Notes from Underground

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century

James Bamford
Doubleday, 721 pp., $29.95

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government
Saving Privacy in the Digital Age

Steven Levy
Viking, 356 pp., $25.95


The four-engine US Navy aircraft which made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island on April 1 was on a routine ELINT mission, so called for what it collected—electronic intelligence. A crew of four actually flew the plane; the other twenty Americans on board, all Navy personnel but on a mission ultimately sponsored by the National Security Agency, were there to find, identify, collect, and record a range of electronic emissions from routine military chatter on radios to the characteristic signature of Chinese defensive radars.

The NSA, with the help of the Navy and Air Force, has been doing this since the late 1940s, sometimes aggressively, and the target countries detest it. In the early days the Soviet Union shot down as many as forty American aircraft on ELINT missions, some of them deep inside Soviet airspace, killing perhaps two hundred American civilians and military men. The most recent incident, however, occurred over international waters in the South China Sea; reckless shadowing of the slow-moving, propeller-driven American EP-3E by a Chinese fighter aircraft appears to have caused a midair collision. Accident it may have been, but the message was the same as that of the Soviet shootdowns of yesteryear—back off.

But backing off is the last thing the United States is likely to do. Collecting intelligence is what great powers have learned to do instead of going to war, and the risk of war between the United States and China, not great, and at first glance crazy and unthinkable, has nevertheless been growing year by year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The big irritant is Taiwan, over which China seeks to reassert political control. American administrations haven’t ruled this out, so long as it isn’t achieved by military force. But the specter of military force is very much part of the strategy used by China, which has been threatening Taiwan in symbolic ways, such as test-firing missiles near the island, and the United States has been demonstrating support in symbolic ways, such as agreeing to major new weapons sales, but not, so far, the sophisticated Aegis defense system.

What happened to the Navy’s EP-3E has its symbolic side, too—the Americans were flying it up and down the Chinese coast partly to show we can’t be pushed around, and the Chinese were shadowing it aggressively to show we’d better be ready for a lot of pushing. The civilian observer watching the drama unfold on CNN probably feels much like an adult watching toddlers squabble in a sandbox—what are they fighting about? Why can’t they just get along?

But the making of symbolic gestures is not why the United States spends uncountable billions on ELINT flights and all the rest of the intelligence-collecting activities of the NSA. So what did the Chinese find so threatening and how did the Americans plan to use what they learned? These questions are addressed, with numerous examples and a wealth of human and technical detail, in the new history of the NSA, Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, who wrote one of the really good books about American intelligence twenty years ago, and has now done it again.

The new book revisits old ground but there is nothing tired about it. Bamford has learned some things that ought to make headlines and ignite serious argument, but the real strengths of the book are to be found in its portrait of the NSA—an institution of staggering size and capacity—and in its firm conviction that every American with enough interest in the world to read a daily newspaper ought to know what the NSA does, how it does it, and why. This may sound like elementary civics but candor about intelligence comes at a cost: the secrets uncovered by intelligence organizations are always inconvenient to somebody, and sometimes the way secrets are obtained, once it has become publicly visible, is ruled out of order. No government chooses candor if it can hide what it’s up to, and without Bamford’s efforts, beginning with his first book, The Puzzle Palace, in 1982, the initials NSA would probably still stand for “no such agency.”

The principal target of the National Security Agency is communication by foreign powers, and especially enciphered communications. During World War II the Allies were so successful in learning to read German and Japanese codes that some historians argue it made the difference between victory and defeat. The German navy’s reliance on the Enigma code machine, cracked by British wizards at Bletchley Park, cost them the battle of the Atlantic, and ultimately the war, just as the Japanese navy never recovered from their crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, the fruit of American success in reading the Japanese naval code called Purple. At the end of the war, Bamford tells us in Body of Secrets, the Allies discovered that the Germans had also succeeded in cracking enemy codes, especially those of the Soviets transmitted by radio over a machine that broke messages into nine separate channels at one end and reassembled them at the other. The Germans read the Russian messages with a machine of their own, and once we had a copy of that machine we could begin to read Soviet back traffic—messages that had been intercepted and filed away in their coded form in the hope of just such a happy breakthrough.

