National Security Agency: Enemy of the state?
Geoff Metcalf interviews author James Bamford about super-secret spy group

Editor's note: Most people are familiar to varying degrees with the FBI, CIA, ATF, IRS and other assorted federal police agencies. However, unless they have seen the movie with Will Smith and Gene Hackman, "Enemy of the State," they may not even be aware that the National Security Agency exists.

A few have heard of NSA programs like "Tempest" and "Echelon" and wondered what new mischief the U.S. government was involved in. But, until now, almost nobody knew that the NSA is the largest, most secretive and most powerful intelligence agency in the world. With a staff of 38,000 people, it dwarfs the CIA in budget, manpower and influence.

Today, Geoff Metcalf talks with author James Bamford about his new book, "Body of Secrets," a profound and unique look into the inner workings of the NSA.

By Geoff Metcalf

Question: It's been 20 years since you first wrote "The Puzzle Palace." Why revisit the same turf -- and why now?

Answer: You have to understand that the NSA is the largest intelligence agency in the world. It's twice the size of the CIA and, in its 50-year history, it has only had one book written about it -- which was my earlier book, "The Puzzle Palace" -- and I thought it would be a useful effort to take another look at the NSA. There were a lot of things I missed when I was writing "The Puzzle Palace" and there are a lot of things that have happened.

Q: Well technology has certainly exploded. Listen, when you wrote your first book, you were pretty much treated like a hooker in church when you started asking questions. Did you get the same kind of cold reception this time around?

A: Initially I did -- when I first approached NSA back in 1998, when I was first starting work on the book, they gave me the same approach -- we're not going to help, we're not going to give you any documents, interviews or whatever. Then the attitude changed about a year later as I was still working on the book.

Q: Why?

A: A new director came on, General Michael Hayden, and I think he understood the need for at least some public understanding of what the agency did. One of the reasons was because the movie "Enemy of the State" portrayed NSA as a very frightening agency. I think General Hayden thought it might be useful to have a book that was not fictional, was accurate, and that gives ...

Q: Were they hoping you would do a puff piece as a counter public relations tool?

A: I think they wanted to have some say in the book, basically -- although I made no deals with them, just like I made no deals with them in the first book. They never had any opportunity to look at the book. They didn't see it until the public saw the book. They had no editorial control -- absolutely no quid pro quo. But they ended up giving me a number of tours through the Agency -- interviews with the director and a number of other senior officials. And through the Freedom Of Information Act, I got a great many documents. I think I was able to paint a pretty accurate picture of the way the NSA is today and some of the problems facing us.

Q: Three years ago, I wrote a piece for WorldNetDaily on "Echelon" and, kind of by accident, I hit a chord. I got over 500 e-mails in one night from people wanting more information. On page 110 in your book, you make reference to "Tempest" radiation coming from some Soviet crypto equipment. As I understand it, "Tempest" is a code word for radiation emitted by electronic equipment. Right?

A: That's right. Tempest is applied to things that contain classified information. In other words, a crypto machine, a receiver and a transmitter -- whatever contains classified information. But it's the same principle as, for example, if you are working on your computer in your office and you are typing out an e-mail or whatever, somebody could be outside directing an antenna -- like a parabolic antenna -- at your computer and basically be reading the same screen you are reading, picking up the signals as they are being transmitted from the computer. That's what Tempest is and NSA is very worried about Tempest emissions because somebody could be on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway with a very sensitive receiver in the back of a van and pick up sensitive signals from NSA. So it goes to a great many efforts to try to prevent those signals from leaving NSA.

Q: Conversely, if or when voting is all done on video screens -- and that's being proposed -- pollsters would be able to read exact voting totals off the screens from the street?

A: That's right. If the communications are not protected, and the screens are not protected, it is possible to do that.

Q: What does NSA do to protect themselves from Tempest poaching?

A: What NSA does to protect themselves is -- at first this was very expensive, because their old headquarters building was not Tempest protected. So, all the equipment NSA bought -- every single computer, every single piece of electronic equipment -- had to be shielded in copper, and that tripled the cost of the equipment. Then, when they built their new office headquarters, they basically lined the entire building in copper. Even the windows -- from the outside, it looks like they have these big windows, and they really are not so big. The windows are very unique.

