James Bamford is the author of three books on the NSA, including The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. (August 2013)

They Know Much More Than You Think

The headquarters of the National Security Agency, Fort Meade, Maryland
We know little about what uses the NSA makes of most information available to it—it claims to have exposed a number of terrorist plots—and it has yet to be shown what effects its activities may have on the lives of most American citizens. Congressional committees and a special federal court are charged with overseeing its work, although they are committed to secrecy, and the court can hear appeals only from the government. Still, the US intelligence agencies also seem to have adopted Orwell’s idea of doublethink—“to be conscious of complete truthfulness,” he wrote, “while telling carefully constructed lies.”

Who’s in Big Brother’s Database?

Gene Hackman as the paranoid surveillance expert Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, 1974
On a remote edge of Utah’s desert, hard-hatted construction workers with top-secret clearances are preparing to build what may become America’s equivalent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel,” a place where the collection of information is both infinite and at the same time monstrous, where the entire world’s knowledge is stored, but not a single word is understood. Unlike Borges’s “labyrinth of letters,” this library expects few visitors. It’s being built by the ultra-secret National Security Agency.