Brilliant as that success was—Bamford calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime discovery” for the American soldiers who dug up the German files and equipment from beneath a cobblestone street—it was soon matched by US army codebreakers who exploited a “bust,” or procedural error, in Soviet diplomatic cables enciphered on one-time pads, which were normally unbreakable, and managed to read thousands of communications in whole or in part. Among the several hundred people disguised by cryptonyms in those messages, collectively called “Venona,” were the atom spies who had betrayed important design secrets of the first plutonium bomb to the Russians.

But that, apparently, was it. Despite the immense importance attached to reading Soviet messages throughout the cold war, and the huge effort devoted to the task, the NSA never again achieved a similar breakthrough in reading an important Soviet code on a routine basis. “During the 1960s,” Bamford writes, “NSA’s inability to break high-level Soviet codes was becoming its biggest secret.” Whole divisions of the NSA with platoons of mathematicians and acres of computers evidently tried and failed at a job which is now growing even harder. The NSA was long the silent driver in the development of computers and it still actively supports cutting-edge research—on computers, for example, that make use of living protoplasm in the manner of the human brain. But computers not only make it easier to crack codes; they make it easier to encrypt messages as well, and in the war of the codemakers and codebreakers the makers seem to be pulling ahead.

Public encryption,” as it is called—the ability of private citizens to have and use strong codes defying sophisticated attack—is something the NSA fought against tenaciously for nearly thirty years in a clandestine campaign recounted in lively detail in Steven Levy’s new book, Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government—Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. Early in the 1970s a handful of young computer wizards, distrustful of government after the hard lessons of Vietnam and Watergate, began to think of ways to preserve “privacy” in the computer age. What they meant was the ability of people to communicate without fear of the government, and what they wanted, once they started to think hard about the problem, was a means of encrypting private communication.

Levy’s book follows the genesis and development of the idea of “public key encryption,” brainchild of two bright and stiff-necked young mathematicians—Whitfield Diffie and Marty Hellman. Codes traditionally substitute letters according to a formula more or less complex, sometimes with the aid of machines. To read a coded message one needs the key—the formula for unscrambling the substitutions. From ancient times until the 1970s the key was always secret, held only by the sender and receiver of an encoded message. For obvious security reasons keys were frequently changed, creating a logistical problem of nightmarish difficulty for the government of a great power sending scores of thousands of coded messages to diplomats and military units all over the world. The Diffie-Hellman stroke of genius was the public key—a very large number, derived from a so-called one-way mathematical function which could be openly distributed. The first Diffie-Hellman keys were the result of multiplying two large prime numbers, a function extremely difficult to reverse. Over the following decades the original Diffie-Hellman approach was developed and refined as mathematicians created modern encryption systems which can be used to protect cell-phone conversations, e-mail messages, and commerce on the World Wide Web.

How these systems actually work is complicated but not dauntingly so, and I urge interested readers to consult Levy’s book. What matters here is that Diffie and Hellman began working on sophisticated codes outside the Triple Fence—Levy’s term of choice for the heavily guarded, supersecret NSA. Diffie and Hellman asked no one’s permission and believed they needed none. The NSA’s position was, first, that code work, like certain principles of atomic physics, was born secret—classified as soon as conceived. This was such an egregious intrusion on academic freedom and the First Amendment to the Constitution that the NSA retreated to a back-up claim that codes were in effect “munitions” under the law and could be denied export on grounds of national security. Because large computer software companies resisted the complexity of issuing two versions of software—a domestic program with high-level encryp-tion, and an export version easy to crack—and because they correctly imagined foreign customers would avoid programs expressly designed to help American spies read them, public encryption was slow to develop and catch on. This Pyrrhic victory of the NSA is one reason few Americans can protect their communications and Web sites with strong encryption, and are thus too often open to invasion by hackers—or foreign information warfare experts, about which more in a moment. At the end of the millennium the NSA could still read just about all private American communications—although it was enjoined by law from doing so—while it had lost the ability to read high-level codes used by other countries, like China, Russia, and its predecessor, the Soviet Union.

