Review: Body of Secrets–Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency

5 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Researched Facts About the Secret Signals War,

May 12, 2001
James Bamford

I like this book because it is a deeply researched investigation of the National Security Agency, a part of the U.S. government that is always “in harms way”, and because it offers up over 15 genuine journalistic investigative “scoops”, shows how much can be learned about secret matters through persistent and professional exploitation of open sources, and paints a compelling dramatic picture of the honorable and courageous NSA employees, the less capable senior officers in the Joint Chiefs of Staff who risk their lives and do not provide them with emergency plans and air cover, and the man in the middle, LtGen Mike Hayden, whom the book portrays as a truly competent person who “gets it.” This is the stuff of history and a very well-told tale.

Among the “scoops” that I as a professional intelligence officer will list for the sake of showing how wide and deep the book goes, are:

#1. Extremely big scoop. Israel attacked U.S. military personnel aboard the USS Liberty with the intent of simulating an Egyptian attack on US forces that would permit a joint US and Israeli retaliation. Even after the ship was destroyed, with very clear evidence from NSA tapes that the Israeli’s deliberately attacked a US ship while the ship was flying US colors, President Johnson is reported to have betrayed his military and his Nation by covering this up, intimidating all survivors, and saying he would “not embarrass our allies.” In consultation with my naval colleagues, I am satisfied that the author has it right.

#2. US SIGINT failed as North Korea invaded South Korea. Our lack of preparedness, in both systems and linguists, was dereliction of duty at the highest levels. Fast forward to Sudan, East Timor, Burundi, Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Haiti.

#3. US “Operations Security” (OPSEC) is terrible! Bad in World War II, bad in Korea, bad in Viet-Nam, bad in Somalia and bad today. This book is a stark and compelling indictment of the incompetence of U.S. military and political leaders who refuse to recognize that the rest of the world is smart enough to collect our signals and predict our intentions with sufficient effectiveness to neutralize our otherwise substantial power.

#4. Eisenhower, as President, controlled the U-2 operations over Russia and lied to the world and the people about his individual responsibility for those missions.

#5. US SIGINT failed in Arabia and against Israel. “The agency had few Arabic or Hebrew linguists and it was not equipped to eavesdrop on British, French, or Israeli military communications.” We are often unable to sort out the truth in conflicts between Arabs and Israel, and this allows Israel to deceive and manipulate American policy makers.

#6. In the early years of the Cold War, the US was the aggressor, and ran incredibly prevocational full bombing runs into northern Russia, simply to test for defenses and to see if it could be done. Young American military personnel were sent as expendable cannon fodder, with the ultimate result that Russia spent billions more on its defenses than it might have if America have been a “good neighbor.”

#7. The Joint Chiefs of Staff was “out of control” during our confrontations with Cuba, and proposed to the President of the United States that U.S. military capabilities be used to murder Americans in order to provide a false cover for declaring war on Cuba.

#8. The most senior military officers serving under Kennedy did not have the moral courage to tell him that the Bay of Pigs was a doomed operation. They allowed hundreds to die and be captured rather than “speak truth to power.” NSA provided ample SIGINT.

#9. Imagery intelligence beat signals intelligence in answering the ultimate question about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Those who practice “OPSEC” can defeat our SIGINT capabilities.

#10. US telecommunications companies have for years been giving NSA copies of all telegrams sent by foreign embassies and corporations, compromsing their private sector integrity.

#11. US military power is hollow. For both the USS Liberty and the USS Pueblo, a combination of screw-ups put military personnel in harms’ way and a combination of incapacities helped get them killed and captured. In all of Korea only six U.S. aircraft were available to help protect the USS Pueblo, and they required several hours to get ready. The South Koreans, ready to launch defense forces instantly, were forbidden to do so, US leaders being more concerned about avoiding provocation of the North Koreans than about protecting U.S. military personnel.

#12. US successes against the Russians and other targets were completely offset by the combination of the John Walker betrayal (turning over the key lists, this has been known) and the Soviet receipt from the Vietnamese (this has not been known) of a complete warehouse of NSA code machines left behind in Saigon. The Soviets have been reading our mail since 1975, and NSA did not want the President or Congress or the people to know this fact.

#13. The North Vietnamese beat us on SIGINT, with 5000 trained SIGINT personnel and a system that stretched from Guam (where the B-52’s were launched and the ground crew radios were in the clear) to the day-to-day operational orders going out to helicopters and fighters “in the clear”. The book paints an extraordinarily stark contrast between North Vietnamese competence and US incompetence across all areas of SIGINT and OPSEC.

#14. There are others, but the final scoop is summed up in the author’s concluding chapter on NSA’s race to build the largest fastest computer at a time when relevant signals are growing exponentially: “Eventually NSA may secretly achieve the ultimate in quickness, compatibility, and efficiency-a computer with petaflop and higher speeds shrunk into a container about a liter in size, and powered by only about ten watts of power: the human brain.”

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