Secret Agency Man
The new NSA is decentralized, privatized, and coming to a "data center" near you. Author James Bamford catches up with his old nemesis
Not long after U.S. Air Force Major General* 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 the 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, ďOther than the affront to truthfulness, it was an entertaining movie.Ē Hayden went on to explain that he appreciated Enemy of the State for its deeper message: ďthe evils of secrecy and power.Ē
Haydenís 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 September 11.
Bamford was, and remains, very likely the person who knows the most about the NSA outside the NSA itself. He is the author of 1982ís best-selling The Puzzle Palace, the first extensive investigation into the electronic-spying agency headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland; when he interviewed Hayden he was working on a best-selling sequel, 2001ís 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 Timesí ďwarrantless eavesdroppingĒ story broke, he got back to work.
Bamfordís new book, The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (Doubleday), presents an account of the drastic and ominous shift in the agencyís mission and tactics over the past seven years. After detailing the NSAís failure to follow up on the clues it had about the September 11 terrorists entering the United States, Bamford recounts Haydenís quick capitulation to the Bush Administrationís request for an illegal surveillance dragnet and the fallout from the Times story, including persistent attempts to continue the program and indemnify the participants that 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 donít stop there. The Shadow Factory discusses the National Business Park, a complex near Fort Meade thatís crammed with private companies that now earn millions to do much of the NSAís highly classified work. Among the private companies winning contracts with the agency are Narus and Verint, firms with ties to Israeli intelligence that sell surveillance equipment to the NSA, and also to countries such as Vietnam and China, which use it to crack down on dissidents. Bamford wraps up with the agencyís growing interest in gathering and mining communications data, which includes building a massive new 470,000-square-foot ďdata warehouseĒ in San Antonio that, as Bamford observes, ďmay eventually be able to hold all the information in the world.Ē
Low-key but voluble, 62-year-old Bamford spoke with the Currentís Times-Shamrock sister publication, Baltimore City Paper, from his home in Washington, D.C.
How did you first get interested in the NSA and start writing about it?
I was in the Navy for three years, and then [thanks to] the GI Bill I went to college and law school. After graduating from law school, I wasnít that interested in practicing law. I wanted to get into writing, and one of the areas I was kind of interested in was intelligence. There had been lots of books written about the CIA, and there wasnít really much I could contribute, but no one had ever done a book on NSA, which Iíd heard about but didnít really know too much about. I thought that might be something I could do that no one else had done.
When you started writing your book in 1979, wasnít the NSAís existence still more or less officially unacknowledged by the government?
It was officially acknowledged in the late í50s, early í60s 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 ďkeeping Americaís communications secure.Ē They didnít really talk about their eavesdropping or code-breaking role. That started coming out later on in the Ď60s, but by the time I began writing about them in the late í70s, they were still pretty much in the closet. There had been a couple of articles about them, but not really very much. 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? After all, itís supposed to be top secret.
I had a difficult time. My advance was fairly small, I was living in Massachusetts, I didnít really know anyone in intelligence, and I hadnít written anything before. And I was going up against NSA.
One of the things I was good at in law school was research, so I thought maybe Iíd try using the Freedom of Information Act. The problem with that was, NSA is really the only agency excluded from the act. If you sent them an FOI request, they would just send you a letter back saying under [Section 6 of the National Security Act] we donít have to give you anything, even if itís unclassified.
But I found this place, the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia, 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 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 wasnít 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. Theyíre fairly chatty, but if you read them closely enough you can pick up some pretty good information about the agency. ... When I was reading one of the newsletters, there was a paragraph that said, ďThe contents of this newsletter must be kept within the small circle of NSA employees and their families.Ē And I thought about it for a little bit, and I thought, hmm, they just waived their protections on that newsletter — if thatís on every single newsletter then Iíve got a pretty good case against them. If youíre going to open it up to family members, with no clearance, who donít 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 get to interview senior officials and take a tour of the agency. And that was what really opened it up.
It wasnít the NSA you see today — it was much different. They just thought no one would ever try to write about NSA, and they didnít think I would have any luck, because who am I? Iím just some guy up in Massachusetts with no track record.