The one really big and central thing the NSA was conceived and funded to do apparently never got done, but that does not mean the agency was idle or the money wasted. If we couldn’t read Russian secret communications enciphered at the highest level, we could nevertheless read those of just about every other country, friend or foe, and written messages, in the electronic age, were only part of what proved interesting. Modern military forces are like vast nervous systems, linked from the loftiest general down to the lowliest private by a connective web of warning and reporting systems sometimes called C3I—pronounced “see-cubed-eye”—command, control, communications, and intelligence. What the generals are reporting to the Kremlin or the Pentagon is important, but so is what test missiles are telling ground crews about trajectories, for example; or what sergeants in Siberia, chatting on the phone, might reveal about the local inventory of nuclear weapons; or how many divisions of Chinese assault troops have been established along the Formosa Strait, and whether assault craft are already there or on the way. Maybe we can’t read the instructions of China to its ambassadors but all the stuff we can “read,” analyzed, insofar as possible, as a whole, brings us pretty close to what the Chinese leaders have on their minds. The important thing to grasp about the National Security Agency is its core belief that the best way to collect the important bits is to collect all the bits, and to understand further that it not only tries to do this—it does. All of it.

Bamford has a revealing but wearying chapter toward the end of Body of Secrets in which he sums up the bare facts about the NSA, telling us how many people work for the agency (38,000), eating how much soup every day (200 gallons), using how much electricity (as much as the city of Annapolis does), donating how many pints of blood annually (6,500), generating how many tons of classified paper waste each year (11,000, converted into a paper slurry used to make pizza boxes), all of it housed in how many square feet of building space (roughly a small city), surrounded by parking lots with room for how many cars (17,000). This chapter is forty-seven pages long and it essentially consists of all numbers intended to knock your socks off. A typical paragraph reads:

While copies of secrets are regularly destroyed, the original information is seldom given up. Down the street from the tape library [which “may soon reach the point where all the information on the planet can be placed inside”], in Support Activities Building 2, is the NSA Archives and Records Center. Here, more than 129 million documents, all more than a quarter of a century old, are still hidden from historians and collecting dust at enormous cost to taxpayers. Even the NSA has a hard time comprehending the volume of material. “The sheer number of records is astounding,” said one internal report. A stack of them would be over nine miles tall, higher than the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747.


Bamford knows and tells us a lot about the NSA but some subjects are apparently too tough even for him. The agency’s current director, Lt. General Michael V. Hayden, came to the NSA from a job running an “information warfare” think tank for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Information warfare is one of the hot topics in the intelligence world. It involves the attempt to penetrate, monitor, manipulate, control, or destroy the computer-controlled operating systems of an opponent, and it is a whole lot easier to achieve when attacking unencrypted systems—which is what attackers often find in the United States, thanks to the NSA’s diehard resistance to public key cryptography. Every reader of the newspaper knows that bright teenage hackers can occasionally find their way inside Pentagon computer networks, or figure out a way to crash Microsoft for a day or two. The FBI warned at the end of April that Chinese hackers protesting the loss of their plane and pilot in the EP-3E incident planned to attack American sites. One attack typical of the many that have followed the FBI warning took over the Labor Department’s Web site with a photograph of the missing Chinese pilot and a text reading:


China Tianyu is here and salute a flag. The whole country is sorry for losing the best son of China—Wangwei forever, we will miss you until the end of the day.

No significant damage was done, but the Chinese government, believed to be the sponsor of the attacks, was making it clear that the United States was vulnerable.

Imagine what a really determined NSA, which is the biggest employer of mathematicians in the United States, could do to the power grid, or the air traffic control system, or the telephone switching centers of a target country. The NSA, the CIA, and other intelligence organizations isolate their sensitive computer systems with an “air gap”—there is no two-way connection to the rest of the world. But even classified systems, however well protected, are vulnerable to people like Robert Hansen, the recently arrested FBI officer accused of spying for Russia. Hansen was something of a computer wizard and he even wrote some of the bureau’s most sensitive computer programs for compiling data.

But access to classified computers does not require a willing agent; blunders and ignorance can also open doors. Before he was pardoned by President Clinton, the former CIA director John Deutch was facing potential criminal charges for misusing an unclassified computer to handle classified data. According to investigators, Deutch’s home computer had also visited “adult sites” on the Internet. Gene Poteat, the current president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers and an information warfare innovator cited in Bamford’s book, told me recently that a visit to an Internet porn site was a voyage into the unknown. The “best” ones are said to be in Russia, and many of them routinely install “applets”—miniature programs—on the computers of visitors to enhance graphics and the like. Where benign applets can go, malign applets can follow. Getting malign code into a classified computer is exactly what the air gap is intended to prevent.

