Nation Topics - Covert Ops
News and Features
During the long months of post-September 11 presidential invincibility,
no member of Congress climbed further out on the what-did-Bush-know-when
limb than Representative Cynthia McKinney. "We know there were numerous
warnings of the events to come on September 11," the Georgia Democrat
said in March. "What did this Administration know and when did it know
it, about the events of September 11? Who else knew, and why did they
not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?"
The disclosure that President Bush was warned in August that Al Qaeda
was seeking to hijack domestic aircraft did not confirm all McKinney's
intimations--which extended to talk about how the Bush family might have
profited from the attacks. Yet she was freed to stake a claim of
vindication. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been
vigorously opposing Congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has
been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic
people had not been pushing for disclosure, today's revelations would
have been hidden by the White House."
McKinney's initial calls for an investigation of what Bush knew prompted
a storm of criticism. "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for
mockery," Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor
Cynthia Tucker announced in April. "She no longer deserves serious
analysis." After Bush aides condemned McKinney's "ludicrous, baseless
views," National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg diagnosed
her as suffering from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist
conspiratorial delusions." Barely a month after the McKinney-bashing
peaked, however, the Journal-Constitution headline read: "Bush
warned by US intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to
hijack planes," while Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman
Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said, "I believe, and others
believe, if [information on threats] had been acted on properly, we may
have had a different situation on September 11."
There were no apologies to McKinney. Brushing aside complaints from
Atlanta civil rights activists, Georgia Senator Zell Miller continued to
characterize his fellow Democrat as "loony." McKinney's critics kept
exploiting the opening she gave them with her unfounded rumination on
the prospect that something other than ineptness might explain the
Administration's failure to warn Americans about terrorist threats. But
her willingness to go after the Administration when few Democrats dared
earned her folk-hero status among dissenters from the
Bush-can-do-no-wrong mantra: The popular democrats.com website now
greets visitors with a We Believe Cynthia icon.
In Georgia, where McKinney faces a July primary challenge from a former
judge who labels her "off-the-wall and unproductive," a recent
Journal-Constitution headline read, "Revelations Give Boost to
McKinney." Letters to the editor, even from former critics, hail her
prescience. And Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis, who once
steered clear of McKinney's call for an investigation, says, "I hate to
put it in this vein, but she may have the last laugh."
Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and
watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough
piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the
now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to
Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried
the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same
Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in
September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's
Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the
eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the
Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this
the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of
dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to
all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water
An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that
wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of
unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place
because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since
September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to
expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin
operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new
skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16
damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's
leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have
predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a
statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came
forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her
status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it,
certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words
like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.
It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after
September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the
Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by
cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush
Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with
the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11
September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of
the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not
except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached
levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about
a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals
at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive
Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and
you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of
stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times
and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were
something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the
right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really
All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it
will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting
to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them.
For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a
few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to
back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush
became President. Reporters might also look into the way the
Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and
offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an
effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush
people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which
means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping
"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about
whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the
various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start
connecting some dots of their own.
For Senator Clinton to flourish a copy of the New York Post--the paper that has called her pretty much everything from Satanic to Sapphist--merely because it had the pungent headline "Bush Knew" is not yet her height of opportunism. (The height so far was reached last fall, when she said she could understand the rage and hatred behind the attacks on the World Trade Center because, after all, she had been attacked herself in her time.) But the failure of her husband's regime to take Al Qaeda seriously is the clue to the same failure on the part of the Bush gang.
I am beginning to suspect that Nation readers may not fully appreciate the challenges Attorney General John Ashcroft faces. What would you do in his place? Your intelligence agencies had no advance knowledge of the September 11 plot and don't appear to know much more about future attackers. Airport security screeners are letting test bombs and guns pass at alarming rates, and your immigration agency is so hapless that it issued visa extensions to two of the hijackers six months after they died flying planes into the World Trade Center towers. When you consider the threat from their side and the incompetence on ours, it's understandable that Ashcroft has cast his net so wide. He's shooting in the dark. In fact, the expanse of his net is probably inversely proportional to the depth of the intelligence he has received.
