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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

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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 volatile world events of the past, and its desperate scramble to meet the frightening challenges of today and tomorrow.

Here is a scrupulously documented account—much of which is based on unprecedented access to previously undisclosed documents—of the agency’s tireless hunt for intelligence on enemies and allies alike. Body of secrets is a riveting analysis of this most clandestine of agencies, a major work of history and investigative journalism.

A New York Times Notable Book

784 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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About the author

James Bamford

29 books130 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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724 (42%)
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390 (22%)
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82 (4%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 109 reviews
Profile Image for James Bray.
1 review2 followers
May 30, 2013
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 what happened at higher levels. The NSA gets a bad rap in the movies alluding that it runs 'black ops' etc. but this is pure fiction. The NSA mission is entirely passive: signal interception and analysis. I think Bamford did a very good job of describing the organization and its history. There is also a NOVA documentary "The Spy Palace" that is heavily based on this book and it is excellent.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,507 reviews230 followers
April 11, 2019
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 cryptographers, linguists, and analysts, among more abstruse specializations. Bamford tells a thrilling story of very dangerous missions in the 50s and 60s, like penetration of Soviet air defense systems by RB-47 and U-2 spyplanes, along with spy ships like the USS Liberty and Pueblo, and outposts manned in the most unforgiving locations on Earth.

Bamford blends this tales with accounts of bureaucratic warfare for budgets, over secrets, and the covert power of the agency to listen in on the communications of Americans and nominal allies. A secret army is expensive, and even with its massive budget for technology and analysis, the NSA failed to provide the President with necessary analysis in time to forestall disaster, or to manage complex negotiations. Even in the 1980s, the NSA was listening in on every international phone call, with the FISA courts the only real protection of American communications. And morale and organization seems to be a recurring problem, with feuding deputy directors holding the real power below political appointees, and a human resource system that has trouble acquiring and holding onto the baroque specialists needed for the job.

Bamford keeps it breezy, talking about SIGINT and cryptography in layman friendly metaphors. And of course, this is a book before 9/11 changed the US intelligence community, and before the internet changed everything else. The leaks revealed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden show an agency more powerful than ever before, yet we seem at the mercy of botnets and lone wolves. Still, the Cold War history is solid, and includes original research revealing some of the tensest moments in that conflict. It's impossible not to be impressed by the NSA, but Bamford is not seduced by his subject, and offers a critical and nearly-objective review.
6 reviews
January 6, 2009
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 Cuba. This is no conspiracy theory and doesn't it sound similar to something that happened a few years back. Makes you think.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books237 followers
April 21, 2020
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).
Profile Image for Sam-Omar Hall.
82 reviews5 followers
March 30, 2016
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.
December 5, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Ralph.
Author 33 books72 followers
February 18, 2014
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 as if it were a living organism, which when you come to think of it is not that difficult a stretch...with computing power measured in terms of acres, it probably is only a matter of time before the NSA develops both sentience and self-awareness, as in "The Forbin Project" or television's "Person of Interest," and then wonders about all the parasitic creatures around it. In the chapter entitled "Memory," Bamford looks at the history of the agency, it re-invention after America too hastily dismantled its signal intelligence following the Great War. In other chapters, Bamford examines the Agency's sweat, nerves, fists, eyes, muscle, heart, soul, spine, etc., using incidents and personal histories to illustrate those aspects of the Agency that best be understood as being those anthropomorphic analogues.

The completeness of the book is demonstrated not just in the answers Bamford provided for the questions I held, but the very many number of times he answered questions I would have never thought to ask. As the NSA (though not yet known by that name) picked up the pieces left after WW1, helped to shorted WW2, and entered the fractal mirror house of the Cold War, the Agency leaves behind rather simplistic notions of good and evil, and begins reflecting the complexity of the world upon which it spied and the nation it was supposed to serve. If there is one important thing I learned from this book, it is that no matter how much the NSA seeks to cloak itself in secrecy, to insulate it and its staff from the morass of politics and cultural concerns, it will always reflect the concerns and fears and biases of the society that runs and maintains it, which, for me, certainly goes a long way toward explaining many of the NSA's problems.

The book carries the NSA to 2001, the first year of the 21st Century, and the final chapter ("Afterword") is devoted almost entirely to the events of September 11th. For me, it was the most difficult chapter to read, for time has done little to lessen the impact of that day on me. While some people seem to have followed the advice of CAIR operatives to "get over it," I find myself still haunted by the images I saw that Tuesday morning; the farther we get from September 11th, the closer most people seem to get to September 10th, but for me that day is, as the Doctor might say, a fixed point in time...it's always there. Yet, for all the emotion, stirred up by that last chapter, it was an important one in understanding the course of the Agency into the future. I suspect that Bamford, also, might have been touched by the events of that day, but perhaps in a different way, for there are times in the reportage when his mask seems to slip and we see something more (or less) than an astute journalist and analyst.