The CIA’s investigators said they found no evidence that Deutch’s home computer had been compromised, but their worst-case nightmare was clear enough—some distracted high official, working carelessly at home, would somehow bring to the office a malign computer program concealed on a memory card. Whether the CIA, the NSA, or any other American intelligence agency has ever apprehended a “troll” program—the computer equivalent of a human mole—is unknown, but that is the kind of thing the NSA is simultaneously worrying about, and trying to do. Just how wrong things can go was demonstrated on Monday evening, January 24, 2000, when the principal NSA computers crashed. The cause apparently had something to do with the Year 2000 problem, but what it was Bamford does not spell out. The result was the sort of thing information warriors dream of achieving on D-Day. For three days the NSA computers were down; information was recorded and stored, but the computers failed to sort, identify, read, interpret, or distribute any of it.

Information warfare is a new field with the potential for plenty of mischief, but Bamford gives us little beyond the concept of that potential. What he provides in Body of Secrets is a portrait of the agency and many accounts of the role it played in moments of crisis over the last fifty years. Like the CIA, the FBI, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSA does its best to conceal what it can and does collect in order to prevent busybodies on the American public stage from trying to tell it what to look for. That right to make assignments, called tasking, is jealously preserved for the White House and other officials at the highest level, but even they are sometimes of two minds—sticking the national nose into a tense situation, then paralyzed about what to do with what it has found. Bamford tells one such story, familiar in outline but filled with new information, about the USS Liberty, which came to grief during the second of the Arab–Israeli wars. It would be hard to think of a better example of the ways in which intelligence gathering can generate information officials do not want to know.

The basic facts of the Liberty incident have long been known. Crammed with sensitive gear for picking up electronic intelligence, the Liberty was dispatched to the Mediterranean shores of the Sinai peninsula at the outset of the war in June 1967. Like the EP-3E impounded in China, the ship was operated by the Navy but was ultimately working for the NSA and the Liberty’s crew included a number of civilians segregated deep within the ship, where they picked up, sorted, and recorded SIGINT, the term of art for signals intelligence. On June 8, as the war was nearing an end, the Liberty was patrolling a dozen miles offshore from the Sinai town of El Arish, monitoring the radio traffic of both Israelis and Egyptians. “We want to work in the UHF [ultra-high-frequency] range,” the ship’s captain was told by the chief of the NSA contingent, Lt. Commander David Lewis. “That’s mostly line-of-sight stuff. If we’re over the horizon we might as well be back in Abidjan.” UHF is where tactical units converse, so the Liberty was right up shoulder to shoulder with both belligerents. This worried the Navy but an order to pull back issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff was delayed for sixteen hours—it had been misrouted to Hawaii—and by the time it reached the Mediterranean it was too late: the Liberty had already been attacked, heavily damaged, and nearly sunk by the Israelis.

Bamford delivers a fine and gripping account of this attack in which the crew suffered a devastating 70 percent casualties—34 killed and 171 wounded, some by aircraft that raked the ship with cannon fire in waves, returning again and again, the rest by torpedo boats which shot up the lifeboats on the Liberty’s deck—in the hope, Bamford believes, that there would be no survivors—and then fired five torpedoes at the helpless ship. Only one hit its target but even that probably would have sent the ship to the bottom if the NSA spaces in the ship had not been sealed off, trapping twenty-five NSA SIGINT collectors inside.

At about a quarter past four in the afternoon local time, two and a half hours after the first attack on the Liberty, the Israeli military informed the US naval attaché in Tel Aviv that the ship had been attacked by the Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats “in error.” Officially, Israel has always insisted that its aircraft mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian vessel; the United States has always treated the attack as a baffling tragedy. But Bamford, backed up by interviews and numerous news stories in Israel and the US in the mid-1990s, argues persuasively that Israel knew the Liberty was an American vessel and feared the ship was recording local communications in and around El Arish concerning the murder of several hundred Egyptian prisoners of war by Israeli troops, something openly discussed in Israel and reported in the American press in recent years.

The White House, far from being outraged by the loss of life and the treachery of an ally, was instead more concerned, Bamford claims, that the incident might complicate American political support for Israel in the middle of a war. While the Liberty was wallowing helplessly off the Sinai coast, with men bleeding to death and bodies washing out through the gaping hole left by the Israeli torpedo, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the American commander of the Sixth Fleet, Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis, to recall fighter aircraft that Geis had dispatched from the Saratoga to find and protect the Liberty from further attack. Geis was predictably furious and protested directly to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. According to an oral history of the incident recorded in 1998 by Commander Lewis, Geis told him that McNamara’s end of the conversation was at one point taken over by President Lyndon Johnson himself, who told Geis that “he didn’t care if the ship sunk, he would not embarrass his allies.”

