Inside the Shadow Factory

James Bamford’s important new book details America’s post-9/11 surveillance-industrial complex

Brian Beutler December 18, 2008

Bamford’s book focuses on the National Security Agency's recent rapid growth.

Most Amer­i­cans prob­a­bly do not know what the NSA is. Among those who do, a great per­cent­age like­ly have only a vague sense of what the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency actu­al­ly does, with lit­tle knowl­edge of its domes­tic activ­i­ties and his­to­ry of law­break­ing. Any­one who falls into either of these two cat­e­gories should begin by read­ing jour­nal­ist James Bamford’s 1983 book, The Puz­zle Palace.

But those pay­ing clos­er atten­tion to the agency will know that before the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist attacks, the NSA, with sup­port from the Bush White House, had been fight­ing its own obso­les­cence. The agency was fig­ur­ing out ways to access com­mu­ni­ca­tions that trav­el via fiber-optic cables along the ocean floor – now a com­mon infra­struc­ture for com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems. They will know that after Sept. 11, the NSA, along with major telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies like AT&T and Ver­i­zon, par­tic­i­pat­ed in a secret pro­gram to wire­tap Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and mine domes­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion data for clues in the war on ter­ror – in con­tra­ven­tion of U.S. law. 

They will know that once Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists exposed this pro­gram, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion cam­paigned to legal­ize many of its crimes and – with the help of Con­gress – immu­nize from pros­e­cu­tion the very peo­ple who abet­ted those crimes. 

And they might also know that only three months after the admin­is­tra­tion won that cam­paign, ABC News report­ed that NSA ana­lysts had know­ing­ly eaves­dropped on the per­son­al con­ver­sa­tions of hun­dreds of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and soldiers.

Peo­ple who already know much of this can for­go The Puz­zle Palace and move straight to Bamford’s new book, The Shad­ow Fac­to­ry: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 911 to the Eaves­drop­ping on Amer­i­ca (Dou­ble­day, October).

It is against this back­drop that Bam­ford recounts how the NSA trans­formed itself from an agency beset by bud­getary prob­lems, a Cold War mind­set and bureau­crat­ic sna­fus, into an espi­onage behe­moth – and how it quick­ly became too large to effec­tive­ly police com­mu­ni­ca­tions’ net­works, and too pow­er-hun­gry to fol­low the law. 

In Jan­u­ary 2000, two Sau­di men – Yemeni-born Khalid al-Mihd­har and his boy­hood friend Nawaf al-Haz­mi – flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Los Ange­les to begin an oper­a­tion that would cul­mi­nate in the destruc­tion of the World Trade Cen­ter and one of the five sides of the Pen­ta­gon. The duo had begun their jour­ney from the Mid­dle East only a few weeks pri­or, after they received orders from al Qae­da to trav­el east. The NSA inter­cept­ed that call.

In a func­tion­ing intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, this infor­ma­tion might have passed smooth­ly from the tech­no-spooks who first dis­cov­ered it, to the State Depart­ment bureau­crats who could have pre­vent­ed the men from enter­ing the coun­try. Or, per­haps, to the FBI anti-ter­ror agents who might have inter­cept­ed them upon their arrival. 

But ter­ri­to­r­i­al rival­ries and anti­quat­ed pro­to­cols got in the way. The NSA sat on the infor­ma­tion for months, and by the time any­one under­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of what had been record­ed, it was too late. 

At the time of the attacks, Air Force Gen. Michael Hay­den head­ed the NSA. In Bamford’s telling, Hay­den had spent his two-and-a-half year tenure assid­u­ous­ly avoid­ing the sorts of legal­ly ques­tion­able – or down­right ille­gal – activ­i­ties that had brought the agency to its knees in the after­math of the Nixon era.

After the 2001 attacks, things changed. Armed with a bal­loon­ing bud­get, Hay­den did an about-face, shift­ing the agency’s focus to wired com­mu­ni­ca­tions and insert­ing its ten­drils all over the world, even, famous­ly, where they didn’t belong.

Had this [war­rant­less wire­tap­ping pro­gram] been in place pri­or to the attacks,” Hay­den told the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee after the ille­gal oper­a­tion had been revealed, the two hijack­ers [al-Mihd­har and al-Haz­mi] almost cer­tain­ly would have been iden­ti­fied as who they were, what they were, and most impor­tant­ly, where they were.” 

That was the post hoc jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. But it was a weak one. As Bam­ford writes, If Hay­den had sim­ply done as his job allowed and traced the calls and e‑mail back from the Yemen ops cen­ter and obtained a FISA war­rant for the Cal­i­for­nia phone num­bers and e‑mail address, he would have dis­cov­ered who, what and where they were back in the spring of 2000.”

The war­rant­less wire­tap­ping pro­gram may have been the sin­gle biggest affront to the Con­sti­tu­tion in the post-Sept. 11 era. But as Bam­ford notes in detail, it was in some sens­es less dan­ger­ous for what it was, and more dan­ger­ous for what it rep­re­sent­ed: a sur­veil­lance state run amok. 

In the weeks and months after the attack, the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty found itself in con­trol of a huge amount of mon­ey, con­tract­ing with domes­tic and for­eign com­pa­nies to build and pro­lif­er­ate tools need­ed to spy on the world – cre­at­ing, in effect, a sur­veil­lance-indus­tri­al complex. 

In such a milieu, it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that the gov­ern­ment bugged the con­ver­sa­tions of offi­cials from coun­tries that serve on the U.N. Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil in the run up to the Iraq War – the idea being, in the words of an agency offi­cial, that the gamut of infor­ma­tion … could give U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers an edge in obtain­ing results favor­able to U.S. goals or to head off surprises.”

It’s sim­i­lar­ly unsur­pris­ing that the NSA has dis­sem­i­nat­ed its tech­nol­o­gy to some of the worst human rights vio­la­tors in the world. As part of these arrange­ments, Bam­ford notes, the U.S. [gets] full access to the data,” and gives the part­ner coun­try seri­ous tools of oppression. 

As a Jus­tice Depart­ment attor­ney told the House Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee after the wire­tap­ping pro­gram was revealed, I think the pres­i­dent has made it clear that there is no oth­er pro­gram that involves domes­tic elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance of domes­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tions,” leav­ing open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that for­eign elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance of both for­eign and domes­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tions is still ongoing.

The Shad­ow Fac­to­ry isn’t per­fect. Bam­ford has a ten­den­cy to describe, in omni­scient detail, events – a meet­ing at an al Qae­da safe house, or an after­noon meet­ing at the NSA – that he couldn’t pos­si­bly have wit­nessed. And he at times seems cred­u­lous about Hayden’s legal dili­gence before Sept. 11, sug­gest­ing a man trans­formed by the shock of the attacks into a sol­dier with an unfor­tu­nate but under­stand­able will­ing­ness to flout the law. 

While this inter­pre­ta­tion is pos­si­ble, it doesn’t explain why, as Bam­ford writes, Despite the law … Hay­den decid­ed to ignore the court and secret­ly begin seek­ing the coop­er­a­tion of the country’s tele­coms … even before 911.”

Still, The Shad­ow Fac­to­ry is a tri­umphant mix of research and reportage, and it deserves to be read wide­ly. It is a wake-up call to any­body who thinks the threats posed by the sur­veil­lance state will dis­ap­pear with George W. Bush. 

Bri­an Beut­ler is the Wash­ing­ton Cor­re­spon­dent for the Media Con­sor­tium, a net­work of pro­gres­sive media orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing In These Times.
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