james-bamford-the-shadow-factory.thumbnail.jpgJames Bamford’s The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America got big press when it came out last month for its on-the-record confirmations from former NSA employees that the warrantless wiretap program collected intercepts from Americans. For example, Arabic voice interceptor David Faulk describes a friend being ordered to transcribe the calls of Americans in the Green Zone.

"And the calls were all in English, they were all American, and the guy goes back to his supervisor, a warrant officer, and says, ‘Sir, these people are all Americans–are there any [prohibitions against tapping Americans] here?’ He said, ‘No, just transcribe them, that’s an order, transcribe everything.’" According to Faulk, the calls included intimate conversations both within the Green Zone and to people back in the U.S. "There were people having affairs inside the Green Zone, talking about their meet-ups, just all kinds of stuff. And he transcribed everything word for word, and it just disappeared into the big NSA black hole. These were military, civilians, contractors. A lot of these people were having personal phone calls, calling their families back home, having all kinds of personal discussions, and everything just disappeared somewhere; someone’s got it."

And Arabic linguist Adrienne Kinne describes how NGOs and journalists got swallowed up into the list of those permanently targeted for interception.

"As time went on we just saw the queue and it would just fill up with a lot of NGOs and humanitarian organizations and journalists," said Adrienne Kinne. While the journalists and others were originally picked up at random, once in the system they then became permanent targets. "It’s random at first, but once it’s identified and you know who it is, the system is programmed to intercept those cuts and send it into the system at whatever priority we designated it as."

Bamford–whose 1982 Puzzle Palace offered the first detailed expose of the NSA–places those revelations into the larger narrative of how our country returned to the excessive, abusive–and illegal–domestic wiretapping that had preceded the passage of FISA in 1978.

The book tells how the NSA, out of an abundance of caution, did not identify American contacts with a known Al Qaeda operations center, though it had legal means to do. As a result, the government failed to track down the operatives who had contacted the ops center, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, before they helped fly American flight 77 into the Pentagon. Bamford describes how, in response to that attack, the NSA massively expanded its data mining and wiretapping programs, sweeping up more data than it could analyze. He describes some of the ethically problematic intelligence contractors that capitalized off this gold mine, both in the US and around the world. And he describes how the Bush Administration mobilized fear and lies–particularly about its failures to use wiretaps to find two American soldiers kidnapped in Iraq–to retroactively legalize all of this illegal spying.

That narrative is familiar to most regular readers of this blog. Told by Bamford, it accomplishes several things. First, his long engagement with the NSA gives the narrative a fair tone. Bamford repeatedly calls the agency and the Administration on their lies (that they didn’t have the legal authority to get the American side of the contacts with the Al Qaeda ops center, that they didn’t wiretap the suspected kidnappers of the Americans in Iraq because approval to do so took too long), but he also gives a fair presentation of the views of Michael Hayden, head of NSA before 9/11 and now head of the CIA. As someone who has tried to persuade others about these issues, Bamford’s balanced perspective is very useful (if you’re still trying to convince conservative family members of the dangers of domestic surveillance, this might make a nice holiday gift).  

It’s also a great narrative. In a particularly fascinating series of chapters, Bamford describes how, shortly after the NSA finally realized it had intercepted signals placing Al Qaeda operatives in the country 18 months earlier, the hijackers gathered in Laurel, MD–the NSA’s "company town"–to finalize their preparations.

Hayden must have been shocked. He had at last discovered that Mihdhar, whose conversations they had been recording for the past eighteen months, along with his partner, Hazmi, had been living in the country, on and off, for much of that time. He … must have known how difficult it would be to find them now. They could be almost anywhere.

At that moment, Hayden could have almost seen Atta, Mihdhar, Hazmi, and the others from his eighth-floor window. That same afternoon, the hijackers were having their penultimate summit meeting at their new base, the Valencia Motel in Laurel, Maryland, a shabby truck stop just two miles away from Hayden’s office.

[snip]

Over the next two weeks, the terrorists and the eavesdroppers would coexist in the NSA’s close-knit community like unseeing ghosts. Together, they would eat gooey cheese at Pizza Time, pump iron at Gold’s Gym, and squeeze tomatoes at Safeway. For eighteen months, since the agency first identified Mihdhar and Hazmi as likely al-Qaeda terrorists, NSA analysts had been listening to their phone calls and reading their e-mail; now they were in touching distance. Registered under their real names, they shopped at J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart, bought groceries at Giant Foods, dined at the Food Factory, and banked at the First Union National Bank and the Dime Savings Bank.

That passage was the most powerful image of the book for me. Nothing better conveyed the futility of our huge efforts to intercept our enemies. Not because we don’t have more than enough technical expertise to collect this information–and of course our technological capabilities have only accelerated since 9/11. But because we simply don’t have the management structure in place to weed through and use this information. And, as James Bamford suggests at the end of his book, the increased flood of data, the huge sums spent on contractors, and the increasingly Orwellian nature of our society doesn’t seem to be changing that fact.

Let’s welcome James Bamford to FireDogLake. As always, please take off-topic conversations to other threads.