Admiral Geis was not the only official to get a rude awakening about the thinking in the White House and Pentagon. While the attack was still underway, and the fate of the ship in doubt, the deputy director of the NSA, Louis Tordella, called the Joint Reconnaissance Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to remind naval commanders that something needed to be done about the classified information and equipment on board. He was told by a staff officer on the JRC that “some unnamed Washington authorities [wanted] to sink the Liberty in order that newspaper men would be unable to photograph her and thus inflame public opinion against the Israelis.” “I made an impolite comment about the idea,” Tordella wrote the same day in a top secret UMBRA memorandum obtained by Bamford.

Wanting to know what happened was the last question on the official agenda. First was finding a way to hide or minimize the incident. According to a State Department chronology of the affair, “Embassy Tel Aviv urged de-emphasis on publicity since proximity of vessel to scene of conflict was fuel for Arab suspicions that US was aiding Israel.” By day’s end a total news ban was imposed by the Pentagon, which prohibited anyone in the field from speaking about the attack, then or later. When the surviving crew members went ashore a week later on Malta they were, Bamford writes, threatened with jail if they broke silence with anyone, family and fellow crew members included. Israel agreed to pay compensation for the killed and wounded, but years of wrangling followed before Israel finally paid a token $6 million to the United States for destruction of the ship itself.

No brief summary of Bamford’s account of the attack on the Liberty can do justice to its vivid detail and convincing array of evidence. The US Navy has rarely suffered a more devastating surprise attack in peacetime; only Pearl Harbor and the battleship Maine come to mind. The attack was egregious and unprovoked, and the American response weaseling, callous, timid, and dishonest. But this is a painful and embarrassing story about an ally with plenty of defenders, and Bamford can expect a vigorous counterattack. My guess is that most criticism will argue that he is somehow anti-Israeli, a charge made easier by the fact that he is, and sounds like, an angry man. Bamford is a writer of stern and bracing moral judgment, generally as willing to praise as censure, but something about the Liberty incident unhinges him a little, and his account is muddied at the end by a story of the killing of a journalist on the Lebanese–Israeli border last year. The two incidents are neither related nor comparable. Anger is best reserved for small things, cool judgment for big ones, and Bamford should have summed up what happened to the Liberty, so troubling in so many ways, in a calmer mood.

But that said, Bamford has done all that any journalist or historian could do, making a careful and plausible case while admitting that much remains unknown. To deepen our knowledge of this affair, Bamford argues, Congress should attempt now the sort of exhaustive inquiry it shirked earlier, and he tells investigators exactly where to start looking—in the archives of the NSA.

The Liberty’s was not the only NSA crew collecting signals intelligence along the shores of Sinai on June 8, Bamford tells us. Also loitering in the area was a Navy EC-121, flying out of Athens, with SIGINT collectors picking up battlefield radio chatter in Arabic and Hebrew—referred to by the NSA as “special arabic.” In the early afternoon of June 8 one of the NSA’s Hebrew speakers said he’d heard something odd on the UHF channels used by Israeli naval craft—an ongoing attack on a target which appeared to be flying the American flag. Later, after returning to their base in Greece, the crewmen realized they had overheard the attack of Israeli torpedo boats on the Liberty. The original tapes were shipped back to the NSA, where they may presumably still be found in the archives.

Bamford has never seen the transcripts or listened to the tapes; what he knows apparently comes from interviews with the crewmen. The odds are that the tapes make explicit what the interviews only suggest, but maybe not. The only way to know would be to read the transcripts and listen to the tapes. This has been true for more than thirty years, but it is only now, after Bamford’s hard digging, that a broader public can know that it is true. Whether some congressional committee will now act on Bamford’s suggestion and ask for the evidence is entirely a political question, like most of the hard questions having to do with the secret collection and use of information.


Body of Secrets has something interesting and important to add to many episodes of cold war history, from the Chinese invasion of North Korea in 1950 through the early years of American involvement in Vietnam and the hijacking of the USS Pueblo, another Navy-operated ELINT ship seized by the North Koreans in 1968.

