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The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America

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James Bamford has been the preeminent expert on the National Security Agency since his reporting revealed the agency’s existence in the 1980s. Now Bamford describes the transformation of the NSA since 9/11, as the agency increasingly turns its high-tech ears on the American public.

The Shadow Factory reconstructs how the NSA missed a chance to thwart the 9/11 hijackers and details how this mistake has led to a heightening of domestic surveillance. In disturbing detail, Bamford describes exactly how every American’s data is being mined and what is being done with it. Any reader who thinks America’s liberties are being protected by Congress will be shocked and appalled at what is revealed here.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

410 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

James Bamford

28 books121 followers
James Bamford (born September 15, 1946) is an American bestselling author, journalist and documentary producer widely noted for his writing about United States intelligence agencies, especially the National Security Agency (NSA).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 156 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
February 1, 2016
“There is now the capacity to make tyranny total in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss—the abyss from which there is no return.” (p 344)

Bamford’s turf is the NSA and he mines that lode again. This time with an eye towards how the gathering of intelligence changed from a focused peering into the doings of potential enemies abroad to spying on the doings of everyone, American or not, in the USA or outside. It is a chilling account of how fear-mongering and a near complete disregard for the law have been used to take us to a dangerous brink. Every phone call, every e-mail, every time. Nothing is off-limits for today’s info-gatherers.

Bamford goes into the detail. He describes in fine detail the many bits of information that were available re the 9/11 hijackers who were training in the United States, and explains how it came to be that that critical information never made it to the people who might have used it. While our capacity to collect intelligence may have mushroomed, our ability to shoot ourselves in the foot with political and turf wars remains problematic.

His tale is not one of criticism alone. He makes important points about the difficulties involved in managing intelligence, the challenge of coping with new, vast quantities, the political issues significant in limiting communication between the NSA and other departments, and notes many decisions that were made by the Bush Administration that relegated constitutional privacy protection meaningless.

The government cannot invade our privacy alone. It must rely on the cooperation of private market info-carriers. So, it asks, coerces carriers to allow the NSA to tap into their lines, their routers, their connection to all and sundry data pipes. The carriers are occasionally reluctant, fearful of lawsuits, but the government usually insists. Bamford cites a 1994 federal statute, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) that requires communications companies to engineer their facilities so that their network can be easily monitored. (p 210-11)

Alarmingly several of the companies heavily involved in new spying technology for the USA have significant ties to foreign governments, most particularly to Israel. It is not a stretch to say that as a result of this, what we hear, they hear also. Government restrictions on foreign entities being involved in US spying do not extend to private companies, a major loophole.

Another legal loophole applies to limitations on the US right to spy on American citizens in the US. The government has arranged with foreign intel services to do it for us.

Bamford marks his trail through these shadowy woods with many, many crumbs. At times it seems that there is too much detail. But it is all in a worthy cause. It is important to see, line by line, what happened, what information was available, where it went and what happened with it, step by step by step. It is important for us all to know what our government is up to, what lines it is willing to cross, and maybe, just maybe, by casting some light on these dark recesses, Americans who care about preserving our freedoms can begin to address these dark impulses. For who can doubt that such tools will be used to stifle dissent at home as they are used for that purpose abroad?

=============================EXTRA STUFF

GR friend Jan Rice sent along an excellent article from the May 23, 2011 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Titled The Secret Sharer, it tells the terrible tale of an NSA whistle-blower who fell afoul of our military-industrial-intelligence complex. Making it clearer once again that there is no law, only power, and we are right to be concerned, very concerned about our loss of privacy.

February 1, 2016 - Bamford's latest article in Foreign Affairs looks at foreign nations buying advanced spyware on the open market. Scary stuff - The Espionage Economy
387 reviews13 followers
January 31, 2011
Dear NSA, hope you enjoy this review. Your government (whichever on it is) monitors you when you think it not, it always has and always will – to one degree or another. This used to be a cumbersome proposition involving the infiltration of groups and verbally reporting what was overheard to government handlers. However, modern communication technology makes eavesdropping relatively simple given enough of the right resources. In his extensive review of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Big Brother snooping in general, Bamford considers all angles of governmental spying (technology, politics, law, history, employment in the field, etc). However, the supercomputers, analysis software and techniques of tapping fiber optic cables, satellite transmissions, Skype interactions, etc that most interest him. His mastery of the intricacies of such spycraft impresses yet he avoids burying or excessively boring his readers with his depth of understanding. In fact, the reader leaves the book with enough know-how to carry out their own spying campaign - assuming he or she has a supercomputer and the ability to force AT&T executives to break the law. The reader also leaves with the understanding that nearly no aspect of modern life hides from the NSA from the obvious, phone calls and emails, to the less apparent such as monitoring movements via E-Z pass and Metrocards.

