Body of Secrets. Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency.
by James Bamford.
Doubleday 2001. 721 pages. Index, Three Appendices and Endnotes. $29.95 Hardcover. ISBN 0-385-49907-8 LoC UB256.U6 B36 2001

Reviewed by  Robert Bruen   May 27, 2001

The author of the Puzzle Palace (1983) has managed to get significant access to the National Security Agency (NSA) and its documents. Although it is very likely that some material remains hidden, what has been uncovered is astonishing. This is a major history of what was once called No Such Agency because of the level of secrecy it maintained. Like the other three letter agencies, there are many blunders that accompany the many successes, all covered in great detail. Much of it brings back memories that one would just as soon forget, if that were possible. For example the role of the NSA in the Vietnam War is documented from the first casualty, an NSA sigint specialist named James Davis, to the horrific scenes of the final minutes of evacuation from Saigon by American helicopters.

The book is revealing, filling in gaps of knowledge for those of us old enough to have lived through much of NSA's history. It helps with the suspicions that something else was going on, beyond what was publicly known. NSA is generally thought of as the crypto guys, making and breaking codes, gathering intelligence for the security of the USA, but the technology we have today is of recent vintage. Before satellites and the Net, signals were captured the old fashion way: spy planes, spy ships, and spy people. Some of these spies got into real trouble, for example Gary Powers, when his U2 plane was shot down over the USSR in 1960. The news story was very public, except that no one acknowledged that President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the order to send the U2 on its mission until now. More than one official lied to Congress to cover up that fact.

There are several other painful stories which are now more complete thanks to Bamford, such as the capture of the Pueblo by North Korea in 1968 and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The one operation that is the scariest of all, which fortunately was not executed, was Operation Northwoods, drawn up around the end of Eisenhower's administration and the beginning of John F. Kennedy's term in office. The plan was signed by all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It called for a series of staged execution of Americans on the streets, bombings in Washington DC, and the sinking of boats full of Cuban refugees. Innocent people would be framed for the crimes with the intention of blaming it all on Fidel Castro to sway the American public to support an invasion of Cuba. Much of this book reads like fiction, but as they say: who could make up this stuff?

To be fair, the NSA has had successes which should be noted. The are well known for their crypto advances. Bamford's look into Crypto City is amazing. A lot of people work for the NSA today and they have lots of computing power and lots of brain power. The NSA funded work on early super computers continues. This is interesting all by itself.

Bamford has thrown in a few extras for the reader. Each of the fourteen chapter is named after some body part (brain, spine, adrenaline, fat, etc) and each chapter has a five line encrypted message taken from the NSA files. The solutions are on his web site. The chapter titles are meant to represent a period within the NSA's history, for example fat is the period of the big budget. As a sign of just how much research has gone into this work, there are over 100 pages of end notes.

The Body Of Secrets is well worth reading for almost anyone interested in how history since World War II has brought us to where we are today. A place where Echelon captures our phone calls, a place where old hatreds of certain small countries will not die until its leader dies and a place where crypto is now freely available to every citizen. It is even more interesting for those of us who care about crypto or spies. A worthwhile expenditure of 30 bucks and enjoyable reading. Highly recommended.