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The Ears of America

They might well begin with a knotty subject that Bamford never treats at length—the NSA’s contribution to the national security. This is hard to gauge. Investigation of the intelligence community by House and Senate select committees in the mid-1970s for the most part mentioned only the failures and “excesses,” like NSA’s Operation Minaret, which maintained watch lists of about 1,680 Americans for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Between 1967 and 1973 the NSA distributed nearly four thousand reports concerning these Americans, but it would be hard to say what practical use they served. One director told the Senate select committee that NSA’s monitoring of international phone calls and cable traffic had helped the BNDD intercept some large drug shipments and had prevented “a major terrorist act,” presumably a Palestinian attack on American Jews. Another, much larger NSA program, Operation Shamrock, intercepted just about all cable traffic entering and leaving the United States between 1945 and 1975.

This was a very large undertaking indeed. Presumably it gave the NSA access to all diplomatic cable traffic with the exception of messages hand-carried by courier. How many of these messages could have been read by the NSA is not known, but it must have been a large number. Were they useful? Bamford doesn’t know, and I don’t either. Officials were doubtless glad to have them, but there is no public evidence that reading other countries’ secret messages has really served the American national interest. There is also no evidence that the counterintelligence arms of the FBI and the CIA were aided by NSA interceptions, or what, if anything, was done with the staggering quantities of information that must have been obtained relating to international trade in oil, grain, or high-technology equipment.

My guess is that the NSA’s interception of telephone and cable messages picked up something about everything, that a lot of it fell into a nice-to-know category, and that very little of it was both critical in importance and unobtainable by other means. Whether that little is worth what it costs is impossible for an outsider to say. Officials in the national security community clearly think that it is. The only public fruits of the NSA’s work are the seven thick volumes of translations published daily by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. These are consulted by scholars and occasionally by journalists. At the moment, for example, they are a principal source of information about Iran.

There can be no question about the utility of the NSA’s technical collection of radio signals related to military matters. It is well known that the verification of arms agreements, as well as general intelligence about Soviet military programs, depend all but exclusively on “national technical means,” most of which are operated by the NSA. (Reconnaissance satellites are run by the Air Force under the direction of the National Reconnaissance Office. The contribution from spies run by the CIA is minuscule.) But that is only part of it. If the United States and the Soviet Union ever fight a big general war, all aspects of that war will involve intelligence of the sort collected by the NSA, from the first shots or missile launches until the final armistice or exhausted silence. The “winner”—we will not try here to settle whether there can be one—will very likely be the side with the most enduring system of “C3I,” or command, control, communications, and intelligence. This is certainly the Pentagon’s belief and it explains why the Reagan administration is planning to spend $18 billion on C3I over the next few years, most of it for ways to maintain or replace facilities destroyed—“stressed” in the Pentagon’s term—in the course of the war.

Allied success in cracking German and Japanese codes during World War II is now well known, and the NSA’s acres of computers are evidence that it hopes to do the same. But code breaking is no longer the primary focus of the intelligence part of C3I. Modern armies emit a continual buzz and hum of radio messages and signals. The fire-control and target-finding devices of tanks and fighter planes, for example, give them away in the very process of aiding the tanks and planes to attack or to defend themselves from an enemy. Even before the ignition of a missile’s rocket mortar could be picked up by infrared sensors on a satellite in geosychronous orbit high overhead, the launch order would have been suggested through radio signals. Firing a missile is not like throwing a light switch. The preparation to launch involves a blizzard of microwave transmissions.

It is the same with conventional forces. An army requires an intricate command web linked by radio. Mapping that web reveals where everybody is and what he’s doing. But figuring these things out—finding the ways in which military units, and even weapons themselves, talk to each other—can’t wait until the war begins. It has to be done in advance. This is where the NSA comes in, and why its ELINT planes and SIGINT ships have so often been attacked by target countries. The 1950s were the heyday of “spoofing”—deliberate intrusions of Soviet airspace, sometimes by formations of bombers, in order to trigger radar defenses so that they could be monitored, mapped, and identified. Several US aircraft were shot down during these provocative and dangerous exercises. In 1964 the US destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy were on SIGINT missions in the Tonkin Gulf where they were apparently attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Pueblo, captured by North Korea in 1968, was on a similar mission.

Perhaps the most notorious of these incidents occurred in June 1967, when Israeli aircraft attacked the SIGINT ship Liberty cruising along the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The territorial limit claimed by Egypt was twelve miles, by Israel six. The Liberty, decks crowded with electronic gear, scrupulously remained in international waters. Why was she crowding in on the battle zone? “Somebody wanted to listen to some close tactical program,” Raven told Bamford, “or communications or something which nobody in the world gave a damn about….”

On the morning of the third day of the war, June 8, Israeli aircraft repeatedly buzzed the ship but made no attempt to contact her by radio. At 2 PM the aircraft returned and attacked the Liberty without warning of any kind, using rockets, cannon fire, and napalm. Eight US Navy men were killed outright. The ship was set afire and punctured by 800 shell holes big enough to put a fist through. At 2:24 PM three Israeli torpedo boats appeared and renewed the attack. A forty-foot-wide hole was blown in the side of the Liberty. Lifeboats were machine-gunned. Another twenty-four men were killed and over a hundred wounded. At 4:10 PM the Israeli government reported the attack to the American embassy in Tel Aviv and apologized. The following day an explanation was offered. The Israelis had mistaken the Liberty (455 feet long) for the Egyptian coastal steamer El Quseir (275 feet long). The US government formally accepted the apology and the explanation, and in 1980, after long negotiations, finally received $6 million in compensation for the ship (which had cost more than $30 million).

