Not long after U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Hayden learned he was going to be named the director of the National Security Agency in 1998, he and his wife went out on a date. The Haydens lived in Seoul, South Korea, where he was stationed with the United Nations Command, and they decided to take in a movie at a local U.S. Army base. The feature presentation that evening happened to be Enemy of the State, a then-new Hollywood thriller that depicted the highly secret, enigmatic NSA as a ruthless organization that used its array of electronic surveillance devices to peer into every corner of the private lives of Americans and murdered those who stood in its way, including a congressman.
As Hayden told journalist James Bamford during an interview in 2000, "Other than the affront to truthfulness, it was an entertaining movie." Hayden went on to explain that he also appreciated Enemy of the State for its deeper message about "the evils of secrecy and power."
Hayden's words came back to Bamford in 2005 after The New York Times broke the story that the NSA under Hayden had been conducting widespread eavesdropping on the conversations of Americans communicating overseas, a practice expressly outlawed by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act but controversially put in motion by the Bush administration in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bamford was, and remains, very likely the person who knows the most about the NSA outside the NSA itself. He is the author of 1982's best-selling Puzzle Palace, the first extensive investigation into the electronic- spying agency headquartered at Fort Meade, Md.; when he interviewed Hayden he was working on a best-selling sequel, 2001's Body of Secrets. As Bamford notes during a recent telephone conversation, he had no plans to write a third book about the NSA. But when the Times' warrantless eavesdropping story broke, he got back to work.
The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America presents an account of the drastic, ominous shift in the agency's mission and tactics over the past seven years. After detailing in almost spy-thriller fashion the NSA's failure to do anything with the clues it had about the 9/11 terrorists entering the United States, Bamford recounts Hayden's quick capitulation to the Bush administration's request for an illegal surveillance dragnet and the fallout from the Times story, including persistent attempts to continue the program and indemnify the participants, which were only resolved with the passage of the FISA Amendments Act this past July. (Hayden left the NSA in 2005; he is currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.)
The revelations don't stop there. Bamford winds up the book with the agency's growing interest in gathering and mining communications data, which includes building a massive new 470,000-square-foot "data warehouse" in San Antonio that, as Bamford matter-of-factly observes, "may eventually be able to hold all the information in the world."
Low-key but voluble, 62-year-old Bamford spoke from his home in Washington, D.C.
Orlando Weekly: When you started writing your first book in 1979, wasn't the NSA's existence still more or less unacknowledged by the government?
Bamford: It was officially acknowledged in the late '50s, early '60s as the result of a couple of spy scandals, but for a number of years they `used` a cover story in terms of what they did — this sort of gobbledygook double-talk about "keeping America's communications secure." They didn't really talk about their eavesdropping or code-breaking role. That started coming out later on in the '60s, but by the time I began writing about them in the late '70s, they were still pretty much in the closet. … It was sort of like exploring a lost continent, since very few people had gone some of the places I went in terms of finding documents or finding people or finding information about the agency.
Did you get any pushback from the agency when you started writing about it?
I had a difficult time. My advance was fairly small, I was living in Massachusetts, I didn't really know anyone in intelligence, and I hadn't written anything before. And I was going up against NSA.
… I thought maybe I'd try using the Freedom of Information Act. The problem with that was `the` NSA is really the only agency excluded from the act. If you sent them a `FOIA` request, they would just send you a letter back saying … we don't have to give you anything, even if it's unclassified.
But I found this place, the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Va., and William F. Friedman, one of the founders of the NSA, had left all his papers there. When I got down there, I found the NSA had gotten there just before me and gone through all of his papers and taken a lot of his papers out and put them in a vault down there and ordered the archivist to keep them under lock and key. And I convinced the archivist that that wasn't what Friedman wanted, and he took the documents out and let me take a look at them.