But just as with the terrorists themselves, understanding Ashcroft's motives does not justify his actions. To date, despite the thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants arrested, searched, profiled and questioned, Ashcroft has charged only a single person--Zaccarias Moussaoui--with any involvement in the attacks of September 11. And he was arrested before the attacks occurred. Such broad-brush tactics are unlikely to succeed, for they give notice to potential targets, allowing them to evade detection while alienating the very communities we must work with to identify potential threats who may be living among them.
Ashcroft has shown no signs of getting closer to his target. And the less he finds, the wider he sweeps. He recently announced that he was extending to 3,000 more people his much-criticized initiative to subject male immigrants from Arab countries to "voluntary" interviews, despite the fact that the initial interviews have led to no further charges in the investigation. And having learned how easy it is to use immigration law as a pretext for criminal law enforcement when you lack probable cause, the Justice Department is now preparing to enlist local police officers to help enforce immigration law, a disastrous proposal likely to drive immigrant communities even deeper underground.
The lengths to which Ashcroft will go was revealed most recently by his indictment of Lynne Stewart, a 62-year-old New York attorney who has made a career of courageously taking on clients for whom few other lawyers are willing to risk their reputations. Her most notorious such case was defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in his 1995 criminal trial for conspiring to bomb the tunnels into Manhattan. Now she's charged with providing "material support" to the sheik's organization, the Egypt-based Islamic Group, largely by abetting communications between the sheik--whom prison regulations prohibit from communicating with virtually anyone in the outside world--and others in the group.
The government simultaneously announced that it will make Rahman its test case for its unprecedented initiative to listen in on attorney-client communications. Confidential exchanges with lawyers have long been sacrosanct, because they are critical to any fair legal process. In the past, they could be intruded upon only with a warrant based on probable cause that the communications were intentionally furthering criminal activity, but the new regulations permit monitoring without a warrant or probable cause. But under regulations issued after September 11, the government claims the authority to monitor attorney-client communications without establishing probable cause for believing that the communications are being used for illegal ends, and without obtaining authorization from a judge.
Most troubling, Ashcroft is prosecuting Stewart although she has not been charged with furthering any illegal or violent activity of the Islamic Group, a wide-ranging Islamic political movement that engages in a great deal of lawful activity in addition to terrorism. While many have criticized the government for targeting a lawyer, of far more concern is its criminalization of speech and associations having no connection to terrorism. Unable to link Stewart to any actual terrorist activity in any way, Ashcroft has resorted to guilt by association. As a US citizen, Stewart will at least have an opportunity to defend herself in a public trial. Not so the hundreds of noncitizens still being detained on immigration charges in connection with the September 11 investigation, many long after their immigration proceedings have concluded. Under orders from Ashcroft, they are being tried in secret proceedings closed to the public, press, legal observers and family members.
In a major setback for the Ashcroft agenda, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds on April 3 declared the closed proceedings unconstitutional. She ruled that open trials are a fundamental feature of our justice system and that any closure must be carried out not in the sweeping manner that Ashcroft so favors but through means narrowly tailored to protect national security interests. The government has appealed, arguing that to act in a more narrowly tailored fashion might tip off Al Qaeda to what we do and don't know. But one has to wonder whether the government's real concern isn't that opening the proceedings might tip off the public to just how wildly John Ashcroft is shooting in the dark.
How cool is Jennifer Harbury? She is currently arguing her own case before the Supreme Court, demanding the right to sue the government because, she maintains, its leaders deliberately misled her about the murder of her husband, a Guatemalan rebel leader named Efrain Bamaca Velasquez who was killed in army custody during the counterinsurgency war in Guatemala in the early 1990s.
Harbury has a case. The State Department has confirmed that Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, who was present during Bamaca's interrogation/murder, was a paid CIA asset. A CIA report alleges that Alpirez did the dirty deed himself. When then-State Department official Richard Nuccio informed Senator Robert Torricelli of that, Nuccio immediately found himself the target of a Justice Department investigation. A federal prosecutor accused him of betraying America by conspiring with Torricelli to blow Alpirez's cover, of destroying CIA officers' careers and of being an agent of the guerrillas. Although the United States offered no official charges or accusations, in a highly unusual move the CIA demanded that the State Department strip Nuccio of his security clearance, thereby depriving him of his livelihood. Harbury endured a thirty-two-day hunger strike to force those officials to come clean. She is now arguing that she could have saved her husband's life through the US court system had she known the truth during the period between his capture in March 1992 and his murder in 1993 or 1994.
