The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency

Matthew Aid is an indefatigable researcher, poring over documents in government and private archives and conducting interviews with former officials of the National Security Agency. An independent historian not affiliated with a university, he has worked as a senior executive in international financial research and investigative companies for two decades; before that he was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, specializing in Russian-language documents. He has been willing to take on the government when, in his view, it has improperly classified information (such as material involving the Gulf of Tonkin Affair in 1964). He has testified before Congress about government handling of classified and sensitive information, and he managed to get an audit of the withdrawal of records from public access at the National Archives. In The Secret Sentry, Aid uses his understanding of the ins and outs of government archives and documents to produce a comprehensive study of the NSA, which currently has over 40,000 employees spending more than $9 billion on SIGINT (signals intelligence) programs.

In some ways this work mirrors the work of the NSA itself: it is comprehensive, gathering fact after fact and attempting to stitch its findings into a descriptive mosaic. As with the NSA, at times Aid overwhelms the reader with information that sometimes leads nowhere and at other times generates great insight. The first three chapters provide background on American cryptology and SIGINT efforts at the start of the Cold War, and trace the creation of the NSA, but reader be warned: this is boring bureaucratic material that never comes to life. For several chapters thereafter, Aid provides us with blow-by-blow descriptions of the role the NSA played in various international crises, such as the ill-fated Gary Francis Powers U-2 flight in 1960, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Gulf of Tonkin affair. In each case, Aid manages to fill in some gaps, occasionally supplying illuminating information. For example, regarding the Powers fiasco, we learn that the NSA managed to learn the location of Soviet air defense fighter regiments as they scrambled to shoot down U-2 flights. About the Cuban crisis, we discover that the Defense Intelligence Agency discounted NSA intercepts indicating an offensive buildup in Cuba, while the Navy sat for 12 hours on crucial information that Soviet tankers had changed course; at the same time, the NSA was unable to find out that the Soviets had emplaced missiles and nuclear weapons on the island. Aid also offers evidence that in 1964, President Johnson did not believe that a second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin had taken place but ordered military reprisals anyway.

The takeaway in these (and later) chapters is that usually the NSA had obtained significant information, but often limited to low-level operations, because the top echelons of various adversary nations had managed to encrypt their communications in ways that the NSA could not breach. Moreover, the CIA or the Department of Defense, in case after case, either minimized or ignored the NSA product, because it had its own agenda or its own problems in analyzing the information. At times presidents acted without reference to the intelligence; policy framed intelligence rather than the reverse.

Aid also delivers excellent accounts of key battles and the role of SIGINT in supporting military maneuvers that were decisive in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the two engagements with Iraq. He points out that the crucial flaw in SIGINT in some of these engagements (Iraq especially) was that information got to the command and battalion levels, but that it rarely got down to the officers directing troops in combat on the front lines. Being accurate is not enough; information must also be “actionable.”

Aid singles out a number of NSA directors and other top officials for praise in developing the art and science of intercepting and decoding communications, but he criticizes a number of NSA directors for arrogance, political naïveté, or bureaucratic bumbling. He is especially hard on General William Odom, who seems in Aid’s telling to embody all these traits. Here Aid may be off base: Odom was just about the only serious student of the Soviet Union who in the 1980s (when he was NSA director and thereafter) correctly predicted the USSR’s imminent collapse, just when the top academics and other intelligence officials believed that Gorbachev would be able to sustain its strength through reform. Aid also betrays some ignorance of developments in the Cold War in the 1980s, as when he claims that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the evacuation of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe led Gorbachev to promote the perestroika and glasnost reforms: in fact, the chronology and perhaps the causality should be reversed.

While Aid adds to our knowledge of just about every significant incident in the Cold War, the real value in this book comes in his descriptions of the NSA’s efforts to retool itself for new missions in the post–Cold War period: support of our military in low-intensity conflict against Third World states (Iraq) or terrorist networks (al-Qaeda) or resistance movements (the Sunni in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan). He explains that in some ways it is more difficult to conduct surveillance against low-tech operatives than against officials in the most advanced nations; nevertheless, with enough ingenuity (and some luck) the NSA has managed its share of successes, though it is clear that the agency needs new equipment, better training of personnel down to the platoon level, and more personnel conversant in local languages.

One of the final chapters dealing with the NSA’s role in domestic spying is somewhat disappointing, because it relies mostly on the research of others and never fully explores (except in passing) the fundamental constitutional and legal issues involved. But this is more than counterbalanced by Aid’s analysis of the efforts of both the NSA and the military SIGINT personnel to support the Surge in Iraq and hold back the advances of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

By the end of this work, the reader will have a much clearer idea of what the NSA does and how it accomplishes its mission, as well as insights about why the NSA needs to restructure itself so that in the future it will be able to accomplish more and do so with less resources. Most important, the reader will understand the limits of SIGINT, and the need to shift resources toward HUMINT (agents on the ground) and to rely on more adept diplomacy.