Among the documents was an NSA newsletter. These are things the NSA puts out once a month. … When I was reading one of the newsletters, there was a paragraph that said, "The contents of this newsletter must be kept within the small circle of NSA employees and their families." And I thought about it for a little bit, and I thought, hmm, they just waived their protections on that newsletter — if that's on every single newsletter then I've got a pretty good case against them. If you're going to open it up to family members, with no clearance, who don't work for the agency, then I have every right to it.
That was a long battle, but I won it, and they gave me over 5,000 pages' worth of NSA newsletters going back to the very beginning. That was the first time anyone ever got a lot of information out of NSA.
We made this agreement where I could come down and spend a week at NSA, and they gave me a little room where I could go over the newsletters and pick the ones I wanted. So I got all that information, and spent about a week at NSA. And finally they really wanted to delete some names and faces, and I said you can do that, but there ought to be some kind of quid pro quo.
The quid pro quo was that I got to interview senior officials and take a tour of the agency. And that was what really opened it up.
What was the agency's reaction once the books came out?
They threatened me with prosecution twice when the first book came out. And then when the sequel came out in 2001, they went to the opposite extreme and `the agency` had a book signing.
`Body of Secrets` was fairly favorable, because they had changed their ways after '78 — they weren't doing domestic eavesdropping anymore. It seemed like they'd learned their lesson and were obeying the law.
That phase of my relationship with NSA ended on Dec. 16, 2005. That's when The New York Times broke the story about their domestic eavesdropping. I had been telling people `the NSA is` obeying the law now and they would never go back on that, and here they were the whole time, doing that ever since 2001.
I'm struck by the fact that you sound genuinely surprised about the warrantless eavesdropping program.
Well, I was very surprised. I had defended the agency in a number of places. … I trusted that Hayden was going to follow the law. I talked to a lot of people there, and that was the impression I got. The mid-'70s was the worst time in NSA's history, the first time a director had to sit in front of an open hearing of Congress and get blasted and humiliated, and all these horror stories came out about eavesdropping on all the telegrams entering and leaving the country. The FISA court got set up as a new safeguard, the buffer between NSA and the public. Everyone I talked to from then on said those were the horror days, we don't want to relive them, we're going to keep as far from the edge as possible.
I didn't think that was going to change after 9/11 — you still had the `FISA` court there, you still had laws, the Constitution.
… They could have gone to Congress. Congress would have given them anything they wanted in those days. But it's the arrogance of power when you decide you're not even going to do that. You're just going to do it because you feel like doing it, because you're the person who's going to save the world. That's how tyrannies get to be tyrannies, because people think they're above the law.
One of the interesting things about the warrantless eavesdropping as you describe it in the book is that NSA started getting this increased level of access but seemed to get little usable information out of it all.
The problem is that NSA was never designed for what it's doing. It was designed after World War II to prevent another surprise attack from another nation-state, particularly the Soviet Union. And from 1945 or '46 until 1990 or '91, that's what its mission was. … And then all of a sudden the Soviet Union is not around anymore, and NSA's got a new mission, and part of that is going after terrorists. And it's just not a good fit. They missed the first World Trade Center bombing, they missed the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, they missed the attack on the U.S. embassies in Africa, they missed 9/11. There's this string of failures because this agency was not really designed to do this.
… The big difference here is that when they were focused on the Soviet Union, the Soviets communicated over dedicated lines. … Now instead of a huge country that communicated all the time, you have individuals who hop from Kuala Lumpur to Nairobi or whatever, from continent to continent, from day to day. They don't communicate `electronically` all the time — they communicate by meetings. `The NSA had been` tapping `Osama` bin Laden's phone for three years and never picked up on any of these terrorist incidents.
… I think the problem is more serious than people realize. I talked to the people at Fort Gordon `in Georgia`, which is the main listening post for the Middle East and North Africa. What was shocking to me was the people who were there were saying they didn't have anybody `at the time` who spoke Pashtun. We're at war in Afghanistan, and the main language of the Taliban is Pashtun.
Some friends of mine were joking that the NSA is probably listening in on this call.