A report by the President's Intelligence Oversight Board rejected the charge of deliberate lying by US officials but admitted that if the government had bothered to investigate "when Jennifer Harbury first raised the issue of her husband's fate" in the spring of 1992, the State Department "might have been able at a much earlier date to provide her with useful information." The key word here appears to be "useful."
Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake and the other Clinton Administration officials named by Harbury are probably right when they argue that leveling with her at the time would have made little difference in saving her husband's life. US courts do not have jurisdiction over the Guatemalan military (though US foreign policy officials often do). They also deny that they lied. But for procedural reasons, the ex-officials have to argue that regardless of whether they lied, a US citizen has no legal right to sue a public official who does lie. Solicitor General Theodore Olson filed an amicus brief arguing on behalf of the government's right to lie: "It is an unfortunate reality that the issuance of incomplete information and even misinformation by government may sometimes be perceived as necessary to protect vital interests," he maintains.
This particular case stinks for more reasons than can be precisely counted. In addition to the above, Bamaca was killed by a genocidal government that enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. This is not only my opinion; it is the view of the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission's 1999 report, which condemns the United States for aiding a "criminal counterinsurgency" against the nation's indigenous Mayan population. America's Guatemala policy was anticommunism gone mad.
Moreover, if David Brock is to be believed, Olson is himself tainted by his lies to Congress. According to Brock's Congressional testimony, Olson lied during his confirmation hearings about his role in the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded "Arkansas Project," run out of the offices of The American Spectator and designed to undermine the Clinton presidency by any means necessary. What a surprise, therefore, that he thinks it's OK for the government to lie as well.
But the sorry truth is that the question of the government's right to lie is a lot more complicated than it looks. The Supreme Court has repeatedly enshrined in law the extremely provocative statement enunciated in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester: "It's inherent in [the] government's right, if necessary, to lie to save itself." Dishonest officials have stretched the "national security" definition beyond recognition to protect not only thuggish murderers but also narrow political interests. But the principle itself is not wholly unsound. Although lies undermine the confidence in, and practice of, democracy, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, one can imagine circumstances in which a temporary lie might save lives without endangering the Constitution.
The problem is how to set enforceable limits. Government officials lie all the time. And while it is a crime to lie to Congress and to commit perjury, these acts are prosecuted in such a haphazard and nakedly political fashion that they can hardly serve as much of a deterrent. Lawrence Walsh's legitimate prosecutions of Reagan Administration officials who lied about matters of state were mocked by allegedly high-minded pundits like David Broder and George Will and overturned in a cowardly fashion by defeated President George H.W. Bush after the 1992 election.
Meanwhile, a fanatical cabal inside the Republican Party and Kenneth Starr's office manipulated these same laws to impeach President Clinton and disarm his popular agenda over a private lie not about a matter of state but a routine case of almost adultery. Given that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans have told this same type of lie to protect their families (or themselves) from humiliation, they saw this partisan gambit for what it was, punishing its perpetrators in the 1998 election. But the self-righteous pooh-bahs of the punditocracy--many of whom celebrated the Reagan-era liars and quite a few of whom told their share of adulterous lies--behave as if their hypocrisy were somehow patriotically inspired.
Jennifer Harbury continues to fight not only for justice for her husband but also for a reasonable definition of the government's right to lie. Bully for this brave woman who, despite her personal tragedy, takes democracy more seriously than its alleged protectors. She is a patriot to put the pundits to shame.
"Debacle in Kwangju." Were Washington's cables read as a green light for
the 1980 Korean massacre? (1996)
"Stiglitz Roars Back" (2001)
Secrecy is the guiding philosophy of the Bush Administration.
We can't allow fear to erode commitment to our constitutional liberties.
Current discussions tend to trivialize acts that are not only immoral but illegal according to covenants the United States has signed.
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."