What was the agencyís 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 had a book-signing there. Body of Secrets was fairly favorable, because they had changed their ways after í78 — they werenít doing domestic eavesdropping anymore. It seemed like theyíd learned their lesson and were obeying the law.
That phase of my relationship with NSA ended on December 16, 2005. Thatís 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. And thatís when the ACLU asked me to join their class-action lawsuit as a plaintiff against NSA. So I went from getting dinner invitations to the directorís house and Christmas-party invitations to being on the other side of a lawsuit. Itís a love-hate relationship, and itís been going on a long time.
When I told people I was going to be interviewing you about the NSA, some of them made jokes about the agency listening in on the phone call. I think a lot of Americans, correctly or not, halfway believe that the agency actually does such things. Do you?
I never claimed that NSA eavesdrops on domestic-to-domestic communications, so I wouldnít 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 [before 9/11] when they came across an American they would immediately turn off the computer and move on to the next call. Itís called ďminimizationĒ — you donít keep a record of it, you donít transcribe it, you donít record it, unless you have a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence court. But after 9/11 she says they werenít doing any minimization. Theyíd pick up Americans calling Americans and theyíd actually listen to those conversations, theyíd transcribe some of them, and theyíd all be recorded and stored — for eternity for all I know.
So peopleís paranoia about the NSA listening in on phone calls, at least inside the United States, is unfounded?
Unless thereís stuff I donít know, which is quite possible, thereís never been domestic-to-domestic [telephone or e-mail surveillance]. Most of what they do is foreign country to foreign country or U.S to a foreign country or a foreign country to the U.S. But think of how many communications there are to or from Americans [internationally] in terms of email, 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-Qaeda, and certainly no Americans talking to Al-Qaeda, 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 didnít join the Army to listen to bedroom talk between soldiers and their wives.
Another aspect of the warrantless eavesdropping program had to do with communications between foreign nationals in other countries that nonetheless pass through the United States that the NSA wanted access to, right?
Thereís so much information that flashes between ISPs in the United States like Google, Yahoo, and AOL, and there are so many large nodes for the transfer of internet communications that the U.S. plays a huge role in the thing.
Say youíre in Madrid and you send an email to Tehran and itís 10 a.m. in Madrid. Thereís a good chance thatís gonna go from Madrid to New York to Tehran instead of, say, Paris, because at 10 in the morning thereís a huge amount of traffic passing through those European hubs, and at the same time its about 5 in the morning on the East Coast [of the United States], so itís very quiet, and itís also cheaper. The computer would automatically reroute that communication. This is a foreigner talking to a foreigner, and the only U.S. nexus is that for a millisecond this communication bounces in and out of an internet hub. This was a problem. (Editorís note: The FISA law prevented the NSA from accessing such communications without a warrant but, at the urging of the Bush Administration and with the permission and cooperation of telecommunications companies, it tapped into fiber-optic cables anyway.)
Itís strange to think about the NSA as this agency engaged in all this highly secret, super-technical, and, in this case, illegal activity, but at the same time think of it as the place youíve described as having office Christmas parties and softball games and all the other mundane stuff that goes along with working in a big government agency. Whatís the culture of NSA like?
Itís 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. Iíve 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 time they get nervous when they contribute something because they may not be sure whether itís something they read in Time magazine or something they read in a top-secret memo or something. Or if they read it in Time magazine and they say it, whether someone will report it because they think theyíre giving up a secret. So at least the people Iíve talked to in the past tended to keep in their small employee-type circles.
Well, one of the first things people tend to ask someone they just met at a party is ďWhat do you do?Ē
Yeah, and in the area around NSA, in the past it was ďDepartment of Defense.Ē So if they say Department of Defense and youíre in Laurel, Maryland, you know theyíre working for the NSA. If it was just neighbors, maybe people could say NSA, but if they didnít know who was there, I think they would try not saying anything or saying something generic like ďI work for the governmentĒ or ďI work for the Department of DefenseĒ and hope it wouldnít go any further than that.
Iím struck by the fact that you sound genuinely surprised and upset, still, about the warrantless eavesdropping program.
Well, I was very surprised. I had defended the agency in a number of places.
But, as you write in The Shadow Factory, the agency had been caught spying on Americans before in the í70s with Project Shamrock.