For those who have a cryptological bent, each chapter (except the last) begins with a block of code, such as Chapter 3, which contains the line: JFKH WRXSHN WRLFGJN USKH FXZHQNL EFI (IFYX) OZL NJYFI, ENXTNL. Like all other examples, these are taken from various issues of the NSA's newsletter, but reveal no national secrets. This one translates as: LAST MINUTE MIRACLE JUST ANOTHER DAY (YAWN) FOR ELWAY, DENVER. While they are fun to translate, there is always something of a let-down when the apparently exotic devolves into the mundane.

If you are truly interested in how the US gathers signal intelligence, how things stay secret (or don't), and all the triumphs and tragedies of the NSA and it many code-gnomes, then you have to get this book. Though it follows "The Puzzle Palace" in publication, it is a stand-alone book, but once you read it, you might be motivated to also read "The Puzzle Palace," as well as Bamford's third book, "The Shadow Factory."
66 reviews16 followers
December 31, 2017
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 grind and a point to make, is written in such a histrionic pitch that I thought there was going to be a punch line at the end of the chapter.

Other reviewers have noted these over-the-top attacks (in tone and temperament if not fact) on Israel's attack on the Liberty, but you can read the same venom in his distaste for Bobby Inman, President Eisenhower, and in other places in the book.

It's unfortunate because when we read the "good" James Bamford he's very, very good. But when we read the "bad" James Bamford he sounds like the host of a late night conspiracy radio station.

As Byron said "an author not only exposes his subject but his soul."
Profile Image for Bryan Whitehead.
455 reviews4 followers
April 23, 2020
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 the author’s sense of organization, or rather lack of same. The chapters follow no obvious pattern and occasionally skip around on topics. So in the end the work seems more like a collection of loosely related journalistic essays rather than a cohesive whole. However, I’m willing to let that slide because the quality of the research and writing alone makes this a worthwhile read.
206 reviews6 followers
April 12, 2018
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 won't get it here. Plodding in many places and racing off on completely unrelated tangents in others.
There's a full chapter on 9/11 with all the details (and some rumors and speculation as well as editorializing) that makes almost no sense in the book, just a reason to throw jabs at George W. Bush.

I wouldn't recommend it.
183 reviews
January 23, 2021
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 come alive, and has done his research. Generally the further back you go, the better the history. If you know a lot about the NSA it's a worthwhile addition. If you don't you're liable to finish the book with a poorer understanding of national security than you went in with - not for lack of facts, just lack of context.
154 reviews
March 29, 2018
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 the book is better.
4 reviews
June 5, 2018
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.

Profile Image for Eric.
93 reviews
June 6, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Mike Lisanke.
288 reviews13 followers
May 28, 2023
This is an interesting book. It's stories about the history of the NSA are entertaining and informative. The technical accuracy of the book is a bit suspect And the author makes a number of statements that had me (long term computer technologist) laughing (e.g. Y2K emergency). Also, the author is clearly a pro-NSA partisan (many of the stories defend the organization). All things given the book is well-worth reading!
Author 1 book16 followers
December 31, 2017
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.
47 reviews
Want to read
February 25, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Sue.
43 reviews
August 12, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Gregory.
49 reviews
January 24, 2020
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
Profile Image for Edvin.
22 reviews1 follower
June 9, 2022
Alt frem til delen om NSAs høyteknologiske løsninger anno 2001 er definitivt verdt å lese, det etter er ikke like spennende i dag som da boka ble utgitt. Spesielt delene om etteretningstjenesten og den amerikanske hæren under Vietnamkrigen, Cubakrisen og Koreakrigen er veldig spennende.
September 3, 2023
Great history of the NSA. For the most part the author leaves out their political views but he does seem to have to slide in his liberal view point. Overall great, detailed history of the NSA. really enjoyed the book.
26 reviews
July 6, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Scott D..
Author 2 books1 follower
December 4, 2019
An uncomfortably thorough account of the inner workings of NSA, the most secret federal organization of the United States.
Profile Image for Dave.
710 reviews7 followers
March 13, 2022
Interesting history of the agency and its series of directors. However the book's lengthy discussions of the technologies employed by the NSA are now out-of-date.
Profile Image for Hugh Mason.
Author 3 books4 followers
February 21, 2023
Thorough but lacks a narrative to hold a reader not already sucked in by the material and world covered
196 reviews7 followers
July 12, 2021
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 the various books Bamford has written, the idea of structuring a book based on systems of the human body is an interesting idea. I've read a number of the other reviews criticisms of this structure. But I seriously doubt that any single person can describe and identify the parts and functions (methods) even if the Director has to. The best quote in Body of Secrets comes from Tammy the editor of the NSA Newsletter in that it's a boring place.

I've seen the Turing Chapter sign Bamford mentions (we couldn't have been visiting at the same time could we?), and non-NSA friends are quoted (I know where these quotes came from). But NSA is probably far from the most secret government agency (I don't have a clearance), but what does the reader know of the NRO? It wasn't even declassified until the mid-90s.

The NSA places a emphasis on computers (and are more important to the history and development of computers more than most people realize). Jim gets invited back to NSA to give its employees a sense of continuity. And Bamford is the best guy to do this? Go figure. So be satisfied with this book. I think his subsequent ones haven't put the pieces together just yet.

A friend who used to work at the Fort thinks a Discovery channel program is also good pre-9/11.
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