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.

Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,487 reviews221 followers
April 3, 2021
Intelligence journalism is an odd trade, writing on people who would prefer to keep everything classified forever. And this book from 2008, prior to Edward Snowden's revelations, is very much a peace of history, that while dated is still worth reading.

Bamford tracks three major threads. The first is the absolute failure of the NSA to connect the dots on 9/11. Various parts of the US intelligence apparatus knew something was coming, but despite copious intercepts, they were unable to figure out that these terrorists were inside the United States and communicating with an Al Qaeda safehouse in Yemen. Most startling to me was how Tom Wilshire, a CIA liaison to the FBI, halted alerts on the 9/11 plots several times in the months prior.

The planes hit the towers, and the NSA went to war. This is the second thread, an effort spearheaded by the Bush administration and Dick Cheney to void legal protections against arbitrary wiretapping that had been set up in the 70s. The careful charade of FISA warrants was cast aside in terms of national security letters and persons of interest. Now the NSA could listen in for almost any reason, justified retroactively. Thousands of rapidly surged analysts and translators spent hours a day in complexes in Georgia, listening to every phone call in Iraq. The first Bush-Cheney system almost went down due to the surprising resistance of a senior FBI agent named James Comey (famous later for other reason), but a Democratic congress eventually passed a national security wishlist, for fear of looking weak on terrorism.

The third challenge is technical. The NSA's job used to be very easy when signals moved over radio or electrical cables. With the internet and fiber optic boom in the 90s, what the NSA could eavesdrop on fell precipitously, until they invested in a series of expensive public-private partnerships to design high capacity splitters and place them in major internet nodes, essentially suctioning everything transmitted across the internet into a shadow realm of NSA data centers for analysis. The NSA was big data before big data was hip. But the NSA was drowning in data, unable to turn even an infinitesimal bit of into actionable intelligence. This is where a host of Orwellian programs to develop a digital analyst come into play: Trailblazer, Turbulence, Total Information Awareness. But America's cyber spooks were hamstrung by more mundane concerns. When the book was written, the master 'No Fly' list was kept on an Oracle database, and due to interoperability problems, names had to be printed off and retyped on secondary systems. I've worked with some janky software, but nothing that bad.

The pieces of information in this book are fascinating, if obsolete, but where this book falls short is in analysis. The NSA is tremendously expensive, a multibillion dollar agency with deep pockets. Yet it's hard to point to successes, terrorist plots stopped and lives saved. Similarly, the ability of the NSA to listen in on everybody is a shotgun pointed at the head of American democracy, but the harms also seem pretty theoretical. This is 2020, we ask our wiretaps for pancake recipes, take selfies in front of blazing police cars, and run for political office while espousing conspiracy gibberish about satanic cabals of child murderers. What could the NSA do that isn't "seen it already?".

Don't answer that. I've read Stross' The Laundry series.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,005 reviews1,116 followers
October 24, 2020
This book covers the history of the NSA from the months prior to 9/11, during which time they tracked some of the known terrorists who participated in the hijackings on that day but didn't relay the information, to 2008, when they had pretty much obtained full access to all telecommunications in the USA, if not the world. It is also, given the period covered, a history of the Bush administration's circumvention of the law in the pursuit of social control and its agenda of controlling the Middle East, particularly Iraq.

Much of this book is rather technical, describing the software and the hardware employed in telecommunication espionage as well as the agencies and corporations behind the creation and utilization of such technologies. None of this technical information is particularly abstruse, but the detail is rather overwhelming.

Bamford writes clearly and, given the subject matter, with an objective tone except in the 'Extremis' chapter wherein he describes the gang rape of a pubescent Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family by U.S. forces and how that event led to further abrogation of domestic privacy laws. Here his emotion shows.
Profile Image for Bob Schmitz.
619 reviews10 followers
November 7, 2013
If you would like know the details and to be frightened about Orwell’s “1984” having arrived this is the book to read. The book describes the development of warrantless eavesdropping by the NSA and others over from the 1970’s to 2008.
The recent flap about wiretapping seems odd in that the extent of NSA surveillance is documented in this 2008 book.