It is not hard to understand why Israel insisted the attack was a mistake, or why Washington accepted the explanation at face value, but scholars and military experts who have studied the episode mostly take a different view. For them the hard question is not whether the attack was deliberate, but why the Israelis thought it necessary. Writing in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings of June 1978, the naval historian Richard K. Smith concluded that Israeli military authorities, hoping to launch an attack on the Golan Heights in Syria before a cease-fire could be imposed upon them, feared that the Liberty was scooping up enough battlefield radio traffic to see that Israel had already won the war. According to Smith (as quoted by Bamford), the Israelis wanted to maintain the confusions natural to a rapidly unfolding campaign—what Clausewitz called “the fog of war”—in order to retain freedom of action for another few but critical days.

In the absence of definite proof Smith’s view must be taken as only educated surmise. The point here is that the Liberty, like other “platforms” for collecting intelligence run by the NSA, really did have the capacity to gather in and process enough radio transmissions to give American authorities almost as good a view of the progress of the war, and at almost the same time, as could be obtained by the Israelis themselves. The utility of SIGINT is suggested by Israel’s alleged willingness to take such drastic action against its main, indeed its only important, ally. Outsiders have sometimes criticized the NSA for its “vacuum-cleaner” approach to collection, especially where the information sucked up includes the conversations and cables of American citizens. But it is precisely this omniverousness—the “brute force” scale of collecting—that makes the NSA worth $10 billion a year to American defense planners.

Like the rest of the intelligence community, the NSA is not very good at predicting things—especially large things which come as an unpleasant surprise. It failed to predict the outbreak of the Korean War, the Chinese crossing of the Yalu River, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Tet offensive in 1968, or the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia later that year. This list might be much extended. But the truth is that intelligence services are best at more mundane tasks—finding things, counting things, and describing things. The NSA has helped to provide US officials with a comprehensive, reliable, and extremely detailed knowledge of Soviet strategic forces. It is probably this fact which explains the willingness of Admiral Noel Gayler, the NSA director between 1969 and 1972, to support publicly the campaign to freeze nuclear weapons at current levels, rather than build the vast new systems which the Reagan administration claims are needed to “catch up” with the Russians. The focus of the NSA since its birth has been the Soviet Union. Occasionally it has gathered juicy political information—the conversations over radio-telephone of Soviet leaders traveling about Moscow in their limousines, for example. One ought not to slight such achievements. But the NSA’s main job has been on a much vaster scale—to paint a comprehensive electronic portait, a kind of wiring diagram, of the Soviet armed forces.

The Soviets conduct similar operations against the West. Among other things they maintain a world-wide fleet of fishing trawlers that double as SIGINT ships. One is stationed at all times, for example, near the US missile testing site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the coast of California, and another waits downrange near Kwajalein Lagoon, the target area in the Marshall Islands. The Soviets also spare no pains to keep track of what the NSA is doing. A retired intelligence officer once asked me to remove from something I had written the names of four CIA technicians who had handled secret communications traffic at a US consulate in Africa during the 1960s. He told me the Russians went to great lengths to identify Americans who had anything to do with codes, tried to recruit or blackmail them, and at times had even physically attacked and injured them in the hope that a replacement would prove an easier target. The officer insisted that the four men I had identified might be in physical danger if I published their names. When I finally admitted to myself that this could really be so, I dropped the names.

From time to time Soviet efforts of this sort are successful, as suggested last July when the British arrested Geoffrey Arthur Prime, a Russian-language translator who worked for Britain’s equivalent of the NSA—Government Communications Headquarters—for nine years between 1968 and 1977. A New York Times story on October 24 reported that US intelligence officials were much worried about the Prime case because the NSA and GCH cooperate closely, and because Prime’s job as a translator put him, and the Russians, in an ideal position to determine which of their codes had been compromised. The officials also raised the possibility that the Russians had been systematically feeding false information to the West through messages they knew we could read. Intelligence officials do not usually tell reporters of such matters. The motive in this case was clearly to pressure the British into greater candor.

The damage caused by penetration of this sort in peacetime can mostly be repaired; in wartime—or in the sort of crisis situations that can lead to war—it could be nothing short of a disaster. If the Germans had ever learned that the British at Bletchley Park were reading the daily location reports of submarines in the North Atlantic during World War II, to give only one example, the campaign to starve Britain might have gone the other way. It is in the nature of intelligence work that something very large, like the NSA, can be seriously injured by something very small—the compromise of even a single troubled employee (such as Prime), or the acquisition of a briefcase full of documents. The obsession with secrecy that follows from this fact helps to explain why the NSA is so unhappy about the publication of Bamford’s book.

Frederick the Great of Prussia once said that an ordinary citizen should never know his country was at war. American policy since World War II has been to go Frederick one better, anticipating nothing but trouble from kibitzers. For thirty years the NSA, despite its size, remained happily in shadow. Bamford has given us our first good, clear look at it, and what we see confirms the impression—to my mind, at least—that the principal undertaking of our time is the preparation for war.

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