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Book Review

A rare look at the National Security Agency, the US’s centre for intelligence warfare

Abdullahi Abubakr

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century by James Bamford. Pub: Doubleday, New York, USA, 2001. Pp: 721. Hbk: $29.95.

The drama of the arrest of the US Navy’s EP-3E spy-plane by the Chinese in April drew international attention to the USA’s intelligence operations around the world. Twenty-four Americans were held in China for 11 days following the incident, before being allowed to fly back to America after some intense diplomacy. Four of them were US navy servicemen; the rest were civilian analysts working for the National Security Agency (NSA).

The aircraft was on an ELINT (‘electronic intelligence’) mission, packed with complex radio and computer equipment used by NSA analysts to monitor, record and analyse electronic and radio traffic in China, something that the NSA has been doing for decades. ELINT is a key part of one the NSA’s main objectives: targeting the communications of the US’s enemies. The benefits of listening into military communications during exercises and so on are clear.

It is also the NSA that was involved in the recent controversy over the ECHELON communications monitoring network; ECHELON was jointly established by the US and Britain, to monitor telephone and other communications during the Cold War. France, Germany and other member of the European Union now accuse the US and Britain of using ECHELON for commercial and other espionage against them.

This book by James Bamford is a detailed account of the NSA’s work since its foundation early in the Cold War era, and provides answers to many of the obvious questions that arise from such episodes: what was the aircraft doing off the Chinese coast, at a time of peace? What does the US hope to achieve by ELINT operations? Who runs these operations?

Until the early 1980s, the NSA was officially a secret organization, the initials said to stand for “no such agency”. It is now widely known and recognised. Bamford tells us that 38,000 people work for it, much of it operating out of a complex in Maryland that is virtually a town in its own right, with 17,000 parking spaces, and consuming as much electricity in a year as the city of Annapolis.

While much of the NSA’s work is concerned with gathering and analysing intelligence, it is also concerned with encrypting American data, and with planning possible American attacks on its enemies, known as “information warfare”. This involves penetrating, controlling and destroying the computer and technical systems of its enemies. The NSA’s current director is General Michael Hayden, formerly chairman of a think-tank on information warfare for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The dangers that computer hackers can pose to computer systems are well-documented; few major corporations have escaped “hack attacks” at some stage over the last few years. Most such attacks do not come to public attention, and are far more complex than attacks that focus on internet websites.

What is less known is that the NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the US, and not all are engaged in breaking other people’s codes. Bamford tells us that many are also engaged in planning possible attacks on adversaries’ computer systems; it is not difficult to imagine the possible impact of a sophisticated hack attack on a power-grid or air-traffic control system.

Much of this book consists of reports on the NSA’s contributions in the major episodes of American foreign policy over the last 50 years: the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs controversy, the end of communism, and many more. Particularly interesting to Muslim readers will be evidence of the US’s regular assistance to Israel in the Middle East.

Also notable is Bamford’s publication of previously unknown information about the attack on the USS Liberty by the Israeli navy in the Mediterranean Ocean on June 8, 1967. The outlines of the episodes are well known: the Liberty was monitoring Israel and Egyptian radio-signals for the NSA during the Six Day War, operated by the US Navy when it was subjected to a sustained attack by Israeli aircraft and naval vessels, apparently to prevent the US from learning details of their military operations.

Bamford provides a detailed account of the attack, in which the Israelis shot up survivors in life-boats, apparently so that there would be no one left to tell how the ship was destroyed. Based on interviews and other data collected from NSA operatives, he also provides an explanation for the attack, saying that the Israelis were trying to hide evidence of the murder of several hundred Egyptian prisoners of war in the Sinai, an atrocity which they thought might persuade the US to change its blind support for Israel.

Ironically, all the evidence that Bamford publishes suggests that the US’s position towards the zionist state would not have been affected by news of the massacre. The new information he provides indicates that the US’s reaction to the attack of the Liberty was even more craven than previously thought.

Bamford reveals that the US’s main concern as the Liberty came under attack was to protect its minion, Israel. The US Navy was ordered by the Joint Chief of Staff to recall Navy aircraft that had been dispatched to protect the Liberty. According to the recollections of former NSA men, president Lyndon Johnson himself gave the order, saying that “he didn’t care if the ship was sunk, he would not embarrass his allies.”

When the NSA expressed concern about the fate of the ship and its crew, as well as the equipment and information on board, he was reportedly told by the White House that “Washington authorities [wanted] to sink the Liberty in order that newspaper men would be unable to photograph her and thus inflame public opinion against the Israelis.”

One problem with books on the intelligence services and other such bodies is of distinguishing between good data and disinformation. There can be little doubt, however, that this is a book of genuine insight into the working of the NSA, one of the major weapons that the US uses in order to assert and protect its global hegemony. Reading the book is one thing, however; confronting the US is something else altogether.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 7

Rabi' al-Awwal 09, 14222001-06-01

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