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The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford

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No Such Agency. Never Say Anything. Depending on whom you ask, these are words behind the abbreviation NSA. Some twenty-two years ago, James Bamford put the puzzle together and presented us with the first comprehensive look into the National Security Agency.

During the Crypto Wars of the 1990s, I read The Puzzle Palace for the first time, hoping to gain some understanding of the mindset behind the Clipper Chip, export restrictions, and even limits on strength of domestic cryptography. I suppose that in 1997, I earned myself a glance by someone at Fort Meade for my role in cracking a message encrypted with the sitting U.S. government standard for data encryption. Since that time, government-mandated key escrow systems are dead, American companies can bring their cryptographic products to global markets, and no one seriously talks about preventing U.S. citizens from protecting their communications with one another domestically. In light of recent revelations about the heightened role of NSA in a way that seems to be a change from pre-9/11 policy regarding monitoring of the communications of “U.S. Persons,” I opted to pull The Puzzle Palace from the shelf and to give it a fresh look.

Bamford begins his 516-page story at one minute after midnight on November 4, 1952 with the creation of a new federal agency formed for the purpose of uncovering the secrets of foreign governments, not through the old fashioned way of using spies but by breaking the ciphers that protected those messages that could be intercepted. We're then taken back to the time before the United States entered World War I when Herbert Yardley entered government service and laid the foundation for America's Black Chamber and all subsequent government code-breaking efforts.

NSA's massive modern operation—with its facility that operates as a whole city—is detailed, along with the progressive layers of security even within buildings where badges, codewords, and cipher locks are used to protect information. Glimpses into NSA caused significant concern; Bamford documents how NSA responded to David Kahn's book, The Codebreakers as well as other previous efforts to look into the most secretive and paranoid of intelligence agencies. We also see the results of much more serious issues, including breaches of security by insiders speaking not to U.S. citizens conducing research but to the intelligence agencies of less-than-friendly foreign governments. Thus, NSA and its immediate predecessor, ASA, had become thoroughly penetrated, while remaining invisible to much of the U.S. government.

Next, we look at the signals intelligence operation itself: the technology, the targets, and some of what has been uncovered. In particular, Bamford discusses the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty and how American signals intelligence shows the absurdity of the official explanation of a supposedly friendly nation. Other ships, planes, and lives would be lost in the dangerous game of getting in close to unfriendlies and listening. Targets, over time, move increasingly inward, a trend that seems to have continued since the book's publication.

The story concludes with the congressional probes into the Agency and its methods, its cooperation with the intelligence agencies of other English-speaking nations around the world, the competition from the outside world (such as private American cryptographers), and the rules by which it has begun to operate with the establishment of the FISA court.

Bamford weaves a fascinating story in The Puzzle Palace, documenting a gargantuan and secret government agency. In more than twenty years since its publication, no doubt much has changed; no doubt this is the reason that Bamford has released another book on NSA, Body of Secrets. It seems that even since that time, changes in policy (especially with regard to the use of the FISA court) have taken place and that much of what we're to learn about that will, at least in the immediate future, come through the newspapers. I daresay that what the traditional media comes up with, however, will be only a starting point for what's likely to happen once the bloggers move in. Many will no doubt look to The Puzzle Palace for the background needed to solve their own pieces of an ever-expanding puzzle.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-01-02 09:37 AM
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