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410 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2008
Bamford also spends substantial time on the legal, or complete illegality as it more often turns out, of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) monitoring of the U.S. and the world. He reports that certainly the events of September 11, 2001 turbo-charged the warping and out-and-out disregard of the U.S. Constitution. However, through the historical perspective he brings, he demonstrates that illegal wiretapping dates back to the U.S.’s founding noting that the NSA’s predecessor organization infiltrated the telegram business briefly after its invention. The stories about the NSA’s efforts to skirt or overcome unreasonable search and seizure prohibition are interesting, at least until the passing of the U.S. Patriot Act after which the legal gymnastics or fear of jail time no longer were particularly potent concerns.
Bamford’s writing style mostly mirror’s Sergeant Joe Friday’s ”just the facts” dry, short, sharp, jargon-heavy sentences. Beneath his Tom Clancy fascination with the ways and means of spycraft lies, if not a liberal, at least someone left of center. The NSA plays provides him plenty of fodder by offering many tales of dishonesty, incompetence and ineffectiveness. The main problems revolve around the human factor of spying. After money flooded into the agency post-9/11, the agency began capturing tidal waves of data and hiring tens of thousands of people to analyze it. However, the pedabytes of data (Bamford fetishizes storage capacity as other men might obsess over bra sizes) represent an Everest size haystack secreting an undersized needle. Further, the actual terrorist-stopping data sits in Arabic, which perhaps 80 people among the tens of thousands of NSA operatives can translate. Given multiple Arabic dialects and the problem of yielding information from the data captured by supercomputers from fiber optic cable intercepts becomes largely insurmountable. Instead the agency diverts itself with monitoring the personal lives of non-governmental organizations employees calling the spouse back home. The best story involves the search for Iraqi ”weapons of mass destruction”. The Cheney administration engages their inside agent Ahmad Chalabi to fax a report to another official about such weapons knowing the NSA would intercept it and report it immediately to the president thus providing needed evidence. Unfortunately no one on duty the evening the fax came in could translate it and thus it sat until the administration rang up to see if ”anything new happened to have come in”. In relating these story Bramford’s tone remains mostly respectful and he avoids exaggeration.
In short, people should read this tightly written and comprehensive story to better understand what really happens in the world.