Bamford gives a detailed account of the mechanism of electronic surveillance including the addresses of buildings, phone #’s of terrorists including OBL, the types of equipment used, private companies involved. In the degree of detail it is astounding.

After it was revealed in 1970’s that the NSA was involved in wire tapping of US citizens congress passed laws to prevent this abuse. Michael Hayden became head of the NSA in 1999 and instructed his organization not to share information with the FBI. As a result though the agency knew the names and phone #’s of two of the hijackers who had been to a meeting in Indonesia and knew that they were communicating with the main Al Qaeda communications center in Yemen and knew that they had passed through LAX they did not send it to the FBI because once the men entered the US they were not allowed to be NSA targets.

For years The NSA collected calls from the Yemen ops center which was known as the Bin Laden's operational headquarters and the op center for the embassy bombing and the attack on the USS Cole. For years they collected calls from the center to the homes of the 9/11 planners in San Diego and yet never once did they track or find out what those calls were about. So was not technical difficulties that prevented the discovery of the 9/11 attacks but organizational, inter-service difficulties

After 9/11 all of that changed. G.W. Bush gave a secret order to allow the NSA to wiretap on US citizen.

It was decided that the technological advances were so fast that the NSA would outsource a lot of their intelligence eavesdropping work just as previously they had outsourced the repair their copy machines. In October 2001 NSA had 55 contracts to 145 companies. In October 2002 it had 75,000 contracts to 7,197 contractors. Of the NSA budget of $60 billion 70 percent went to outside contractors creating a surveillance industrial complex.

In 1994 law requires that telecommunication companies make their equipment able to be surveilled and even to install the surveillance equipment if asked by the NSA and never reveal its installation. The vast majority of network traffic into and out of South America and within South America itself comes through one switching station in a building in Miami, FL. Much of the traffic in the world in fact comes through the United States including some intra-African traffic.

The British intelligence agency similar to NASA advertises for new employees inside computer games like Tom Clancy's splinter cell double agent. To get computer savvy recruits.

President Bush authorized a to set up a nationwide surveillance system in Mexico similar to that in the United States where all electronic communications are vacuumed up and delivered to the Mexican government. Part of the contract was that this information would also be made available to the American government including calls to and from American citizens. This would be one way of the American government to do illegal surveillance on American citizens.

In a country like Mexico with a long history of government abuse, torture and political imprisonments etc. this type of facilitating by the US would seem to aid those types of activities. Mexico had been doing this type of electronic surveillance previously and was caught and there was a uproar in the country about it. The US government’s response was to offer them a complete system similar to the one in the US which would monitor every call, every electronic message in a secure, secretive way.

While there is security and supervision for government employees involved in government surveillance there is little oversight in the private companies they hire to subcontract. Of concern is that a lot of this surveillance equipment that is hardwired into the American electronic surveillance networks is tied to companies closely tied to Israeli intelligence services, for instance Per Se is an Israeli company that has voice recognition equipment that is used widely and the former Shin Bet director sits on its board. The company that provides the intercept device that does data mining in the US and most of the world is made and installed by Narus an Israeli firm headed by former Israeli intelligence officers. The co-owners of this company were arrested for embezzling millions of dollars from their shareholders. That the entire electronic communications in the United States was funneled through hardware that was owned by a private company with corrupt owners who had close ties with a foreign espionage agency shows how vulnerable this system is.

Also this equipment has been sold and installed throughout the world's most repressive regimes to search web traffic and also to search the Internet so that regimes such as in Egypt, Vietnam and China install Narus equipment throughout their electronic communications infrastructure so they can zero in on particular words in communications.

In 1975 when word of the NSA wiretapping became known Bella Abzug called hearings to investigate NSA and the telephone companies that cooperated with it. The government officials refused to testify and so Abzug turned and issued subpoenas to the telephone and Internet companies. In an unprecedented expansion of presidential power and at the urging of Cheney and Rumsfeld Bush called for extended the concept of executive privilege to private companies by insisting that the executives for reasons of national security should not testify.

The also the author describes a new system being worked on: point. It can analyze huge amounts of data and come up with answers to questions that can analyze all the information electronic information about individuals from electronic location software, purchases, EZPass data, web pages, and the information on Facebook and MySpace. It is thought that this will eventually allow not only knowing what a person does but how they think. Some people working on this system have quit believing that it is too intrusive to be developed and used by a secretive system like the NSA. The essay is essentially trying to build the Hal 9000 from 2001 space Odyssey.