I agree, but I didnít know the people back then. I knew the people this time. 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-í70s was the worst time in NSAís 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 [as part of Project Shamrock]. 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 donít want to relive them, weíre going to keep as far from the edge as possible.
I didnít think that was going to change after 9/11 — you still had the [FISA] court there, you still had laws, the Constitution. Thatís why when I read the reports and talked to people who indicated that they had decided to bypass the court ... I mean, thatís illegal. There is no other word for it. The FISA act says if you want to eavesdrop on what they call a ďU.S. person,Ē you get a warrant from the FISA court. You donít bypass it. Thatís a felony. You can get five years in prison.
Iíve written more than anyone else on the agency and, you know, itís no big deal, I just go on with the next day like the day before, but when I find out that this agency that Iíve been saying would never do these things is doing them, yeah, itís a shock and a disappointment, a disappointment in the people that you didnít think were going to do that.
The people I did have respect for were [Deputy Attorney General] Jim Comey, even [Attorney General John] Ashcroft, and Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI. They, plus people under them, came within a day of resigning over this whole thing. And thatís standing up for moral principles, and I would have much preferred that General Hayden would have stood up to Cheney or whomever and said thatís illegal, I canít do that, I canít carry out that order so Iím going to have to resign. Itís scary to think that someone puts a little pressure on you and you say, OK, thatís fine, weíll go ahead and bypass the law.
They could have gone to Congress. Congress would have given them anything they wanted in those days. But itís the arrogance of power when you decide youíre not even going to do that. Youíre just going to do it because you feel like doing it, because youíre the person whoís going to save the world. Thatís how tyrannies get to be tyrannies, because people think theyíre above the law.
One of the interesting, and disturbing things about the warrantless eavesdropping as you describe it in the book is that the NSA started getting this increased level of access and raking in more and more communications but seemed to get little usable information out of it all.
The problem is that NSA was never designed for what itís 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 í46 until 1990 or í91, thatís what its mission was. Thatís what every piece of equipment, thatís what every person recruited to the agency, was supposed to do, practically — find out when and where and if the Russians were about to launch a nuclear attack. Thatís what it spent 50 years being built for. And then all of a sudden the Soviet Union is not around anymore, and NSAís got a new mission, and part of that is going after terrorists. And itís 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. Thereís this string of failures because this agency was not really designed to do this. In the movies, theyíd be catching terrorists all the time. But this isnít the movies, this is reality.
The big difference here is that when they were focused on the Soviet Union, the Soviets communicated over dedicated lines. The army communicated over army channels, the navy communicated over navy channels, the diplomats communicated over foreign-office channels. These were all particular channels, particular frequencies, you knew where they were; the main problem was breaking encrypted communications. [The NSA] had listening posts ringing the Soviet Union, they had Russian linguists that were being pumped out from all these schools around the U.S.
Then the Cold War ends and everything changes. Now instead of a huge country that communicated all the time, you have individuals who hop from Kuala Lampur to Nairobi or whatever, from continent to continent, from day to day. They donít communicate [electronically] all the time — they communicate by meetings. [The NSA was] tapping Bin Ladenís phone for three years and never picked up on any of these terrorist incidents. And the [electronic] communications you do have are not on dedicated channels, theyíre mixed in with the world communication network. First youíve got to find out how to extract that from it, then youíve got to find people who can understand the language, and then youíve got to figure out the word code. You canít use a Cray supercomputer to figure out if somebodyís saying theyíre going to have a wedding next week whether itís really going to be a wedding or a bombing.
So thatís the challenge facing the people there. So even though Iím critical about them for missing these things, I also try in the book to give an explanation as to why this is. Itís certainly not because the people are incompetent. Itís because the world has changed.
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 didnít have anybody [at the time] who spoke Pashtun. Weíre at war in Afghanistan and the main language of the Taliban is Pashtun.
The answer here is to change our foreign policy so that we donít have to depend on agencies like NSA to try to protect the country. You try to protect the country by having reasonable policies so that we wonít have to worry about terrorism so much. Itís just getting harder and harder to find them.
I think most Americans know about NSA and have some general idea what itís about, but I was surprised to read about the National Business Park, where thereís been this huge boom in private contractors doing NSA work since September 11.
