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We're All Ears | The Nation

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We're All Ears

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What sticks in my mind more than any particular accomplishment of the supersecret National Security Agency is its mammoth size. Only a few miles from my home, I now know, exists a secret Orwellian town where tens of thousands of people live and work. It is surrounded by barbed-wire fences, massive boulders and thick cement barriers, all hidden by tall earthen berms and thick forests. Armed police patrol the boundaries of Crypto City, as this restricted area near the sleepy hamlet of Annapolis Junction, Maryland, is called. Telephoto surveillance cameras peer down. Heavily armed commandos dressed in black and wearing special headgear are on standby in case of trouble.

Beyond lies a forbidden city unlike any other on earth. Its main business is global eavesdropping; its mission is to obtain secrets about foreign enemies and friends alike, and to identify terrorist threats, drug trades, illegal arms sales and so on, all by intercepting voice, phone and radio communications. Using math, cryptology, statistical and other techniques, the NSA can break any code or cipher. The raw material is collected by its spyplanes, ships, satellites and through various other technical means, then is processed by the largest, most powerful electronic brain on earth.

More exact details of this forbidden city remain secret. County officials say they have no idea how many people work there, and no one will tell them. But James Bamford, in his Body of Secrets, offers some clues. The city's post office distributes 70,000 pieces of mail a day; there are more than 37,000 cars registered there. The local police have more than 700 uniformed officers and their own SWAT team. The city's consumption of electricity--to power six acres of computers, twenty-five tons of air-conditioning equipment and more than a half-million lightbulbs--costs nearly $2 million per month. In case of power outages, its own power-generating plant can quickly produce enough wattage for a community of more than 3,500 homes. It has its own fire department as well as twenty-three separate alarm systems and 402 miles of sprinklers, feeding 210,000 sprinkler heads. There are theaters, a bank, kindergartens, fitness centers, gas stations, clubs (even its own Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees--"GLOBE"--club). Religious services are held in an unbuggable room, where priest and minister have security clearance far above Top Secret.

At the heart of this community is the NSA headquarters; with 3 million square feet of floor space, it could accommodate the entire US Capitol building four times over. The headquarters building almost metaphorically represents the NSA as well: From the outside, it looks like a stylish modern office building of dark one-way glass. But the real building is hidden under this reflective glass and is protected by a skin of orange-colored copper and unique windows--a thick outer pane, five inches of sound-deadening space, a thin copper screen and an inner pane. The protective shielding is designed to keep all sounds--and indeed any type of electromagnetic radiation--from getting out. It is used throughout much of the city to keep what is said to be the largest body of secrets ever compiled.

Created at the height of the cold war, the NSA was to be the eyes and ears of the Central Intelligence Agency after the Communists drew an impenetrable "iron curtain" around their borders and effectively put human spies out of action. Its very existence has been so highly classified that few people outside the top echelons of government knew much about it. Until, that is, Bamford's first book, The Puzzle Palace, was published in 1982.

Body of Secrets is more than an update of Bamford's previous effort. It includes an engaging and informed history of signals intelligence during World War II, chronicling the breaking of Japan's ciphers and Britain's success in cracking Germany's code. After the war's end, the United States insisted on hosting the opening session of the United Nations in San Francisco to enable it to "eavesdrop on its guests," Bamford says. "Like cheats in a poker game they [the Americans] were peeking at their opponents' hands." For a few years after 1945, the United States also read encrypted Soviet communications. But one Friday in 1948--it is still known as Black Friday among intelligence watchers--all Soviet ciphers went dark. Just as the Americans had successfully penetrated secret Soviet networks, so the Russians had penetrated the Army Security Agency. After that, Washington apparently knew little about Communist intentions. In 1950, when the North Koreans invaded the South, Washington was caught by surprise. Ditto on China's entry into the war. With the Russians having just exploded a hydrogen bomb, the situation was getting more perilous. The loss of effective intelligence work prompted the Director of Central Intelligence, Walter Bedell Smith, to tell the National Security Council that he was "gravely concerned" by "ineffective" intelligence operations. President Truman, on Election Day 1952, scrapped the Pentagon-run operation and created in its place a new agency to be largely hidden from Congress, the public and the world.

Bamford, an accomplished journalist, weaves a narrative about the NSA that includes sympathetic portraits of key players and detailed accounts of such highly publicized events as the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the capture of the spy ship Pueblo by North Korea. There are many heretofore undisclosed tidbits of information. President Eisenhower, for example, was personally micromanaging each U-2 high-altitude surveillance flight over Russia but refused to admit it after Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960. Further, Eisenhower instructed his Cabinet officers to lie about it while testifying under oath. The famous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which officially plunged the United States into the Vietnam War, was passed by Congress on the strength of Robert McNamara's "unequivocal proof" of a North Vietnamese attack on a US ship; that "unequivocal proof" turned out to be a "major blunder by NSA, and the 'hard evidence' on which many [in Congress] based their votes for the war never really existed."

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