December 25, 2005
Bamford Weighs In

After cooking for four and a half hours, eating and drinking for an hour and a half, and vegging in front of the TV for an hour after that, I decided to jog the food down the tunnel with the aid of gravity, so I went for a walk.

When I got back, I discovered that James Bamford, the author of two histories — probably the only two histories — of the National Security Agency, has an article in the New York Times today.

He outlines the changes that the NSA is struggling with:

Today, instead of eavesdropping on an enormous country that was always chattering and never moved [the USSR], the N.S.A. is trying to find small numbers of individuals who operate in closed cells, seldom communicate electronically (and when they do, use untraceable calling cards or disposable cellphones) and are constantly traveling from country to country.

During the cold war, the agency could depend on a constant flow of American-born Russian linguists from the many universities around the country with Soviet studies programs. Now the government is forced to search ethnic communities to find people who can speak Dari, Urdu or Lingala — and also pass a security clearance that frowns on people with relatives in their, or their parents’, former countries.


He also quotes (as he did in Puzzle Palace) Senator Frank Church on the dangers inherent in aiming this awesome listening machinery at Americans:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people,” [Church] said in 1975, “and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

He added that if a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A. “could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

At the time, the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters. But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind.

Note that Church was saying in 1975 that the technical capability existed to eliminate privacy; and with electronic communications, interception is generally easier. For this reason, I’ve long advocated the use of public-key encryption programs like PGP.

Here’s the big finish:

“I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge,” Senator Church said. “I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”


Posted by Chuck Dupree at December 25, 2005 09:55 PM
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I read Body of Secrets about 6 months ago. Any comments as to what the other two of his most well known books would add to my body of knowledge? Bamford did seem to write Secretsin perhaps a somewhat too favorable light at times. PErhaps his perspective has changed due to more recent events.

Posted by: Buck on December 25, 2005 11:13 PM

Bamford's initial history of the NSA: The Puzzle Palace, © Bamford 1982, was pretty much covered/brought up to date by his Body of Secrets, © Bamford (2002?); I've read both books. I have not read his latest book.

Posted by: Hoffmann on December 26, 2005 9:40 AM

Bush said it would be so much easier to be a dictator. Not a joke, anymore.

Posted by: tstreet on December 26, 2005 10:05 AM

Note that Church was saying in 1975 that the technical capability existed to eliminate privacy; and with electronic communications, interception is generally easier. For this reason, Iíve long advocated the use of public-key encryption programs like PGP.

Which is clearly why the NSA wanted to make the AES (Rijndael) encryption algorithm illegal -- too much brute force needed to break it. Also why the Brits created the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which requires citizens to turn over their encryption keys if demanded (note that it was passed in 2000, before the 'War on Terra').

Of course, you have to wonder, have we really had any privacy for quite some time (decades?)? Assuming the Brits have similar capabilities (a rather safe assumption, I'd think), with ECHELON (we'll spy on your citizens and give you the info if you spy on ours and give us the info) we've had that intellegence apparatus trained on us since at least the 1980s.

All of this is disturbing enough, but it's even worse if William Arkin is right that the real reason for discarding FISA oversight was that the NSA has begun total, constant surveillance of everyone, something FISA would never approve. Although I am mildly amused at the thought of what they would do if their pattern recognition algorithms thought, like Able Danger did, that Condi "Mrs. Bush" Rice is a Chinese agent of influence. Then again, I've always been partial to gallows humor.

Posted by: qubit on December 26, 2005 1:01 PM

To me the argument is not wether or not to use this technology, but how and with what safeguards for privacy and civil liberties. When the King decides that this set of parameters is the way its going to be and we have to rely on newspaper leaks (NYT and WaPo have a lot to make up for, but this reportage is going in the points toward redemption column) its a sad day for democracy. We've been attacked again, only this time its an attack on the checks and balances that differentiate America from just another morally corrupt police state. This whole affair is just the kind of thing that paleo-wing-nuts used to deride the USSR for. As the worm turns.

Posted by: TomP Jr on December 27, 2005 1:31 AM
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