That came as a huge surprise to me. Iíve watched NSA grow since 1979, and it really came as a shock to me when I saw the National Business Park and how huge itís grown. What it is is all the private contractors doing what NSA used to do. You see Booz Allen [Hamilton] and Titan and General Dynamics, and then you look at the [local] newspaper and see all these companies advertising for intercept operators and network analysts. This agency, which used to be dedicated to having employees who would work there for 30 years, now is outsourcing so much. I have a statistic in there that in 2001 the NSA had 55 contracts with private firms and in 2005 it had 7,197. If you turn this into a huge [private] industry, and at the same time youíre deregulating the industry — if you look at the financial industry you see the problems you get into when you start deregulating, and thatís what theyíve done here. Theyíve deregulated eavesdropping. There are no rules, and the people who are doing it arenít even really accountable — theyíre just employees of private companies. It gets very worrisome.
These are things that are out there to find, but it seems so few people are out there looking. Congress seems to be paying no attention. Even before 9/11, Congress seemed very reluctant to criticize NSA or put restraints on NSA. It seemed like Congress was resisting the Administrationís push last spring. In February, the temporary [Protect America Act] ran out and the Bush administration was pushing very hard to have this new FISA law passed, and the House resisted it until July. They finally buckled in July when they realized the election was about four months away, because theyíre all afraid of being accused of being weak on terrorism. But I wonder how many of them really knew much about NSA or the things they were voting for. The only way youíre going to know it is to go to a special room where there was classified information, and they couldnít take notes, and have to sit there and read it, and how many of them are gonna do that?
Weíre talking before the presidential election, but Iím curious what you think might change in regard to the NSA under McCain or Obama, the latter of whom somewhat surprisingly voted for the FISA Amendments Law.
Whatís interesting is that Obama seemed to have a lot of disagreements with the changes in the FISA Act early on, and he even threatened to filibuster early on against the legislation the way it [was] written. But then he compromised and voted for it in the end — he said sometimes youíve gotta compromise, we need something and this is the best we can do. The question is whether youíre gonna stand up for principles when the times get tough or always just compromise. I think if he could have applied enough pressure they could have reworked it. Right now the FISA court is pretty well neutered. I donít know where that goes.
I donít think McCain would make much of a change when it comes to NSA. Itís a question of where Obamaís gonna go. You can see his heart is in the right place; he says the right things when these issues come up. But the question is, down the road, is he going to give into political pressure and compromise away some of the things people are voting for him for, or is he gonna stand up?
So where does the NSA go from here? Some of the stuff in the last section of The Shadow Factory reads like science-fiction — data-mining and artificial intelligence.
Right now theyíre at a point where theyíve got enormous amounts of money, but they donít seem to be getting much out of it. Theyíre getting hugely into this data-mining — look at that building theyíre 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. Thatís why theyíre building that huge facility in San Antonio. Not only to store data, which you probably only need about 75 people for — Microsoft, which is building a very similar facility only a few miles away thatís almost exactly the same size, they only have 75. The NSAís going to put 1,400 people in there. The only reason you need that many people is if youíre not just going to keep the routers humming, is if youíre actually going to dig into all the data in there. And whatís in there could be what Iím looking at on my computer right now, or web searches Iíve been making, or what books people are buying from Amazon or what websites theyíre visiting. Those are the things that worry me.
But, as we discussed, the NSA isnít allowed to eavesdrop on domestic communications.
The restrictions are much less on data communications. The FISA act only really applies to phone communications or email.
When Congress was looking at the NSA back in the í70s, when the only thing [the agency] could do is listen to your hard-line telephone in your house, [Senator] Frank Church said that he didnít want the country to go over into the abyss that was there if we ever let this agency get out of control, and that was back then. 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 email or web-searching. Thirty years ago they didnít have access to mail, ícause it was in envelopes, and they couldnít 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?
Iím not a very paranoid person. I couldnít have written all these books if I was paranoid. But what bothers me is that thereís 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. Thatís just par for the course. Journalists, everybody, seem to avoid looking at it because itís surrounded by this wall of secrecy, and itís 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 wasnít for two reporters from the New York Times, we still might not know about it, if you think about it that way.
*Correction: This story originally reported that Hayden's rank at the time he was named director of the National Security Agency was Lieutenant General. His rank was, in fact, Major General.