Such a system loaded with newspaper information periodicals and huge amount of huge amounts of personal information sucked up by the NSA could eventually lead to a computer who could identify which people would most likely be opposed to a government project or might be most likely to join or support a certain group.
I seems that almost everything that you (and most people around the world) do electronically is collected by the NSA and its’ collection ability is only getting better.

Profile Image for Ryan.
1,155 reviews150 followers
June 10, 2019
A great account of the NSA (and the overall technical signals surveillance ecosystem, including other agencies and private companies). The one big missing area was TAO and some of the offensive cyber private contractors (covered somewhat, but not in depth).

By far the best is the account of the 9/11 hijacking, the NSA/CIA/FBI role in collecting and fucking that up, and then pushing for broad powers in response to their own failures, when extant law and systems would have been fine if properly applied at the time.

Michael Hayden comes off as possibly the worst possible NSA Director — he was too cautious in applying powers, due to legitimate fear of the Church committee and backlash against spying, but in being overly cautious he actually approved programs which were both less effective and more invasive (trailblazer vs thinthread). I wouldn’t judge anyone harshly for merely selecting a different point on the privacy/security efficient frontier, and sliding to the security side after 9/11, but he consistently picked choices far off the frontier. And after 9/11 they clearly overcorrected and went way overboard on claiming authority to do things (without legislative or judicial approval) for Cheney-driven reasons about asserting executive power, too, even when explicit authorization by Congress would have been both better and easier.

Also amazing the degree to which bureaucracy, politics, and just general incompetence limited access to collections (and resulting product) in places like Baghdad.

(One book I’d love to read is an account of Special Collection Service and NSA field ops, along with ISA/Orange, but that book probably would never be written.)
Profile Image for Kirk Lowery.
213 reviews32 followers
August 3, 2013
Bamford has made a career of writing about the NSA. In this volume he recounts the events of 9/11 from the NSA's viewpoint, showing how they screwed up, refused to acknowledge it, and proceeded to ask for -- and get, tons of money to increase their surveillance capabilities. As he tells it, with the cooperation of the telcoms, the NSA now simply copies the Internet globally and mines the data. And who are the corporations who help it? Israeli companies founded by and staffed by former Israeli intelligence operatives or administrators.

Recent events about Snowden's revelations are old news in light of this 2008 book. What is clear is that the NSA is out of control, and the federal government does not want the NSA to be reigned in. Let's hope Congress will.
Profile Image for Melinda.
1,866 reviews18 followers
April 22, 2018
This was a fascinating read.

There are two parts to this book really - Part One started off giving the back story to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with a play by play of how the NSA, CIA and FBI did their thing (or not, as the case may be!), basically explaining where each of these organisations fits into the intelligence-gathering world. And wow - what a lot of mishandling, ego-driven, counter-terrorist type organisations there are. And sadly, early on in the peace, there was not too much communication between them

Part Two of the book focussed more on the aftermath of 9/11 and beyond, how the organisations have changed and restructured in the light of all this new technology and the challenges they face - trying to balance finding out info and a persons right to privacy.

Really well-researched, well -written, well presented. An interesting read that is very informative.
Profile Image for Drew.
604 reviews27 followers
October 17, 2012
James Bamford writes a good book on the National Security Agency in the post-9/11 era. This is a good follow up to his groundbreaking work, The Puzzle Palace (1982). It's a quick read as long as you've been following real news over the last ten years (i.e. not watching Faux News) and are either familiar with or don't care about some of the multitude of details about communication systems that Bamford describes. At times it feels like he weaves his story throughout a large encyclopedia on the intelligence community. The core of the book is very short but having it all in one place makes this a useful reference.

I wish Bamford had explored more deeply a few of the outcomes of the NSA's programs post-9/11. For example, he doesn't delve into the correlation between the Republican Congress's push to outsource NSA's work to private industry and their ideological axiom that "Gubment bad, m'okay." Further, he could have explored the election outcome possibilities of the New York Times holding off on their story in 2004 about NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Had they not held off until the following year, their story would likely have been a huge splash heading into the Fall and could have prevented Bush from getting a second term.