Q: How so?

A: They have these very thin copper screens in them -- again to prevent any signals from leaving NSA.

Q: I was going through the litany, going back to 1920 and the "Black Chamber" stuff and how it has progressed -- but before we even get to that: You wrote "Puzzle Palace" in 1982. What was the most significant change /difference /enhancement that you noticed when you worked on "Body of Secrets"?

A: Well the biggest change was the change in telecommunications. When I wrote "The Puzzle Palace" back in '82, if you or I or anybody were to send any written communications -- whether it was a love letter, a contract proposal, a confidential bid on a contract or whatever, it would almost certainly go through the mail -- it would be put in an envelope and be put through the mail. And NSA would have absolutely no access to that information.

Q: Stuff happens. Things change. In fact, there is nothing as permanent as change.

A: Yeah, today probably a large percentage -- if not the majority -- of written communications goes through the air. Faxes, e-mail, computer transfers, the Internet -- all of that. It's going through the air. So NSA has access to all this additional information they didn't have 20 years ago.

Q: One item that came up in our discussions about "Echelon" was that the government can reach up into the ether and grab all this stuff. But, especially when people start intentionally adding code words to attract attention, it reaches a point of diminishing return. I once had a call from a guy who claimed he used to work for some initialed agency who said he saw trainloads -- fields of train cars full of data that had been collected -- but nobody was ever going to even look at that stuff because they didn't have sufficient resources or capabilities to ever do the triage on it.

A: That's true and it's the opposite side of the coin from what I just talked about. You get all this information going through the air that was never there before -- on one side of the coin, NSA has access to all this information they didn't have before, on the other side of the coin, they are swamped with far more information than they could ever handle. It is far more complex because the airway, the ether, cyberspace is filled with information and NSA has reduced -- by about a quarter to almost 30 percent -- their manpower since the end of the Cold War. So it has fewer people with far more information to sort through. That's one of the major problems facing NSA.

Q: Obviously, we can't cover everything -- and besides we want folks to buy the book -- but I would like you to explain what happened with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1960s regarding the Cuban situation?

A: That was a very interesting series of documents I found at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What they indicated was during the early '60s -- before the Cuban missile crisis, and just after the Bay of Pigs, where the CIA tried to overthrow the Cuban government -- the Joint Chiefs had their own plan for taking over Cuba. What they wanted to do was invade Cuba -- the Army, Navy and Air Force -- just go in there and invade the country and take it over.

They knew that the American public probably wouldn't put up with that because it would just be a blatant exercise of aggression and the rest of the world would be against it -- especially the other countries in the Americas, Central America, South America and so forth. So what they needed to do was create a pretext. They had to pretend that Cuba was attacking the United States. And if Cuba was attacking the United States violently, that would give the Joint Chiefs the excuse to launch this war against Cuba. What they did was create a plan that would create terrorism in the United States.

Q: Kind of like a prelude-practice to the Tonkin Gulf finesse?

A: Exactly. It was a prelude to the Tonkin Gulf situation. What the Joint Chiefs indicated in their plan was they would have people shot on American streets, bombs blown up, refugee boats sunk on the high seas -- and all this would be blamed on the Cuban government. They even had a plan that if the rocket carrying John Glenn into space on his very first space mission happened to blow up accidentally, killing Glenn, they were going to plant evidence proving that it was Cuba that deliberately sabotaged the rocket and blew it up. All this was to justify their war in Cuba and that was very frightening because here you had the senior U.S. military people planning a war that nobody wants and creating phony evidence indicating another country was attacking the U.S.

Q: Was this outside the policy chain? I mean, was this a military vs. civilian leadership thing?

A: This was 100 percent military. It was always in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it was approved by the chairman and all the members of the Joint Chiefs. Once they approved it, it was taken up to the civilian branch -- they took it up to Secretary of Defense McNamara and he rejected it and that was the end of it. Leominster was out of the Joint Chiefs office in about a month and sent to Europe to visit NATO.