Beyond this there is Bamford's somewhat speculative account of an Israeli assault on the US spy ship Liberty during the 1967 Middle East war. Bamford argues that it was a coldblooded action by Israel but offers no evidence of the culpability of the Israeli political leadership. The attack may well have been sanctioned by an Israeli military commander, but it is hard to imagine the top Israeli politicians signing off on such a risky venture, which carried enormous potential dangers for their state.
The NSA is only one component of the US intelligence community, and for a good deal of its existence it has been subservient to the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Its business was to collect raw information that was then analyzed by other agencies. The Director of Central Intelligence--head of the CIA--supervised the whole process. All along there has been, to be sure, a good deal of institutional and bureaucratic rivalry among the agencies, which is presented by Bamford in readable and dramatic fashion. Underlying these rivalries is a doctrinal issue: the conflict between old-fashioned, cloak-and-dagger human intelligence (humint) versus high-tech signals intelligence (sigint). The NSA, which spends the lion's share of the $30 billion annual intelligence budget, reflects America's predilection for gadgetry and high tech.
If there is a serious shortcoming in this massive book, it is the failure to provide a critical assessment of the mission for which the NSA was founded: to provide Washington with accurate information on the political, military and economic state of the Soviet Union. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, the NSA had one singular objective: "to break the stubborn Russian cipher system and eavesdrop on that nation's most secret communications," Bamford writes. But there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the NSA ever cracked a single high-level Russian cipher system. That being the case, what are the nation's most precious secrets that Bamford keeps mentioning are held in a fantastic system capable of storing 5 trillion pages of text--a stack of papers 150 miles high--allowing for almost instant retrieval of any piece of information? What is there to be retrieved?
Not much, I suspect. From personal experience I know that whenever the NSA did successfully accomplish something--it managed to decrypt Russian voice communications in the early 1970s and for a long time eavesdropped on the phone conversations of Soviet leaders talking in their limousines--word of its success filtered out. Washington, apart from its almost bottomless appetite for "intelligence," is also a town where anything worth knowing is quickly disclosed by gossiping officials eager to show that they are in the loop. One such official told me in early 1973 about a car accident involving Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin. He knew exactly when it happened and where, but nothing more. As a young reporter, I rushed breathlessly to my office, already envisioning it on the front page of the Post the next morning. I had no idea how this information had been obtained; now I know that we would have blown an important intelligence operation had we published the story. But executive editor Ben Bradlee knew it was sensitive enough to require consultations with the Post's legal counsel Joseph Califano and Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms. After protracted haggling the story was scrapped, but not because of Helms's talk about dire consequences: Only if Kosygin was hurt and a leadership change was imminent, Bradlee said, would he run the story.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, US intelligence stood accused of having failed in its primary mission. Since few people knew much about the NSA, blame naturally fell on the CIA; critics said it had overestimated the Soviet military threat and not foreseen the economic and political demise of our prime adversary. Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence from 1977 to 1981, talked about the "enormity of failure" in a 1991 article in Foreign Affairs, in which he alleged that "I have never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of defense or state, that numerous Soviets recognized a growing systemic economic problem." William Odom, NSA director from 1985 to 1988, argued in 1994 that the CIA was superfluous and should be disbanded. "The only serious issue here is whether you want to continue to pay all these people.... I consider...their analytical effort a welfare transfer package," he stated at the Harvard Intelligence and Policy Project, conducted by professors Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.
How did US policy-makers get into such a state of ignorance? Solid though the product of an intelligence service may be, it is only as good as the uses to which it is put. Governments--all governments--gather, conceal, suppress and manipulate "intelligence." American leaders have frequently done so to serve their political objectives. Richard Nixon, under the rubric of "national security," tried to use the intelligence community to hide his involvement in the Watergate scandal; he also used the NSA to secretly target antiwar protesters. In the late 1970s Congress outlawed wholesale, warrantless acquisition of raw telegrams and arbitrary watch lists containing the names of Americans, but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act did not cover Americans living abroad.
