Peace Researcher 38 – July 2009
by James Bamford. Doubleday, Auckland 2008
(Quotations are from the book unless otherwise noted).
James Bamford seems to have made a career of spying on the spies at the US National Security Agency (NSA). “The Shadow Factory” is his third exposé of the Agency and effectively covers the period of the criminal regime of George W Bush. NSA reaction to these books has swung a bit like a pendulum: they hated the first one (“Puzzle Palace”, 1982), loved the second (“Body of Secrets”, 2001; see Nicky Hager’s review in Peace Researcher 24, December 2001, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/hagrvew.htm), and were not pleased with this latest one. The title is a good one – the NSA, in a time of great intelligence need after 9/11, produced shadows. Always a puzzle to the outside world, keeper of trillions of secrets in the world’s most powerful computers, the NSA effectively let 9/11 happen by failing to share critical intelligence with other government agencies.
Describing the history and operations of a
massive intelligence agency, the world’s largest and most expensive, could be
boring and almost unreadable. But Bamford’s books combine history with gripping
narrative on the flow of events, woven together with a myriad of facts and
solid documentation. Like Nicky Hager, author of “Secret Power” (1996, the
The Intelligence Fiasco Surrounding 9/11
This book is written in five major sections, or
“books”. Book One covers the events leading up to the September 11, 2001,
attacks on the
Book One is a riveting catalogue of intelligence failure. The spies knew a great deal about the terrorists (except where, when and how) but were powerless to do anything about them. It certainly shakes your confidence in the usefulness of intelligence gathering. In fact “The Shadow Factory” is a devastating account of just how useless it is (we’re not allowed to know about the successes of NSA of course, but we are assured that they exist). This stuff would be hilarious if weren’t so tragic. Here’s another example, this one from June 28, 2001, in the words of Richard Clarke, White House Counterterrorism Coordinator: “A series of new reports continue to convince me and analysts at State, CIA, DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) and NSA that a major terrorist attack or series of attacks is likely in July”. This was followed two days later by a briefing paper to top officials with the headline: “Bin Laden Planning High-Profile Attacks”.
Post-9/11, The NSA, And The War On Terror
The seeds of the infamous warrantless spying on
the American people began immediately post-9/11. Throughout the 1990s the NSA
reacted to the so-called Church-Pike era (the 1970s’ Senate revelations of
NSA’s massive spying on Americans) by keeping well within the law on domestic
spying. But the “surprise” attacks of 2001 caused the complete abandonment of
this policy: “Civil liberties were out” according to Bamford. One of the
chapters in Book Two is entitled “FISA” (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
of 1978) and is all about the biggest stumbling block to the warrantless
eavesdropping programme. The chief legal architect of that programme was a chap
called David Addington. “One reason why [Vice President] Cheney and Addington
hated the [FISA] court [responsible for issuing warrants] was its tendency to
resist attempts by the Bush Administration to push beyond legal boundaries,
even before the events of 9/11”. Less than a month after those events “…Hayden
received authorisation to bypass the
These abrupt changes at NSA had a profound
Warrantless spying by the NSA was a futile exercise but it went on until early 2007. By the spring of 2000 the NSA actually had the international intelligence it needed in order to have revealed who was planning 9/11. What never happened was involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) so that their legal monitoring of domestic communications could have revealed the “who, what and where” needed to stop the attacks.
“Cooperation” By Private Companies
Book Three describes the struggles of the NSA to cope with changing technology. Snooping on stray signals from satellites, as Waihopai does, is pretty straightforward as far as the physical interception goes. The problems began as communications were transferred increasingly to undersea and underground cables. “Echelon* began living on borrowed time…” around 2000. That was a bit of an exaggeration since satellite signals intelligence is still going on, and unfortunately Waihopai has not been abandoned. But Bamford’s 2001 statistic that “just 1% of the world’s communications travel by satellite…” is startling. Nevertheless, the NSA was slow to develop the technical means to tap into fibre-optic cables and complex packet switching (Internet and e-mail). In describing what might be called Echelon II, tapping into the global cable “spider’s web”, Bamford mentions little NZ: “It would be an enormous change in technology, but more important, the NSA and the other members of the Five Eyes – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – would have to get access to the cables either through secret agreements or covertly, or both (note that Five Eyes is Bamford’s term for the five partners to the UKUSA Agreement of 1948. Echelon is the code name for the programme operated by the five-nation spy network that systematically listens in to civilian telecommunications sent by satellite).
To accomplish this new interception feat the
NSA had to enlist the “cooperation” of the big telecommunications companies (is
this happening in
The chapters in Book Three are somewhat encouraging to those who see the NSA and its partner agencies as all-knowing and all-powerful. And there is good news for communication among terrorists. As this section of the book draws to a close it becomes evident that recent communications developments are presenting terrific obstacles to the spies. To give just one example, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocols) has proved to be a tough interception nut to crack. “Among the most popular VoIP systems is Skype, which is a revolution in telecommunications. Not only are Skype calls cheap and easy to make, they are virtually unbuggable….”
The Wall Of Secrecy Crumbles
The final two of the five Books are even more of an indictment of the NSA than the first three. Book Four chronicles the development of cracks, fractures and finally the collapse of the secrecy the allowed the Bush Administration to bug Americans domestically in the name of national security. A story in the New York Times in December 2006 blew the lid off warrantless domestic spying. The White House in panic mode tried desperately to block publication of the story. Meetings were held between the Government bigwigs (including Secretary of State Condi Rice, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and Harriet Miers, the White House Counsel; Vice-President Cheney wisely avoided the press) and Times executives. A sample of the threats levelled at the Times if they published the story: “…Editor Bill Keller was warned that publication of the story would alert the terrorists and ‘shut down the game’. ‘It’s all the marbles,’ said one official cryptically, adding, ‘The enemy is at the gates’”. Bush himself even warned the Times publisher that if another terrorist attack took place: “There’ll be blood on your hands”. The full story was published on December 16, 2006.
The final chapters (Book Five entitled
“Future”) are loaded with technical detail and heavy going, unless you are a
computer geek. They are about the NSA’s insatiable appetite for computer power
and for land and buildings to hold all the hardware and the people needed to
process and make sense of the oceans of information being vacuumed from around
the planet every second of every day. NSA headquarters in
And What Of The NSA?
Bamford’s last chapter is entitled “Abyss” and has a very clear message. It is a catalogue of severe problems facing the NSA. The massive collective brainpower of the NSA has developed a database called TIDE, an Oracle database with a Unix operating system that is the heart of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Here are the punch-lines: “The only thing that makes the NCTC worth anything is the database, the TIDE database. This is the most important data since 9/11. If you screw this up, we know they’re out there, we know they’re operating, we know they’re trying to get back in. This data is buried in this database” (quoted by the author from a senior intelligence official). “’Nevertheless’, he said, ‘the system is a disaster. The database is incompatible with both the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) systems’. “That’s the problem with data in the intelligence field – there is no leadership right now” (emphasis added).
Bamford ends the book with a dire warning about
the NSA: “There is now the capacity to make tyranny total in