No one, it can be argued, knows more about the history of the National Security Agency than James Bamford. The investigative journalist, who served in the Navy and attended law school in his native Boston, has the distinction of having written the first book about the NSA: “The Puzzle Palace: A Report on NSA, America’s Most Secret Agency.”
Since that 1982 best seller, Bamford has written three more books that delve into the NSA: “Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency” (2001); “A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies” (2004); and “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret N.S.A. From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America” (2008).
A former distinguished visiting professor at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, Bamford now lives in Washington, D.C., and London.
He answered questions by email about the NSA in light of the recent case of Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the agency who leaked details of classified mass surveillance programs, including PRISM, which collects metadata from Internet sites.
Q: What do you make of Edward Snowden’s actions?
A: With regard to the information he released on domestic surveillance, I consider him a whistleblower. He revealed details of massive violations by the NSA of the privacy rights of all Americans. The NSA has no constitutional right to secretly obtain the telephone records of every American citizen on a daily basis, subject them to sophisticated data mining and store them forever. It’s time government officials are charged with criminal conduct, including lying to Congress, instead of going after those exposing the wrongdoing.
Q: What has changed the most about the NSA since your last book, “The Shadow Factory,” came out in 2008?
A: The agency has expanded enormously, in terms of size, power and invasiveness since “The Shadow Factory” was published. As I wrote in my Wired magazine cover story last year, the agency has been going on a massive building spree, expanding eavesdropping locations around the world, including one for 4,000 intercept operators at its facility near Augusta, Ga. In addition, it is in the process of building a gigantic one million square-foot surveillance center in Utah where it will store billions of records, phone calls, email and Google searches, many of them involving Americans.
The agency has also increased enormously in power. In my current July 2013 cover story in Wired, I write about Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of NSA, and how he has become the most powerful figure in the history of American intelligence. Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign or the depth of his secrecy. As a four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world’s largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force and the Second Army.
Q: The NSA predicted, as you wrote in “The Shadow Factory,” that it would be “plowing through phone calls, e-mails, and other data at more than a quadrillion operations a second,” breaking the so-called petaflop barrier. A mere quadrillion operations a second — is that child’s play these days?
A: As I wrote in my Wired cover story last year, the NSA is secretly building the world’s fastest and most powerful computer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the U.S. developed the atomic bomb during World War II. Having broken the petaflop barrier, they are now working on a computer with exaflop speed, one quintillion (1018) operations a second, and the next goal will be zettaflop (1021) and yottaflop. Beyond yottaflop, names have not yet been invented.
Q: In “The Shadow Factory,” you wrote that the NSA’s watch list — “of people, both American and foreign, thought to pose a danger to the country” — once had only 20 names on it, then rose to “an astonishing half a million.” Do you know what the figure is now?
A: The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list, known as TIDE, now contains about 875,000 names.
Q: PRISM has reportedly given the NSA access to exabytes of confidential data. To give readers some perspective, roughly how much information is contained in an exabyte? How many books could fit in one?
A: An exabyte is about 960,767,920,505,705 pages of text or about 4,803,839,602,528 books containing 200 pages.
Q: Privacy concerns aside, one of the problems with collecting all this data, you have written, is that “the NSA is akin to 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 understood.” What does the NSA need to do to make practical use of this data?
A: The problem is the bigger you build the haystack, the harder it is to find the needle. Thus, despite all this collection, the NSA missed the Boston bombing, the underwear bomber and the Times Square bomber. And most, if not all, of the “successes” they point to could have been discovered using much less invasive surveillance. Thus, they should collect less hay and give analysts better training in ways to find needles.
Q: In “The Shadow Factory,” you quote the late Sen. Frank Church, the first chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said the NSA’s data collection “could be turned around on the American people 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. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.” What do you make of Church’s comments today?
A: He was enormously prescient and we should have heeded his warning.