The product, by the late 1970s, was no longer solid. Internal bureaucratic struggles consumed the community. Once an unwanted stepchild of the CIA--the NSA director was initially denied a seat on the Intelligence Advisory Committee--the NSA had in fact grown large and powerful. Its original mandate was to collect intelligence, not analyze it, but by the late 1970s the NSA began hoarding its information. The material it distributed was sanitized, according to then-Director of Central Intelligence Turner, who charged it with "deliberate withholding of raw information from the true analytic agencies. NSA wants to get credit for the scoop."
Under Ronald Reagan, arguably the most zealous cold war President, the intelligence community regained its footing to become once again the chief tool of US foreign policy. Its anti-Soviet activism led to the criminal excesses of the Iran/contra scandal. The chief strategist of malfeasance was William Casey, the first Director of Central Intelligence to be a member of the Cabinet as well. Casey chose as his deputy Robert Gates, a hard-line anti-Soviet analyst. Odom was their soulmate, "an arch-conservative military hard-liner" who wanted the NSA to assume a greater analytical role.
Throughout the 1980s the intelligence community provided Congress and the public with exaggerated accounts of Soviet military and economic prowess. The slick annual Pentagon review called "Soviet Military Power" showed the Russians developing and deploying ever-more dangerous weaponry. America was facing a "window of vulnerability"--a time when the Soviet Union, an indestructible colossus, could start a nuclear war. Paul Nitze and his Committee on the Present Danger speculated that the Russians could win such a war, owing to their extensive civil defense network and capacity to absorb a US retaliatory strike but deliver the final nuclear blow. As late as October 1988, top CIA analyst Robert Gates warned that "the dictatorship of the Communist Party remains untouched and untouchable. A long competitive struggle with the Soviet Union lies before us." When the Senate intelligence panel asked Gates earlier what the intelligence community was doing to prepare American policy-makers for the consequences of Gorbachev's reforms, Gates replied: "Quite frankly, without any hint that such fundamental change is going on, my resources do not permit me the luxury of sort of just idly speculating on what a different Soviet Union might look like."
Yet we all know that in 1989 the Soviet empire was dismantled; in 1991 the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and American leaders were clueless. What went wrong?
Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, who says in his memoirs that he was "misled, lied to" by the CIA, reveals that Casey had effectively usurped the prerogatives of the Secretary of State and had run an alternative foreign policy. Casey could do so because he controlled the analytical process, the estimates, covert action and counterintelligence. Casey's views, Shultz writes, "were so strong and so ideological that they inevitably colored his selection and assessments of materials. I could not rely on what he said, nor could I accept without question the objectivity of 'intelligence' that he put out, especially in policy sensitive areas."
Gorbachev was initially described as "just talk, just another Soviet attempt to deceive us," Shultz says. "When it became evident that the Soviet Union was, in fact, changing, the CIA line was that the changes wouldn't really make a difference."
Casey and Gates systematically ignored their own specialists and overstated the "evidence" of Soviet arms procurement programs, and the state of the Soviet economy in general, to buttress their argument. Douglas MacEachin, director of the CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis from 1984 to 1989, has testified that the pattern of self-deception was promoted by an Administration eager to rebuild US military power. The intelligence community aided the effort by inflating projections of Soviet military strength.
"Never mind that the Soviet Union never in ten years, from the late 1970s through the entire 1980s, ever lived up to the projections that were made," MacEachin said. "We projected these huge forces, then used those projections as a rationale for our [military] spending, and they never lived up to those projections." Richard Kerr, deputy director for intelligence, took a memo to that effect from MacEachin before the National Foreign Intelligence Board--but it wasn't mentioned, even as a footnote, in the final documents.
The problem here was not one of honest people with strong views having honest disagreements. Rather, it was a blatant politicization of intelligence. Hawks were in charge; those who disagreed were singled out for being "soft" on communism. Robert Blackwell, a high-level CIA official, talked of palpable tension at Langley. "Whether anything was being twisted or reordered upstairs or not, people felt that they were under extra burdens to somehow be very careful about how things were said." MacEachin said the Reagan Administration "thought of us as the enemy." The implication was, he added, "that part of the national threat was that the CIA undercut our ability to rebuild our national forces."