Bamford is particularly good on the SIGINT war in Vietnam, where the NSA’s interception of North Vietnamese radio traffic clearly demonstrated Hanoi’s control of the war in the south at a time when journalists such as I.F. Stone were arguing that we could prove no such thing. The NSA also picked up early warnings of a major enemy offensive in late 1967 and the first weeks of January 1968 at a time when the official word in Washington was that General William Westmoreland was winning the war. The CIA’s Harold Ford, writing thirty years later, generously concluded that the NSA “stood alone” in providing timely warning of the Tet offensive, which severely bloodied American forces and marked the beginning of the end of public support for the war. But like the rest of the US military, the NSA also underestimated the power of the North Vietnamese, and even declined to make the effort required for a serious attack on high-level North Vietnamese ciphers. At the war’s end, in April 1975, the unprepared agency was forced to abandon to the North Vietnamese a warehouse full of sophisticated cryptographic machines and other gear—“all in pristine condition,” Bamford writes, “and all no doubt shared with the Russians and possibly also the Chinese.”

The North Vietnamese, meanwhile, had been running a huge SIGINT operation against the United States with as many as 5,000 intercept operators listening in on American communications, of which far too many were transmitted in plaintext or in homemade codes. A full picture of Hanoi’s SIGINT operations did not emerge until long after the war but even the scattered indications of trouble described by the NSA in a secret report at the time offered “a clear, even frightening picture of Vietnamese communist successes against Allied communications.”

But Bamford’s stories are not confined to ancient history; he has much to say about recent events like the Gulf War of 1990–1991, which also had a SIGINT side, as do just about all episodes of international rivalry or strife. Bamford does not hesitate to judge the American conduct of its side of the perpetual secret war, but like most of the (very few) writers who have made a profession of trying to understand intelligence organizations, he is slow to judge, and certainly does not condemn, the enterprise itself. On first encounter the intelligence business gives off a rank odor, but what the huggermugger boils down to is keeping your eyes open, knowing what’s going on, trying to stay one move ahead as the game unfolds.

The Liberty apparently found out some things the other guys didn’t want us to know, and the Navy’s EP-3E, as of this writing still being examined on Hainan island, was trying to do the same thing. Some commentators have suggested that the Chinese held the plane and the crew for eleven days because the leadership in Beijing was divided and had not decided how to handle the matter, but to me it seems far more likely that the plane was held for the same reason Chinese fighter pilots had been dogging it through the sky, sliding up closer and closer until the Americans could recognize the pilot’s face.

The danger was obvious, and it was great, and it was intended to be both—not because the Chinese national pride was offended by our routine patrols of their coastline, but because China didn’t, and doesn’t, want us to know all those things that spy planes suck into the memory banks of computers. As always, questions about intelligence are ultimately about freedom of action—if your opponents don’t know what you’re doing, they can’t stop you, and if they don’t know what kind of hardware backs up a threat, they’re more likely to respond with caution. The American spy planes patrolling the Chinese coast expand our freedom of action, and limit China’s. If Beijing could bring the flights to a halt, that balance would shift.

In the end the jostling in the air is only politics in another form. If Beijing negotiates a settlement with Taipei without recourse to force or the threat of force, it may have to concede much—things that have to do with ownership of property, human rights, free political activity, the social and economic structure of Chinese society. A threat of force, taken seriously, might convince Taipei to settle for less. With force in its most naked form—an outright military invasion of Taiwan—Beijing might escape the need to make any concessions at all. For the United States to have a voice in how things turn out, something urged by every American president since Nixon, it needs to know the state of play—not just what the Chinese are saying, but what they are actually doing, what they have to do it with, how their preparations compare to the forces arrayed against them—all those things that expensive intelligence platforms like ELINT aircraft are designed and built to monitor, identify, and collect.

And that brings us back to the exasperated questions of bystanders who feel they are watching toddlers squabble in the sandbox: Why can’t these great powers get along? Why do they have to keep pushing and probing each other in these aggressive ways—cracking codes, suborning spies, stealing documents, bugging embassies, sending ships and aircraft bristling with antennae into harm’s way? The answer, richly documented in Bamford’s fine book, is that in international competition for power, where differences sometimes lead to war, what intelligence organizations do—all that huggermugger of the great game—may look like strife, but it’s the closest serious international rivals ever get to peace.