The book could have done with a little more editing. Bamford would mention one thing and then repeat it almost verbatim within the next paragraph or two. There were also some stories he gave that weren't related to his central thesis and could have been expunged without losing his focus nor the strength of his argument.

For me, there are a few important things to take away from this book. First, laws and safeguards are only good if they are enforceable and there is accountability. Laws against spying and communications snooping have been on the books, in some format or another, since the beginning of radio and radio interception. Every time, these laws are broken and those who break them are caught. The public gasps and is horrified that it happened, introduces new laws or penalties and then blindly believes all is well … until the next instance. NSA Director Hayden, Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft at the beginning, Gonzales, Yoo, Addington, etc. all knew the law, all circumvented the law and all got off scot free due to back room deals, fear mongering and the need to "keep things secret."

Second, Bamford cites various people who felt their conscience wouldn't allow them to continue doing their jobs due to their actions being illegal and/or unethical. Some leave, some leave after a long period, and some just sit back and brood internally while helping the cogs of the system grind along. Others are browbeaten by colleagues and superiors to "just do it" or fear mongered into committing acts that go against their values, and sometimes against the laws and the Constitution. We need to encourage people to stand up for their beliefs and our laws.

Third, President Eisenhower's retirement warning to beware the military industrial complex is still true today, especially with regard to the bed occupied by the NSA and their contractors. Senior executives at NSA, including former directors, leave government service and sit on the boards or become executives at private companies. These companies then get very profitable contracts. It seems there should be some effort made to prevent the appearance, or actuality, of collusion and bringing in the bucks because of who you know. And like with other public/private partnerships, it's sad to see all the public funds being used to create technology that is then resold to others with the profits going to the companies, not the government or taxpayers.

A seemingly endless bucket of money is poured into a black hole without questioning what is being done with the money and if we are getting our money's worth. In a post-9/11 world, greed is good and profitable for security contractors. Worse, some of these contractors sell their goods and services to other countries, friend and foe, to help monitor and in some cases, control and suppress their own populace. Bamford writes that "for the companies, marketing mass interception systems to dictatorships and authoritarian governments to enhance their police states and to jail opponents is just business" (p. 261). He quotes Steve Bannerman, a VP of marketing at Naros (one of these companies): "Once our customers buy our products, it's relatively opaque to us" (p. 261). Looking the other way, especially in these types of instances, is simply unacceptable. Today's Stasi are wearing red, white and blue and munching on Mom's apple pie.

Finally, I'd like to ask who will be our age's Senator Frank Church? I hope she or he comes to the fore soon. Bamford connects the dots and shows us where some of the graves are. In some of those graves are our privacy and transparency in what occurs behind NSA's doors. Spy agencies and their contractors get total privacy while the general population, who are supposed to be receiving the protection of these groups, are left with nothing but their lives recorded in databases and analyzed by supercomputers.
Profile Image for Terry.
487 reviews15 followers
July 13, 2012
The Shadow Factory follows the history of the NSA to about 2007 through its shift from Cold War tradecraft and basic crypto to being a data-vacuuming giant. The author seems to have a certain respect for the job the NSA does and heavily criticizes its roll as a political pawn to the expansionist view of presidential power pushed by Dick Chaney and George W. Bush. The book is an easy to follow narrative and is broken up into chunks based in the missions of the NSA interspersed with history. As a bonus, the book includes a detailed run-down of the events leading up to the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the intelligence failures that allowed them. The book could have been better, but it's concise and covers say 85% of what I wanted to know. That extra 15% probably would have doubled its size.

What It Does Well:
-The run up to 9-11 is amazing.
-The discussion of how hard it was for the NSA to pivot after the cold war is well explained.
-Technology is not the focus, but when it pops up, analogies help keep the book moving.
-Gives a good overview of the NSA and its known assets circa 2007.

