Note: I originally wrote this book review in 2001. Since then Edward Snowden’s revelations catapulted the NSA into popular awareness. I really enjoyed this look into our most powerful spying operation. It also raised a lot of constitutional issues related to the Fourth Amendment that I’m worried have yet to be addressed by our elected leaders.
Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency
The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is hardly recognized by anyone, not even by the people who work there.
The National Security Agency dwarfs the CIA in budget, influence and manpower. It has more than twice the staff of the CIA and FBI combined. If rated as a company it would be in the top 10% of the Fortune 500 and yet we very seldom hear about it?
After the movie “Enemy of the State” demonized the NSA with actor Will Smith running around terrified, agency officials started opening up to the outside world. With their help, author James Bamford wrote “Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency.”
It traces the agency’s history from its beginnings in the 1930s through its great successes to modern time. It’s purpose? To listen into as many worldwide communications as possible, decode it, analyze the intelligence gathered and report it to the highest levels of government.
Listening is the easy part. The agency supports hundreds of fields of antennae from the North Pole, to tiny islands in the Indian Ocean to Japan to Turkey to Australia and, of course, satellites in the sky. Everywhere. It’s the decrypting of secret messages that’s the hard part. That’s why the NSA is the world’s largest employer of mathematicians and linguists. They translate more than 100 languages.
Their staff generates more than 100 million classified documents a year. That’s more top-secret material than that held by the CIA, Pentagon, State Department and all other government agencies combined. The data is sent out on the NSA’s own classified Internet and closed-circuit TV programs.
The NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., is so large, 325 acres, that it’s known as Crypto City, but you won’t find it on any map. It has more than 50 buildings with seven million square feet of office space. Crypto City’s own police force is bigger than 95% of all police forces in the country and they have their own swat teams and paramilitary force known as the “Men in Black.”
The agency has played a part in every world conflict since World War II. Some of the agency’s most noticeable catches include tapping an underwater Soviet cable in ice-cold Russian waters that allowed high government officials to be recorded.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, stealthy Navy vessels carried NSA eavesdroppers within miles of Havana. Their listening equipment was so good, they were able to pick up the sounds of generals speaking before their voice was encrypted over Soviet scramble phones.
The most frightening part of the book was the disclosure of documents that showed the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff planning acts of terror against American civilians in the Vietnam War, NSA was the first have US casualties when agents gave their lives to push forward antennae listing posts.
Computers have played a big part of NSA decrypting capabilities. At it’s headquarters the agency has somewhere around 11 acres of basements filled with computers.
They were the first to buy a famous Cray supercomputer. At one time the agency accounted for half of the world-wide demand for integrated circuits.
In 2001, the agency funded secret computer laboratories that give it computing power estimated to be 10 years in advance of commercially available systems. At that time, they were expecting to have machines approaching exaflop speeds. That’s a quintillion floating point operations per second.
Now with the Cold War over, the agency has refocused its efforts into drug trafficking, nuclear proliferation and, as some European governments have alleged, corporate espionage for American business.