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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


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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Back in 1982 James Bamford published THE PUZZLE PALACE, the first
book-length study of the National Security Agency, the U. S.
Government's mammoth but super-secretive agency devoted to
electronic eavesdropping on the rest of the world. That book caused
some sharp tremors in military and government circles.

Now Bamford is back with an updated and much more exhaustive study
of the same subject. BODY OF SECRETS is detailed history,
description, critical assessment, editorial comment, and character
study all rolled into one massively researched volume. It should
cause an earthquake or two.

The most controversial aspect of Bamford's study doubtless will be
his detailed description and analyses of various crises in which
NSA electronic eavesdroppers played a part: The U-2 affair of 1960,
the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis,
the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin crisis, the attack on the U. S. S.
off Israel in 1967, the Pueblo incident off
China in 1968, the Vietnam War, and last year's sinking of the
Russian submarine Kursk. In each case, NSA ears were

Bamford concludes, for instance, that some in the very highest
American military ranks wanted to provoke a full-scale war with
Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs, that President Eisenhower's
deep involvement in the U-2 flight was covered up by his aides on
his personal orders, that the attack on the Liberty was
certainly no "accident" (as the Israeli government claimed), and
that the Gulf of Tonkin incident may well have been fabricated as a
means of drawing the U. S. into the Vietnam war. All these things
have been rumored for years, but Bamford draws upon all sorts of
official sources to nail them down.

His account of the attack on the Liberty, in which 34
Americans were killed, is particularly harrowing. He proposes that
the Israelis attacked the ship because they suspected it had
monitored evidence of atrocities their army was committing on shore
against Palestinian prisoners of war.

Bamford's harshest criticism is directed at high U. S. military
officers, up to and including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom he
sees as constituting a cabal of far-right wing hawks impatient with
civilian oversight of their warlike schemes and anxious to set the
guns roaring even if it meant fabricating evidence, disregarding
the law and sending Americans to certain death. During the Gulf of
Tonkin affair, he charges, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had become "a
sewer of deceit." Strong language indeed.

Another proposal Bamford mentions involved astronaut John Glenn's
orbital flight in 1962. If his rocket should explode and Glenn be
killed, it was suggested, Cuba should be blamed, evidence should be
manufactured to back up the claim, and a full-scale war launched.
Fortunately, Glenn's flight went off without mishap, but the very
idea is certainly chilling.

Other sections of this exhaustive book, though perhaps just as
important, are less compelling. Bamford has done enormous research
and seems determined to leave out none of it. He goes into
staggeringly minute detail, and his prose sometimes becomes a
clotted alphabet soup of military acronyms, government jargon,
codenames, and spookspeak. He describes NSA's "secret city" outside
Washington, DC in numbing detail, virtually room by room. The
military and civilian leaders who have run the agency since it was
created in 1952 are characterized in detail --- but some of them
are decidedly more interesting than others. NSA's budget troubles
are analyzed minutely, and there are lengthy investigative reports
into some of the arcane equipment the agency has used through the

Bamford is rightly concerned about the possibility that NSA's
fearsome secret powers could be turned toward, and perhaps against,
American citizens. This has almost happened once or twice, notably
during the Nixon administration, he says. But the impact of his
warning is blunted by the sheer mass of technical detail in which
it is imbedded.

Elsewhere Bamford's style is almost novelistic, giving the book as
a whole the air of an uneasy combination of spy thriller and dry
governmental reportage. He concludes that today the NSA, hit by
budget cuts, may be drowning in a massive volume of intercepted
communications from all over the world coupled with a lack of
trained personnel to interpret them.

This is an important and unsettling book --- keep in mind, though,
it is not easy reading for the bedside table.

Reviewed by Robert Finn ( on January 21, 2011

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-secret National Security Agency From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century
by James Bamford

  • Publication Date: April 30, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385499086
  • ISBN-13: 9780385499088