The Puzzle Palace: A Report on N.S.A., America’s Most Secret Agency, James Bamford, 1 August 1982

The Puzzle Palace: A Report on N.S.A., America’s Most Secret Agency, James Bamford, 1982

Philip Taubman’s review of The Puzzle Palace in The New York Times, 19 September 1982: FIFTY-THREE years ago [1929], in the early months of Herbert Hoover’s Administration, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson was presented with a small batch of Japanese telegrams that had been deciphered by a highly secret American code-breaking organization known as the Black Chamber. Appalled at the invasion of another nation’s private communications, Stimson immediately cut off funding to the cryptologists with the admonition ”Gentleman do not read each other’s mail.” It was not one of the more pre-scient decisions in American history. Driven by the exigencies of World War II and then the Cold War and drawing on advances in computers and electronics, in 1952 the Government created a new version of the Black Chamber – the National Security Agency, which is the largest, most sensitive and potentially most intrusive American intelligence agency.

With acres of computers, electronic listening posts located around the world and a fleet of spy satellites circling overhead, the N.S.A. can eavesdrop on communications of friends and enemies, including American citizens. News of an invasion, an assassination or a coup overseas can be flashed from the point of interception to the President’s desk within minutes. The latest performance data from Soviet missile tests can be recorded and analyzed, providing the main means of verifying Soviet compliance with strategic arms limitation agreements. Even the radiophone conversations of top Soviet officials riding to the Kremlin in their limousines has been snatched out of the atmosphere by the N.S.A. In code breaking and making, the fundamental function of the agency, the work of the Black Chamber has long since given way to enormously complex mathematical puzzles that are the province of powerful computers. With an annual budget in excess of $2 billion and more than 60,000 employees, the N.S.A. easily eclipses other intelligence organizations in size, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

Despite its size and significance, the N.S.A. has operated in almost absolute secrecy. For years its very existence was considered secret, and the seven-page memorandum signed by President Truman in 1952 that created the agency by consolidating various Defense Department offices is still classified. James Bamford, a Massachusetts writer who has a law degree and who specializes in investigative research, rips away the secrecy with this book. There have been glimpses inside the N.S.A. before, but until now no one has published a comprehensive and detailed report on the agency. The quality and depth of Mr. Bamford’s research are remarkable. Through interviews with former N.S.A. officials, scrutiny of thousands of obscure public documents and aggressive use of the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Bamford has emerged with everything except the combination to the director’s safe. In some sections it appears that he may even have that….

Intelligence officials have been dreading publication of this book, and they made a concerted effort to limit Mr. Bamford’s research. The Justice Department, at the insistence of the N.S.A., even took the highly unusual step of asking Mr. Bamford to return documents about the agency that Justice itself had released to him. They dealt with a 1975-76 investigation of widespread illegal monitoring of domestic communications by the N.S.A. Mr. Bamford refused to return the papers….

The catalyst for the Justice Department investigation was a series of disclosures in the 1970’s in the press and in testimony before Congressional committees about questionable N.S.A. operations. These revelations included the fact that the Nixon Administration had used the N.S.A. to monitor the activities of antiwar leaders and radicals, including the Weathermen. In one memorable case the Government abruptly dropped criminal charges in Detroit against a group of Weathermen rather than risk exposure of the N.S.A.’s involvement in monitoring their communications….

As Mr. Bamford makes clear, the N.S.A. and its predecessor agencies often operated outside the Constitution and the law by intercepting certain kinds of domestic communications. From 1919, when Black Chamber officials arranged for Western Union to violate the law by providing them copies of telegrams, to the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the N.S.A.’s technology was used to spy on antiwar protesters, intelligence officials frequently displayed a startling insensitivity to the law….

The law has not kept up with communications technology and the technology of spying. ”Where America’s chief source of raw intelligence was the clandestine agent with his or her Minox camera,” he writes, ”today that source is the same worldwide blanket of microwave signals and rivers of satellite transmissions that gives us our telephone calls and our remote banking, telegrams, and soon, our mail.” With no compensating changes in the law to control the application of the new technology, he warns, ”Like an ever-widening sinkhole, NSA’s surveillance technology will continue to expand, quietly pulling in more and more communications and gradually eliminating more and more privacy.”

By revealing the scope and opening up the operations of the N.S.A. without giving away its most sensitive secrets, Mr. Bamford has performed an important public service in this impressive book.