security Agency, America's most secret intelligence organization"--Cover subtitle.

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