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Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  1,617 ratings  ·  103 reviews
The National Security Agency is the world’s most powerful, most far-reaching espionage. Now with a new afterword describing the security lapses that preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001, Body of Secrets takes us to the inner sanctum of America’s spy world. In the follow-up to his bestselling Puzzle Palace, James Banford reveals the NSA’s hidden role in the most volat ...more
Paperback, 784 pages
Published April 28th 2002 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2001)
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James Bray
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a very accurately and intensely researched well-written book. It is probably more interesting to me personally as I served in the ASA (Army Security Agency) which manned field listening stations for the NSA. I've read this book twice and learned almost everything about what we were doing and why from reading it; we never discussed anything even between ourselves about work, and even then we only knew the mechanics of the particular equipment we worked with and virtually nothing about wha ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Nov 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017, history
Body of Secrets is a fascinating history of the Cold War as viewed through the lens of cryptography, as well as a time capsule of the foremost US intelligence agency in a pre-9/11 mindset.

As any decent history of World War 2 notes, codebreaking played a key role in winning that war. As the battlelines of the Cold War firmed up along the Iron Curtain, the frontiers of space and science, and brushfire wars across the third world, the National Security Agency formed to manage a secret army of crypt
Dec 10, 2008 rated it liked it
Took me a while to get through the book. The subject is fascinating but occasionally the details are only tangentially related. I enjoyed reading it and there are a lot of good stories in there, perhaps if some of the fat was trimmed and the stories organized a little better.

One especially interesting/disturbing section of the book described how the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted an excuse to invade Cuba. So they presented a plan to President Kennedy to stage terrorist attacks in the US and blame
George K. Ilsley
Apr 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
A long, detailed book, updated in 2002 to include some perspective on the 9/11 attacks.

I can remember when the NSA was a mere rumour— and jokingly referred to as No Such Agency.

Now it is well known to exist, although perhaps most of us really have no idea what they do.

This book provides a wealth of detail and background, although 2002 already seems like a very long time ago (especially in terms of technology).
Sam-Omar Hall
Mar 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
No-nonsense, fact-filled, fascinating history of the NSA.

What is the NSA? The agency that's been reading the world's mail, so to speak, for decades.

Bamford got amazing access. This book is now a decade or more old, but still an amazing and important read.

Along with Weiner's history of the CIA and Scahill's Dirty Wars, this is essential reading on the U.S.A.'s secret infrastructure - much of which faces little or no oversight while spending billions and billions of dollars.
Interesting, but politically slanted at times

This is a highly technical, dense history of the NSA through the end of 2001. However, Bamford spends too much time getting in digs against people and policies he disagrees with. For instance, the postscript after 9/11 talks about how NSA wastes too much money and effort in eavesdropping on China. However, China's been a hostile power engaging in trade espionage against the US for decades.
Bryan Whitehead
Apr 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2003
James Bamford spills the beans (or at least some of the beans) about the agency that’s arguably the most secretive in the entire U.S. government: the NSA. Or at least if there’s any agency that more closely guards its activities, it’s so good at hiding itself that nobody knows about it. Each individual section of Bamford’s tome is crammed with fascinating detail about various episodes in the NSA’s history and/or aspects of its current operation. However, I should probably voice my objection to t ...more
Tech Historian
Dec 31, 2017 rated it liked it
Two very separate books.

The problem in reviewing this book is that it really is two separate books. The first, written by James Bamford, consummate investigative reporter tells a wonderful tale of technological daring as he colorfully recounts the history of the NSA with wit, verve and dispassion. Having worked in the black world it's great to see even 1000th of what we did make it into print, however garbled the telling might be.

The second book, written by James Bamford, author with an axe to g
Apr 12, 2018 rated it did not like it
Lies, innuendo, rumor, speculation.
The book started well and sounded good until more and more speculation and opinion started working its way into the history. When the author started reporting as fact things that I know from my own research are purely fictional.
It's a good story and I'm sure there are some great facts and real research, but too much opinion in the guise of information makes it eye-roll worthy. If you're looking for a straight and narrow story about the history of the NSA, you
Jan 23, 2021 rated it it was ok
Overly long 'history' of the NSA utilizing chronological vignettes to tell the agency's story. The author largely sticks to incidents of controversy or US government misdeeds/incompetence for each vignette. Not a particularly holistic or thorough accounting of the NSA, devoid of context, and prone to reducing complex people to caricatures I would not recommend this book as an introduction to the NSA, SIGINT, or national security.