Q: Inevitably, when we discuss the Mideast, someone will bring up that the Israelis intentionally attacked the USS Liberty. You have some new information in your book I was not aware of previously?

A: There's quite a bit of new information in there.

Q: Tell us about the USS Liberty?

A: The USS Liberty is an incident very few people know about because it was kept so secret at the time. What happened was, in 1967, Israel and Egypt went to war -- it was called "The Six-Day War" -- and the U.S. was very interested in what was going on because it was a very dangerous situation. At the time, the U.S. was an ally of Israel. Egypt was an ally of Russia and the U.S. was worried that Russia might get involved.

Q: So what did we do?

A: Well, they sent this eavesdropping ship, working for NSA -- NSA being the eavesdropping agency -- and this ship was over there to collect intelligence, to eavesdrop on both Israeli and Egyptian communications. And then, to pass the information back to Washington, so they knew what was going on. The ship sailed over on June 8th. It was about the second or third day into the war. The ship was in international waters off the Sinai coast -- about 13 to 14 miles off the coast of the Egyptian /Sinai desert. What happened was, in broad daylight, about two in the afternoon, the ship was attacked relentlessly by Israeli aircraft. They fired cannon fire.

Q: Now the Israelis always said they didn't know it was a U.S. ship. That was their story and they were sticking to it.

A: That's right. After they raked the ship with cannon fire and rockets -- and even dropping napalm on it -- they fired torpedoes into the ship. Three Israeli torpedo boats came up and took basically a firing squad stance and fired five torpedoes -- which would have been enough to sink an aircraft carrier. Luckily, four of those missed, but one of them hit dead center and killed 25 American sailors instantly. All together, there were 34 Americans killed on the ship and 171 wounded -- which was an enormous amount because that was a 70 percent casualty rate. As the ship was taking on water, and the captain gave the order to prepare for abandoning ship, the Israelis began shooting at the life rafts as they began putting them into the water -- and shooting the people trying to get into the life rafts.

Q: How long did the attack last?

A: This went on for about an hour.

Q: So it was not an "aw whoops!" but an intentional assault?

A: Exactly. The Israelis claim it was a mistake. However, they did hours worth of surveillance over the ship before the attack. According to the documents I got, the Israelis knew it was the USS Liberty. They had been flying over it all morning. Then the Israelis said they had mistaken it for an Egyptian ship -- yet it bore no resemblance to an Egyptian ship. The Liberty was flying the U.S. flag before, during and after the attack. It had USS Liberty on the back in U.S. letters -- not Egyptian characters. And they said they thought the ship was going 30 knots which was absolutely ridiculous. The ship was going between three to five knots. Their explanation never made any sense.

The documents I've come across indicate NSA never believed the Israeli excuse. They always thought it was deliberate. Part of that reason -- and something nobody knew about until I just finished this book -- was the fact that at the time of the attack, there was an NSA eavesdropping plane flying directly above the attack. I talked to two of the Hebrew linguists -- the intercept operators on the plane that were eavesdropping on the Israeli ships and planes below -- and both of those people said they heard the Israeli pilots and Israeli crewmembers talk about the American flag.

Q: Probably the most crucial element you discovered, however, was the motive?

A: Exactly. Nobody knew this at the time -- in fact nobody knew this until just a few years ago -- but a few years ago, the details of what was taking place in the Sinai began coming out in Israel and it was reported in Israel and in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Q: So what was reportedly happening?

A: What was happening just on the shore, only about 12 or 13 miles away from the Liberty, was that the Israelis were committing enormous numbers of war crimes. They were killing Egyptian soldiers -- some with their hands tied behind their backs, and some after making them dig their own graves. There were several hundred of them -- there may have been a thousand all together in the Sinai.

Q: So you think they sank the Liberty to kill the crew, to keep the action secret?

A: The Israelis had an awful lot of secrets to keep -- and the main thrust of this chapter was to say for once there should be a full U.S. investigation of what really happened.

Q: I received an e-mail from a listener who doesn't like your conclusions about the USS Liberty incident. He can't really refute it, but seems to fall into the category of one of those who doesn't like facts that contradict his preconceived opinion of what happened. How would you respond?