What It Does Poorly:
-Not enough history. The question of where the NSA came from is only briefly addressed.
-Other failings. September 11th is gone over in detail. There have to have been other goofs or successes to talk about.
-Interaction with other governments is ignored. There are small bits about the NSA working with other intelligence agencies, but not much.
-Not enough analysis. I'd consider this more of a history than a politics book. The author adds little to what appear to be a list of facts.
288 reviews4 followers
September 1, 2011
First I'd like to thank Tom for turning me on to this book via goodreads (and you're welcome for getting you put on a watch list there, old buddy). This book is singularly unsettling. Whether you're upset about warrant wiretapping, or upset about outsourcing our electronic (warrantless) surveillance to foreign companies run by Israeli Unit 8200 alumni, or upset that the people in charge seem to be either asleep at the wheel or cravenly political, there is plenty to be unsettled about in this book. In fact, there isn't a lot of good news here. Not terribly uplifting. I'm conditioned to root for the former General Hayden as an Irish Northside boy who made it, but his decisions are transparently political to save his hide and seem to lack all conviction. Just learning the simple fact that both Rumsfeld and Cheney fought the same Executive Privilege fight for the White House and NSA DURING THE FORD ADMINISTRATION would have made this book worth reading. Bamford writes a sweeping narrative that encompasses the time before 9/11 until 2008. Every American should read this book before they vote again.
Profile Image for Ryan.
11 reviews
February 13, 2010
Mildly interesting and predictably highly biased. The problem with books like this one and "Legacy of Ashes" is that little or no mention is given of the successes of our nation's intelligence community, most likely because none of us will likely know when an attack could have happened. Regardless, the author drops all pretense of neutrality early in the book. He frequently sympathizes with the "frustration" of the 9/11 hijackers while simultaneously condemning Jewish/Israeli involvement in contract work with the NSA. The mind-numbing techical detail aside, the book was not enjoyable simply because of the author's obvious agenda.
Profile Image for Drew Thompson.
7 reviews
August 12, 2013
I read this book back in '10 and pretty much forgot about it until the other day when something about Edward Snoden caught my eye. The author of this book laid out in remarkable detail how (thanks to the Patriot Act) our government is collecting and mining every bit of web based and cel phone data generated here in the US and some places over seas. That being said, I don't understand how Snowdens revelation is news ... This info has been out there in the public forum for years. Anyway, its a good and interesting read.
Profile Image for Joel.
103 reviews5 followers
October 22, 2015
This is a fantastic book with lots of details on the NSA's unconstitutional domestic spying program.

As I read this book, I had to keep reminding myself that it was published 5 years before Ed Snowden's disclosures. Reading this book filled in a lot of details I didn't know before. It also does a good job at laying out how the terrorist attacks of September 11th should have been prevented using existing surveillance capabilities.
Profile Image for Karl.
177 reviews6 followers
March 30, 2023
In-depth journalistic account of the US National Security Agency just before, and after, the September 11th 2001 terror attacks. Bamford relies heavily on interviews, available documents, and new reports to construct a disturbing picture of an agency lurching from crisis to crisis. Another theme of the book is how out-of-sight NSA activities are, not just to the public, but from elected officials and the courts. In the years leading up to 9-11, Bamford argues the NSA was hampered less by the legal constraints of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) but by inter-agency mistrust and a lack of communication between different parts of the intelligence community. After 9-11, the NSA lurched into a mass surveillance system, operating outside the law and devising whatever legal doctrines were needed to justify data collection on a terrifying scale. Bamford seems to put a lot of the blame on the director of the NSA during those years, Michael Hayden, but Vice President Dick Chaney is also singled out for considerable criticism.