The author does write well, does his best to make the vignettes com
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
The beginning of the book was entertaining and told some stories I hadn't heard before. However, I came to realize this book is so politically biased that I stopped reading it. The bias casts doubt on the credibility of the whole work for me. Content is not cited, making it difficult to fact check. The author makes many statements about what people were thinking and the motivation for their actions without supporting the claims. Had to stop reading it 10% of the way through. Perhaps the rest of ...more
Jun 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A well written, authentic and carefully researched book on the inner workings of the mysterious and protected workings of the National Security Agency (NSA), probably the most secretive and hidden government organization. So secretive that some jokingly refer to NSA as "no such agency."

Its interesting to note that NSA hires more mathematicians and linguists than other organizations, probably in the world, surely in the USA.

Jun 06, 2021 rated it liked it
Quite dated, as it was written in 2002, and it shows in many of the references. However, a great in-depth survey of a super secret organization. It is much more detailed in its discussion of NSA’s history and inner details than I would have anticipated; the history part is quite thin in terms of congruence (but I’m sure for obvious reasons). Very long, very detailed, and interesting to get a peek inside how NSA operates.
Michael  Gajda
Dec 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A thick and thorough biography and history of the NSA. There's so much info packed into this tome. And the history and weirdness of it is scary and entertaining at the same time. They were able to listen to the other side of the world in the 60's. Guess what they can do now. And did you know that they have their own secret city...with all the problems and benefits of any other city. ...more
Pieter Cramerus
Feb 24, 2020 marked it as to-read
I read Bamford's first book on NSA in 1982, shortly after it was published, and it was excellent. Bamford knows how to pique your interest, as if you were peeking under the covers at some of the US' closely guarded secrets. I have just scanned a bit of this one, but it looks like another good one, assuming you have an interest in the arcane ways of the NSA. ...more
Aug 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: sue-s-past-reads
I enjoy this author. An interesting look inside the NSA. No matter how you feel about the organization, its comforting to know there are a lot of someone's behind the scenes keeping the country safe. It can go very wrong if individuals and the representatives WE elect don't keep tabs. ...more
Jan 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A Very Interesting Read

If you are interested in national security, then you should read this book. You will learn from it a great deal about the importance of communication security defensive and offensive
Tim Dodd
Jul 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly researched and meticulously sourced. Want to know what really happened during some of the pivotal events of the past 80 years? This book is essential reading.
Dec 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
An uncomfortably thorough account of the inner workings of NSA, the most secret federal organization of the United States.
Dale Matt
Mar 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Not bad. Seems fairly comprehensive and credetiable.
Steffanie Barger
Feb 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Found myself taking notes and staying up late rereading chapters, loved.
Jan 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
After reading "The Puzzle Palace," James Bamford's opus about the NSA (National Security Agency), I thought I would never find anything to compare to it...until I came across "Body of Secrets." Not unexpectedly, it is also by James Bamford, who seems to have carved out his own little niche in chronicling the life and times of America's super-secret electronic spy agency.

In examining all the facets, all the nooks and crannies, even the obscure and well-hidden ones, Bamford approached the Agency a
Eugene Miya
Jan 17, 2013 rated it liked it
Possibly the best an outsider could do (if behind the times).

Ages ago, when I was a kid, I read David Kahn's Codebreakers. And there was this photo of an elongated A-shaped building and one chapter. Haven't been inside, but have visited the bldgs next to it. Then Jim Bamford writes The Puzzle Palace which is set before 1980 (I can easily tell), and he tries to describes an organization he can't get inside. I was able to take a photo of both just a couple years ago at an NSA history meeting.

Of th
Greg Brown
Jun 28, 2009 rated it liked it
This was a frustrating book to read at times! Body of Secrets is a strangely two-tone book: the first 60% or so is historical, covering the National Security Agency's involvement in conflicts past. The last 40%, on the other hand, mostly covers the current-day (~2001) agency.

This is partially a practical melding—Bamford wanted to update his picture of the agency due to the long time since he published The Puzzle Palace, the first significant look at the NSA published in 1982—but it means the boo
Aug 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: The "almost" real NSA
Now more than ever this book is appropriate. Before you pass any judgement reading about NSA in the papers or watch some crappy CNN expose, you need to read this book first.

I gave a review on "The Puzzle Palace." If you liked that book a lot, then it is doubtful you will like this one. But if you that "Palace" was far to tabloid-ish in its reporting of NSA and the facts just a bit too slippery then you will probably enjoy "Body of Secrets."