A: I'd suggest he do what I'm doing and call on the U.S. government to do an investigation -- which is what they have never done in the past. These 34 people who were killed -- and 171 wounded -- were twice as many as were killed on the USS Cole. And when that took place, the U.S. sent planeloads of FBI agents into Yemen to begin an investigation. Just like they did when the Kobar Towers were blown up in Saudi Arabia and just like they did when the embassies were blown up in East Africa -- they never did an investigation on the Liberty. I've interviewed many of the Liberty survivors and there are a great many Israeli apologists out there who would just as soon bury this incident. I would like to see -- just like the survivors would like to see -- a real investigation.

Q: James, I'd like to revisit something we just touched on briefly. I told you about three years ago I wrote that piece about "Echelon." How concerned should we be about Echelon? How big a deal is Echelon? And even if they can collect all this stuff out of the ether, has the NSA exceeded their capacity to analyze it?

A: That's a good question. The problem with Echelon is, it's a massive worldwide eavesdropping system that many people in Europe and some people in the U.S. are worried about.

Q: It's been around for a long time.

A: Oh sure. Basically what it is, the NSA doesn't operate alone. It operates in conjunction with the major English-speaking countries of the world -- the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Each of these countries has a certain part of the world that they specialize eavesdropping on. The British specialize in eavesdropping on Europe because they are very close to Europe. Australia eavesdrops a great deal on South East Asia. NSA, through this system known as Echelon, is able to sift through all that information and pick out what it wants -- and the same thing with the Australians and the British, they can sift through what they want. It is a worldwide eavesdropping system and these countries are basically able to pick out whatever they want to listen to.

Q: One of the cool and kind of sleazy things about it is, allegedly, it is illegal for the U.S. to spy on its citizens. Likewise with the Brits and others. So in the wake of the UK-USA treaty, they basically said, "Nigel you spy on our guys, we'll spy on your people, and then we can swap information." That's pretty much what happens isn't it?

A: Well that is what happened in the past -- the U.S. spied illegally on millions of U.S. communications. That ended in 1975, when new laws were created. However, there are some loopholes and that is one area that worries a lot of people.

Q: Is there some exchange where the British or the Canadians or someone else can eavesdrop on U.S. communications and vice versa? I know the Brits are particularly upset because of the prospect of industrial espionage.

A: No so much the Brits, but the Europeans. The Europeans are very worried about that -- in fact they even have a committee of the European Parliament that is currently looking into that right now. What they are worried about is U.S. eavesdropping on European businesses and then taking that information -- it could be contract information or sales or what their new plans are for like the Airbus in France -- and passing it on to American competitors, such as Boeing or Lockheed. Britain is in a very difficult position because Britain is both part of the European Union and, at the same time, they are an NSA partner to do eavesdropping.

Q: I've heard that Britain has even tried to deny that Menwith Hill exists? That's like denying there's an elephant in your living room.

A: Oh sure. For many years, the U.S. denied that NSA even existed. But Menwith Hill is a huge -- massive -- eavesdropping station with over 20 satellite dishes. It looks like something built on Mars or the Moon. But its key job is to eavesdrop on satellite communications -- and it does a very good job of it.

Q: Let me return to that previous question -- have they reached the point of diminishing return where they have such a flood of information coming in that they can no longer sift the wheat from the chaff?

A: I think that is one of the key problems, Geoff -- it is one of the worst problems facing NSA today. There is a lot of discussion within the intelligence community -- and within the national security part of government -- that NSA is going deaf or is deaf. And that's one of the reasons.

At one point, NSA used to be able to eavesdrop on tremendous amounts of communications by intercepting the satellite signals and microwave signals. But, today, a lot of those communications are encrypted that weren't encrypted before. And also, a lot of those same signals are no longer going by satellite or microwave. They are going by fiber optic communications. These are very thin glass, hair-like lines that are buried under the ground or under the ocean. Much more difficult to eavesdrop on.

