Friday, January 02, 2009

The Shadow Factory by James Bamford

Yet another book I read from the library and already took back -- the library has been good for my wallet (and for the inside of my head, I hope), but not so good for blog purposes.

Bamford wrote The Puzzle Palace back in the early '80s -- at that time, and for a long time, it was the authoritative work on the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA). Puzzle is a great book, full of intriguing stories and behind-the-scenes details on the cold war; I read it a decade or so ago, when it was still fairly recent history.

Bamford is apparently the closest thing to an "official" expert on the NSA there is -- he followed up Puzzle twenty years later with Body of Secrets. I missed Body, but it brought the NSA's story up to early 2001 -- just before 9/11. (An afterword in the paperback edition gives some background on the NSA's involvement in the events of 9/11 and the hunt for bin Laden before and after that.)

And now Shadow Factory continues the NSA's history -- as much of it as Bamford can find out about and disseminate. It's a more passionate book than Puzzle was; Bamford is clearly unhappy with the damage to civil liberties over the past decade -- and, worse, he and his sources don't think the US is any safer or more secure because of the increase in surveillance and signals processing.

Shadow Factory bounces around quite a bit; it doesn't follow a chronological progression but moves from topic to topic, and so can be a choppy read. It does have a lot of very detailed information about the NSA's recent growth spurt, and its use of telecommunication companies as spying proxies. Bamford, as always, has extensive and detailed notes, and -- as far as I can tell from my layman's chair -- he's considered authoritative and knowledgeable within the intelligence community, so his accounts of NSA activities are probably as good as we'll get within our lifetimes.

If you've ever heard about "Carnivore" and worried about it, you'll want to read The Shadow Factory, though it won't make you feel any better. If you're just interested in the NSA generally -- or perhaps the role of secret agencies in the US -- it would be better to start with The Puzzle Palace. And if you just don't want to know...there are plenty of other books to read, so I hope you find one to enjoy.

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