I am more of a history buff. And I like reading about
Kirk Lowery
Jul 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Be prepared to keep track an incredible array of organization names; the NSA is the archtypical bureaucratic labyrinth. The author relates the history of the NSA from its origins in the 1930s up to 2001 (the book clearly was written and published before 9/11. Now there's a tale I'd like to hear!). Startling revelations: the US communications security during the Vietnam war was completely compromised and made, for example, the bombings by B52s ineffective. The Israeli attack on the NSA intercept ...more
Jan 17, 2008 rated it did not like it
Shelves: political
I had high hopes for this book, due to the uber-interesting subject matter (the NSA) and my interest in security, crypto, government secrecy, etc.

Too damn bad for me. This is one of the most poorly written, poorly edited books I've ever read. Bamford writes comically bad prose; he seems to think wandering off topic is a literary device because he does it chronically and deliberately. His analogies are off the mark almost without exception. A mild example (paraphrasing): "The Internet wraps the
Aug 24, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Given the time and political climate during which I read this, it'd be easy to understand why I picked it up. But it wouldn't be accurate. I read this because it had a detailed description of Operation Northwoods. You'll have to look it up. No spoilers here.
The first two thirds of the book are really good. There's a lot of great detail concerning the birth and evolution of the NSA, with plenty of entertaining and troubling stories. I came away having learned a lot of new things, and that's alwa
Dec 02, 2007 rated it really liked it
An illuminating look behind the curtain at an agency that was unknown for so long. Bamford's history of the NSA reveals so many AMAZING secrets that were classified until shortly before his book was published:
- Eisenhower frequently sent fighter/bomber formations into Soviet airspace to see how far they could get before being detected, and how quickly the Soviet air defenses could react. This provocative action led to aircraft being shot down on several occasions before they could get out of So
Mar 22, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: most-memorable

I picked up this book from my bookshelf after having left it aside for ten years. The result for me was that the first three quarters of the book -- the history of the NSA until the early 2000s -- were still fascinating. But the last quarter or so, describing the technology and the buildings contemporary to the writing of the book, was instantly less exciting because of how dated the information already is.

One writing tick annoyed me slightly: describing people in a few words that don't really c

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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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“Roosevelt fought hard for the United States to host the opening session [of the United Nations]; it seemed a magnanimous gesture to most of the delegates. But the real reason was to better enable the United States to eavesdrop on its guests. Coded messages between the foreign delegations and their distant capitals passed through U.S. telegraph lines in San Francisco. With wartime censorship laws still in effect, Western Union and the other commercial telegraph companies were required to pass on both coded and uncoded telegrams to U.S. Army codebreakers. Once the signals were captured, a specially designed time-delay device activated to allow recorders to be switched on. Devices were also developed to divert a single signal to several receivers. The intercepts were then forwarded to Arlington Hall, headquarters of the Army codebreakers, over forty-six special secure teletype lines. By the summer of 1945 the average number of daily messages had grown to 289,802, from only 46,865 in February 1943. The same soldiers who only a few weeks earlier had been deciphering German battle plans were now unraveling the codes and ciphers wound tightly around Argentine negotiating points.

During the San Francisco Conference, for example, American codebreakers were reading messages sent to and from the French delegation, which was using the Hagelin M-209, a complex six-wheel cipher machine broken by the Army Security Agency during the war. The decrypts revealed how desperate France had become to maintain its image as a major world power after the war. On April 29, for example, Fouques Duparc, the secretary general of the French delegation, complained in an encrypted note to General Charles de Gaulle in Paris that France was not chosen to be one of the "inviting powers" to the conference. "Our inclusion among the sponsoring powers," he wrote, "would have signified, in the eyes of all, our return to our traditional place in the world." In charge of the San Francisco eavesdropping and codebreaking operation was Lieutenant Colonel Frank B. Rowlett, the protégé of William F. Friedman. Rowlett was relieved when the conference finally ended, and he considered it a great success. "Pressure of work due to the San Francisco Conference has at last abated," he wrote, "and the 24-hour day has been shortened. The feeling in the Branch is that the success of the Conference may owe a great deal to its contribution."

The San Francisco Conference served as an important demonstration of the usefulness of peacetime signals intelligence. Impressive was not just the volume of messages intercepted but also the wide range of countries whose secrets could be read. Messages from Colombia provided details on quiet disagreements between Russia and its satellite nations as well as on "Russia's prejudice toward the Latin American countries." Spanish decrypts indicated that their diplomats in San Francisco were warned to oppose a number of Russian moves: "Red maneuver . . . must be stopped at once," said one. A Czechoslovakian message indicated that nation's opposition to the admission of Argentina to the UN.

From the very moment of its birth, the United Nations was a microcosm of East-West spying. Just as with the founding conference, the United States pushed hard to locate the organization on American soil, largely to accommodate the eavesdroppers and codebreakers of NSA and its predecessors.”
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