Q: Was the NSA involved in that assault on Phil Zimmerman at PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)? The technical stuff is over my head but, basically, they didn't want him to be able to export the whiz-bang version as opposed to a watered-down version of PGP.

A: Sure. NSA was the primary agency involved in that. It wasn't just Phil Zimmerman but it was a number of other people and companies. Beginning in the late '70s -- and especially in the mid 1990s -- NSA was very aggressive in trying to prevent both companies and people from developing very powerful encryption. They were very opposed to it because they were worried it would get into the hands of terrorists, or mobsters or criminals and that would help keep their communications secret -- prevent them from being eavesdropped on by NSA or the FBI. That was fought very aggressively by the communications and encryption industry and NSA lost. That effort to restrict making powerful encryption was not very successful.

Q: You go into very, very precise detail about how the NSA is set up -- organization, structure, capabilities et al. I know you've heard from critics who say, "Hey, Jim? What are you giving all this stuff up to the bad guys for? You're doing damage to our national security."

A: Sure -- I hear that all the time. The only problem with that is all that information I got is from the NSA. I got it through interviews with current officials, interviews with former officials, documents that are in the public domain or documents that I obtained through the Freedom Of Information Act from NSA itself. Ironically, even though people would have that assumption that I'm giving all this information away, NSA when the book came out, had a book signing for me up there. It went on for four hours. People lined up at the NSA doors all the way into the parking lot to have their book signed by me. So NSA is not unhappy about the book. They helped me write it, in a sense, but they had no editorial control over it. I think the feeling is that two books in 50 years -- on this most secret agency -- is not an awful lot to ask.

Q: You note that back in the '20s the "Black Chamber" was crawling into this arena -- that it was sort of the forerunner to the NSA. Transitionally, at what point did it kick into high gear and start to mushroom into this Goliath?

A: That's a very good question. You look at it now -- twice the size of the CIA and 38,000 people -- back around 1938, the total population of the "Black Chamber" (actually it was the successor to the "Black Chamber") was about eight.

Q: Eight?

A: Yeah, about eight people. Then, all of a sudden, WWII came and that's when the big influx occurred. The United States and the British both realized that in order to win the war, they were going to have to be successful in breaking the codes of Germany and Japan. And that's what they did. The British and the United States broke the German "Enigma" code, and the Japanese "Purple" code, and that shortened the war by at least a year or more and saved thousands of lives.

Q: And the structure of "Echelon" was really that UK-USA agreement from '46, right?

A: That's right. The countries all came together to fight WWII and realized that it made more sense to stay together. Even though WWII was over and we were entering the Cold War, it made much more sense to be prepared during the Cold War in case we got into another hot war. That's why, in 1946, the UK-USA agreement brought together the NSA and its counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain.

Q: We touched on the growth of the NSA. WWII was obviously a catalyst for NSA, but did Eisenhower in the late '50s -- 59ish -- did he give NSA a kick-start?

A: Yes he did. The problem was after WWII, the United States was able to break the Russian code very successfully. But then, in 1948, because of a spy in the predecessor to the NSA, NSA basically went deaf in terms of Russian communications. Eisenhower, realizing how desperately we needed to break the Russian code, decided in the late 1950s to sort of jump-start NSA's code-breaking power and put enormous amounts of money into computers and personnel and machines at NSA. People don't realize this, but that move helped break the Russian code and helped jump-start the American computer industry. As a result of that, NSA became enormously more powerful and American industry began to make leaps and bounds in terms of computer performance.

Q: So how in the world did they soil the sheets so badly at the Bay of Pigs?

A: Well NSA really didn't have much to do with the Bay of Pigs. The NSA was sort of a bystander through the whole thing. Believe it or not, the government didn't trust the NSA to tell them about the Bay of Pigs before it took place. NSA was in the position of eavesdropping on the communications coming out of Cuba, but all they were doing was picking up signals of the defeated CIA infiltrators. And it was really a tragic situation -- they heard their pleas for help and their cries as they were being shot and pushed into the ocean.

Q: So in another 20 years, do we get another book?

A: Yeah, the third in my trilogy in 20 years -- if I can still read and write at that point. Terrific questions -- thanks.