If Hollywood has made one concrete contribution to democracy, it’s the strong but little understood impact that movies have had on the U.S. intelligence community. A prime example is Oliver Stone’s JFK. Denounced as fast-and-loose fiction by many historians, the movie nonetheless indirectly forced the CIA and other secretive agencies to fork over documents that had been hidden for decades. Incited by the film, constituents flooded Capitol Hill with letters and phone calls demanding full disclosure of government records on the president’s death. As a result, in 1993 Congress mandated the mass declassification of files that might have a bearing on the assassination. The millions of secret papers that were made public didn’t reveal Kennedy’s killer or killers, but they did detail covert operations in Cuba, Vietnam and other early 1960s hotspots.
Six years later came another notable case of a movie sparking access to the espionage establishment, when 1999’s Enemy of the State targeted the National Security Agency, America’s largest and most secretive intelligence agency. An action movie starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith, Enemy reinforced popular perception about the NSA–that it snoops at will on U.S. citizens with satellites, phone taps and other high-tech surveillance.
That’s not supposed to be the agency’s job. Created in 1952 as the Cold War heated up, the NSA was directed by the White House to spy on foreign governments, groups and individuals. By law, America’s eavesdroppers are barred from turning their ears toward the homefront. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Enemy, and that irritated Michael Hayden more than it would most people–but then, the professed film buff is also the NSA’s current director. Calling the movie “an affront to truthfulness,” Hayden said he didn’t mind that it made “secrecy and power the bogeyman of political culture,” but he insisted that the NSA had been depicted in an unfairly sinister light.
Enter James Bamford, an investigative reporter with impeccable timing. Having worked most recently as a Washington producer for ABC’s World News Tonight, he had written the only detailed history of the NSA, The Puzzle Palace, back in 1982. In its time, the book was a remarkable exposé, but it had become dated. So in 1999 Bamford again prepared to pry into the agency’s cloistered world.
This time, he had Hollywood on his side. “I went to [the NSA] and said, you’ve got a problem with the way Hollywood is portraying the NSA,” Bamford told The Independent, in a recent interview before an appearance at the Regulator Bookshop this week to discuss his new book, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. “My pitch was: Look, you’ve got to give an alternative, so people can go to the bookstore or library and find a book about the NSA that’s accurate. If you don’t have that, people will be left with whatever impressions Hollywood gives them.”
Impressed by Bamford’s logic–and soured by the NSA’s bout with the big screen–Hayden provided the writer with unprecedented access to “Crypto City,” the agency’s 50-building, high-security headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. There Bamford found a behemoth of a bureaucracy staffed by the smartest nerds in the spy game. The NSA employs about 40,000 people, all of them with security clearances, and spends upward of $7 billion per year to capture, sift and analyze international communications. Faxes, e-mails, radio transmissions, satellite feeds, cellular phones and land-lines–however messages are sent, the NSA finds ways to snare them. A small army of code-breakers works to decipher encrypted communications, and thousands of linguists are on hand to translate foreign tongues.
Such large-scale surveillance is sticky business, of course, unpopular with both enemies and allies. Because their job is so sensitive, NSA officials have traditionally been some of the most tight-lipped in government, earning their outfit the monikers “No Such Agency” and “Never Say Anything.” But the current leadership jumped at the chance to help shape Bamford’s second book.
“They opened up the door so I could see a number of things: their culture, how the organization works, and historical aspects of the agency,” Bamford says. “The director’s office got me through the front door, and the Freedom of Information Act got me through the back door.” That law provides citizens a means to request the release of classified materials, but it often yields incomplete returns. In Bamford’s case, many of the documents were released with substantial portions blacked out. Still, in Body of Secrets, he effectively weaves the declassified snippets into what he learned from interviews with hundreds of former NSA personnel. The veterans were accustomed to their labors going unheralded, but many of them, it seems, are not content to die with their secrets untold.
Those secrets from the past offer indications of what should and should not be expected of electronic espionage. In a new afterword written for the paperback release of Body of Secrets, Bamford shares an anecdote that neatly demonstrates both the power and problems of today’s NSA. In recent years, the agency has tried to track Osama bin Laden, and for a time, it succeeded in intercepting the terrorist leader’s satellite phone calls. Then the NSA showed off a bit: High-ranking visitors to Crypto City, Bamford reports, were played clips of bin Laden bantering with his mother in Syria.
But come Sept. 11, the NSA and the rest of the intelligence community had little to brag about. A terrorist conspiracy that spanned years and stretched around the globe had gone undetected, eluding the extensive spy apparatus set up by the United States.
It’s not that the NSA isn’t drawing in a sufficient amount of information, Bamford argues. On the contrary, the agency is swamped by it’s own “take,” as the intercepted messages are called. If anything, the NSA is suffering from too much information–too much to read it all, let alone compare and synthesize it. As an indicator of just how much is too much, consider this unusual disposal problem: The NSA generates roughly 100 million classified documents a year, and winds up destroying most of them. To handle the mammoth task of cremating the papers, a few years ago the NSA commissioned a three-story “classified waste destructor.” That structure, Bamford reports, failed miserably, as “the top secret trash would occasionally congeal into a rocklike mass.” (Officials then opted for a green approach. Today, the secret papers are converted to pulp and recycled into pizza boxes.)
Burdened by its haystacks of data, the NSA sometimes seems lost on a fruitless search for needles of useful intelligence. As computer and satellite communications become increasingly common, and the global information flow surges, the task becomes exponentially more difficult.
And aside from the logistical challenges, NSA’s operations continue to arouse well-founded fears among the public. Bamford notes that the Nixon administration, in a series of operations he describes as “shameful,” used the agency to spy on anti-war activists within the United States. “In the late 1960s,” he writes, “NSA was an agency unrestrained by laws or legislative charter.”
When the domestic spying was revealed in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Congress forced reforms that are supposed to prohibit the NSA from pulling similar stunts. Bamford says that present-day NSA policy is to scrupulously avoid targeting U.S. citizens. But that’s not set in stone–sometimes political pressures trump policy. “Especially in wartime,” he cautions, “there’s far more potential for abuse.”
Should Americans be afraid of a spy service that’s supposed to keep them safe? Though he never saw Enemy of the State, Sen. Frank Church, an early critic of the NSA’s domestic operations, voiced concerns in 1975 about the agency’s extraordinary spying power that remain relevant today. “That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left,” he warned. “There would be no place left to hide.”