MacEachin's successor, George Kolt, had set up in September 1989 a supersecret contingency planning group "looking at the possibility of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what we do." This was rejected by the higher-ups, however. Robert Gates's views on Russia had not changed. A month before the collapse of the Berlin wall, Vice President Dan Quayle publicly referred to Gorbachev as a "master of public relations" and called perestroika a "form of Leninism."
Gates was consistent to the end. When on August 19, 1991, Kremlin hard-liners mounted a coup attempt against Gorbachev, Kolt called President Bush's National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, saying the coup might not succeed and implicitly suggesting that the White House condemn the coup leaders. Gates saw no reason to hope the coup would fail, and President Bush's initial pronouncements were noncommittal. As Gates explained later, "Based on all prior experience in Russian and Soviet history, when you know at the outset that you've got the KGB and the army and the party all together in a coup attempt, the chances of it not succeeding...are near zero."
Something is obviously wrong with what Bamford calls the largest, best-funded, and "most advanced spy organization on the planet." The entire intelligence community has grown lazy and fat over the years. In the case of the NSA, there is a cozy relationship between it and parts of private industry: Former top NSA officials often end up working for TRW, Honeywell, E-Systems or Booz-Allen & Hamilton. Eavesdropping equipment alone is a $2 billion-a-year market.
Is our money being spent wisely? A former intelligence analyst, Robert Steel, who now runs a private intelligence firm called Open Source Solutions, recently demonstrated to the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that he could produce more usable information more quickly by using open sources and the Internet than the intelligence community could get from its secret work (his demonstration included satellite photography and military orders of battle).
I'm not suggesting outsourcing here. But what is the point of having a powerful spy agency in the sky--eavesdropping on friend and foe alike--when we are caught by surprise by India's nuclear tests in 1998? Or when, as during the Gulf War, we are unable to locate Saddam Hussein's Scuds?
Not so long ago, the United States declared war on terrorism. Yet there are only two references to Osama bin Laden in this book (one of them being that the NSA, "to impress cleared visitors," occasionally plays audiotapes of bin Laden talking to his mom), and other well-known groups suspected of international terrorism are not even mentioned. Perhaps there is a great deal of information about them in 50-100 million documents that the NSA classifies each year--more than all other agencies of the US government combined. But I wonder who reads these documents and evaluates their content. As someone who is bilingual, I seriously question the quality of work of the NSA computers said to translate up to 750 pages of Russian text per hour. NSA language training itself sounds pretty skimpy: Chinese and Japanese take "two years," Bamford reports, but this reads as more than presumptuous to anyone even remotely familiar with Chinese (a literate Chinese uses between 20,000 and 40,000 individual characters, which take many years to learn). Michael Hayden, the current NSA director, does assure us that "There is a whole other addition there [in training] to turn someone who has working knowledge of the popular language into a cryptolingist." Good Lord! Is Hayden kidding us or does he believe this? I hope it is the former.
"That NSA has the technical capability to intercept and store enough information to wallpaper much of the planet is unquestionable," Bamford writes. "What is in doubt, however, is the agency's ability to make sense of most of it."
In the acknowledgments to Body of Secrets, Hayden is the first person on the author's list of thank-yous. Which is an important clue. The NSA is an agency in search of a new mission. Some of its work remains invaluable, especially tactical intelligence needed by the Pentagon. But sigint now has far less strategic value. Moreover, digital communications, fiber-optic cables and powerful encryption software make it nearly impossible for the NSA to dominate the ether the way it did a decade ago. There is also a growing realization in Congress that something is wrong. In 1998 the House Intelligence Committee threatened to withhold funding unless the agency made "very large changes" in its "culture and methods of operation." For several years auditors found that the NSA had ignored laws and regulations, that its financial statements were not in order and that it had mismanaged its expensive high-tech systems. Hayden's attempt at candor may be a way to rally support.
Judging by the book's last chapter, NSA leaders hope that new scientific breakthroughs--fabricating computing devices out of biological entities, using biological processes to manufacture nonbiological devices--will solve their problems. The computer of the future, we are told, is going to be constructed from both mechanical and living parts. It will be 100 billion times faster than the fastest PC today. What that means when it comes to problems of terrorism, international organized crime, arms proliferation, narcotics trafficking, illicit trade and such issues is a mystery.
Just think, though, how impressive it will be!
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