Some of the technical information about electronic surveillance and the role of private businesses does get tedious at times, and may even be somewhat dated (the book is from 2008). Banford's analysis of the administration of NSA (and its British counterpart, the GCHQ), along with descriptions of the various headquarters and offices of the agencies are also excessively detailed. Overall however, this is an excellent and highly readable account of an important government activity. It is an activity that is essential for national security; the intelligence failures before 9-11 prove that. However, Bamford also effectively argues that unlimited government surveillance is a real hazard to the very democracy it aims to protect.
Profile Image for Dennis.
126 reviews2 followers
May 11, 2019
While the book was copyright in 2008 so it does not deal with the present day NSA, I'm betting not a great deal has changed. That is, they have been in the business of sweeping up all forms of communications and installing faster and faster (primarily Cray) computers to digest that which they capture. Are just those suspected of communicating with terrorists, or terrorists themselves the only ones under surveillance, or are innocent citizens included. The latter were as the author documents in the period following 9/11. It was 9/11 that caused the NSA to ramp up its activities under LT GEN Hayden.
The author really "gets into the weeds" at times. I found it best to read the book to get the gist of the subject matter and not get bogged down in the details. It is a book worth reading even though it is historical in nature. It gives the reader great insight into what our government felt it needed to do to fight terrorism through interception of communications using companies such as AT&T and thousands of contractors. There is a warning at the very end of the book that puts what was done and is being done into perspective.
14 reviews
August 8, 2017
It took me about 4 months to finish this book because I kept getting so upset after every page. The book describes how the lunacy of a powerful few combined with excessive fearmongering rhetoric can co-opt a lawful system. (Don't like the rules? Ignore them. And if you get caught, rewrite them!) I love this book because of all the details it reveals, but I feel like it only tells half the story (how we got here) and is missing what is happening (or can be done) to combat this monstrous invasion of privacy. Or maybe nothing is happening there, at least with regard to the people and companies that set this all up.
Profile Image for Barb Schmidt.
66 reviews1 follower
April 20, 2021
Could 9/11 been avoided? The author seems to think so, and after reading his account of what went on in the NSA up till that date, I think so. The footnotes and bibliography are daunting but how he came by all his information and timeline is amazing. The book is very compelling up till the actual day but after that, it’s deadly dull. I admit to scanning the rest. Suffice it to say we are none of us exempt from the scrutiny of our government. Whether or not it actually happens is anyone’s guess and in my case, it can’t be anything but boring.
Profile Image for Qardnall.
7 reviews
December 30, 2019
Published a full 5 years before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on mass spying of Americans by its own government, James Bamford lets us peek behind that curtain just a bit early, detailing the NSA practices before, during, and in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. It serves today as an insightful historical document for the birth of the data collection era we live in today and the mechanisms that facilitate it
324 reviews3 followers
November 4, 2017
Gave up on this. Didn't finish. Recommended to me by my husband. Dry, and most of it I already new. Is it surprising to any one that we are collecting tons of data on people, from buying habits, medical records, phone or internet usage, that we have no idea how to sift thru? Finding the needle in the haystack has always been difficult. Look at what the Brits did in WWII to crack enigma. At least they were successful.
25 reviews
August 9, 2018
Thoroughly researched and meticulously footnoted, the third of James Bamford’s NSA trilogy is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the mindless clusterfuck that is America’s intelligence industry. These are criminal agencies aided and abetted by a craven, mindlessly incompetent government no matter which party rules the roost.
Profile Image for Bill White.
73 reviews4 followers
March 19, 2020
The scary part of this story is that this is just scratching the surface of what we may never know. Still, the author tells a tale plenty scary enough. The book is over tens years old now. The past 12 years must have manifested an ever more complex collection of analysis automation techniques. Worth a read.
27 reviews
October 20, 2021
It is a good telling of the NSA's charted progress since 9/11, but seems to be a kitchen-sink approach. Probably more me than the author, but I think an editor could have trimmed this to a more compact form. Instead we get all sorts of detail, that while fascinating in some rights, just ends up piling up after a while.
I preferred the Puzzle Palace.
Profile Image for Tim.
123 reviews2 followers
July 2, 2017
Ever see "Enemy of State" with Will Smith? This book paint the picture that thing are both not nearly as bad and worse in some ways. A bit dry with many details, but that seems to be the nature of the topic.
August 22, 2018
Not the easiest read, but an eye-opening look at the deep underworld of the 3-letter agencies, specifically this one, and its recent history. Will probably make you seek out a VPN on your devices going forward.
Profile Image for John Autero.
Author 4 books36 followers
April 14, 2019
This is 'scary' good stuff. Who knew the NSA was watching everything we do and every breath we take. And the idea of storing every email, phone call and text is mind blowing. I can't get enough of this stuff. It's like the X-Files on steroids.
Profile Image for Ian Lee.
35 reviews
November 17, 2019
3.5 stars.

Lots of descriptions in this book with extraordinary detail. That said I feel like it was more a collection of statements without really pulling all together in a particularly compelling story to actually say anything.
50 reviews
April 12, 2020
Slow start, strong finish

Learned a lot about the threat to our personal freedoms. The power of the government is almost endless. It seems like the best approach is to bury them in information so it makes it hard to find stuff.
Profile Image for Carter.
597 reviews
August 15, 2020
This book is well written and has some interesting stories about events and programs related to the NSA. However it's lacking in detail about how these programs work and how what they are in simple layman's terms.
Profile Image for Joe.
26 reviews
November 20, 2020
Out of the 345 pages, I really enjoyed about 325 pages. Alot of good information and whose who in the intelligence field. It would be great for Mr Bamford would do a update or annex to this book. Spot on!
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