I never claimed that NSA eavesdrops on domestic-to-domestic communications, so I wouldn't worry too much about this `call`. As I point out in the book — and this comes from a number of people on the front lines with the earphones and all that — after 9/11 and the warrantless eavesdropping program got started, they have been eavesdropping on Americans calling Americans `overseas, or to or from overseas`.
One of the people I talked to worked four years before 9/11 in the same place, and she was saying when they came across an American `before 9/11` they would immediately turn off the computer and move on to the next call. It's called minimization — you don't keep a record of it, you don't transcribe it, you don't record it, unless you have a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. But after 9/11 she says they weren't doing any minimization. They'd pick up Americans calling Americans and they'd actually listen to those conversations, they'd transcribe some of them, and they'd all be recorded and stored, for eternity for all I know.
… Unless there's stuff I don't know, which is quite possible, there's never been domestic to domestic `telephone or e-mail surveillance`. … But think of how many communications there are to or from Americans `internationally` in terms of e-mail, telephone calls, faxes and everything. The world has shrunk a great deal. And that was the problem `with the warrantless eavesdropping` — they were picking up a huge amount of American communications but no Al-Qaida, and certainly no Americans talking to Al-Qaida, which is what President Bush said this was all about. This was Americans talking to Americans.
What they were intercepting is the Inmarsat satellite, and most of the people who had satellite phones in the Middle East were reporters, military people, aid workers, that kind of thing. `My source` thought they were wasting their time. She didn't join the Army to listen to bedroom talk between soldiers and their wives.
What's the culture of the NSA like?
It's hard for me to generalize, since I know a select group of people there, but the NSA is a very insular agency. People have secrecy drummed into them. I've talked to a lot of NSA people who say they feel very uncomfortable going to parties with a lot of non-NSA people, because the subject will come up of Iran or Iraq, and they have to either drift out of the conversation or say very little. A lot of the time they get nervous when they contribute something because they may not be sure whether it's something they read in Time magazine or something they read in a top-secret memo or something.
So where does the NSA go from here? Some of the stuff in the last section of The Shadow Factory reads like science fiction, with data mining and artificial intelligence.
Right now they're at a point where they've got enormous amounts of money, but they don't seem to be getting much out of it. They're getting hugely into this data mining — look at that building they're building down in San Antonio. And this is an agency that missed all these terrorist incidents, so what is this for? Is it good money after bad?
The thing I worry about is when you do have so few people watching NSA and so few restrictions on data mining that they just get carried away with it. That's why they're building that huge facility down in San Antonio. … The NSA's going to put 1,400 people in there. The only reason you need that many people is … if you're actually going to dig in to all the data in there, and what's in there could be what I'm looking at on my computer right now, or web searches I've been making, or what books people are buying from Amazon or what websites they're visiting. Those are the things that worry me.
But the NSA isn't allowed to eavesdrop on domestic communications.
The restrictions are much less on data communications. The FISA act only really applies to phone communications or e-mail.
… Look at today, when your every thought, almost, gets transmitted into electrons at one point, either walking down the street talking on a cell phone or sending an e-mail or web searching. Thirty years ago they didn't have access to mail, 'cause it was in envelopes, and `they` couldn't watch what books you pulled out of the library or look at what magazines you flip through at the newsstand. Now they get to all that stuff by watching your web searches and what sites you visit.
Even with everything you know about the NSA, do you ever think to yourself, I worry too much about this stuff?
I'm not a very paranoid person. I couldn't have written all these books if I was paranoid. But what bothers me is that there's this huge agency out there and there are so few people who know how it works and pay any attention to it. Look at the 9/11 Commission report, for example. They spent all this time looking at the CIA and they spent no time looking at the NSA. That's just par for the course. Journalists, everybody seems to avoid looking at it because it's surrounded by this wall of secrecy and it's highly technical.
I think the thing that bothers me most was how easy it was to take this huge agency and turn it against the law. How easy it was, how few people knew.
If it weren't for two reporters from The New York Times, we still might not know about it, if you think about it that way.
A version of this story first appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.firstname.lastname@example.org