Echelon Back Story

The British edition of Body of Secrets, James Bamford’s second book about the US National Security Agency, gives equal billing to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the subtitle, but that’s just marketing, making the home audience feel good. The same subtitle also alludes to Echelon, an eavesdropping program that was on its way to being notorious, particularly in Internet circles, when the book was first published in 2001.

Both get their due, of course, but the book is really a history of the NSA, the agency that does the lion’s share of America’s electronic intercepts, cryptology, cryptanalysis, signals intelligence and so forth.

I haven’t finished the book, but there’s a lot in it. Factually, it’s dense, with very precise details that show how thoroughly Bamford had done his homework.

Lessons abound. First, how little is new in the fraught world of spying and democratic decision-making. Korea and the early Cold War period produced examples of leaders who did not want to hear what people on the ground were reporting. Resources were allocated to the wrong places; the country was caught flat-footed by events that shouldn’t have been unexpected; there was a critical shortage of personnel who could speak crucial languages. In the early 1950s, it was Korean; half a century later it’s Urdu or Pashtu or various branches of Arabic.

Then there’s involvement by the top leadership in operational issues. Bamford presents convincing evidence that Eisenhower was personally deciding and signing off on the U2 overflights of the Soviet Union. When Powers was shot down, the White House first lied about what happened, and then covered up its own involvement. According to Bamford, some of the officials perjured themselves before Congress. (There are recurring examples of how the mantle of national security is used to cover political embarrassments.)

A less than candid relationship with Congress is another emerging theme. The NSA expected the people to sign the bills and no questions asked. Bamford also presents compelling of far-right influence at the top of the US military establishment. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower appointed just before leaving office comes in for particular scrutiny; he was a thorn in the side of an incoming Democratic administration. The Clinton team might have done well to reflect on this example when they came into power in 1993.

Bamford also notes that the Soviets had stationed 161 nuclear warheads in Cuba during the missile crisis. This was not known in the wider world until the 1990s.

Bamford, by the way, is an extraordinary reporter. For his first book on the topic, he fought off legal threats from the NSA and discovered boxes of interesting material lying around, unclassified but unread. That enabled him to put together a good picture of an agency that officially didn’t exist.

Amongst the skulduggery, self-righteousness and partisan slant that Bamford digs through, there are positive signs as well. Foremost among them is the existence of the books themselves. Without the US Freedom of Information Act, they could never have been written, and if there were a US Official Secrets Act similar to the one in Britain, they could never have been published. Between the first and the second, the attitude of the NSA changed, too. They are no longer “No Such Agency,” and Bamford received a reasonable amount of cooperation for the second book.

Back in the late 1980s, the then-director of the NSA came to talk to a class I was taking on intelligence and the history of the 20th century. He said there was a “lot of bone poop” in The Puzzle Palace. But then that’s what he would have to say, isn’t it? A decade and a half later, much has changed, but the problems of oversight, of balancing spying and democracy haven’t.

Speaking of reviews books I haven’t finished yet, the second ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a bit of a slog. The lead characters in this section, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the improbable Welshwoman, aren’t yet interesting in and of themselves, their dialogue tends to exposition (worse, exposition of history I already knew), and there isn’t much suspense in their exploits. I’d been warned about this part of the book, and friends say the second and third volumes are much better. Here’s hoping.

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