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

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Overview

Peering from space via satellite, tapping phones and networks, monitoring cell phone frequencies around the globe, the NSA watches friends, enemies, and terror suspects alike. Some 60 percent of the president's daily intelligence briefing comes from this one agency. No one knows the NSA better than Matthew M. Aid, who has packed two decades of research in declassified archives into The Secret Sentry, the most complete account ever written of this elusive organization.

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Overview

Peering from space via satellite, tapping phones and networks, monitoring cell phone frequencies around the globe, the NSA watches friends, enemies, and terror suspects alike. Some 60 percent of the president's daily intelligence briefing comes from this one agency. No one knows the NSA better than Matthew M. Aid, who has packed two decades of research in declassified archives into The Secret Sentry, the most complete account ever written of this elusive organization.

From Eastern Europe to Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan, the NSA has played a key role in America's geopolitical successes, and some of its failures. Aid follows the NSA from its tense beginnings in the Cold War to its controversial role in the War on Terror. The Secret Sentry is nothing less than a shadow history of global affairs in the past half century. This meticulous and engrossing narrative gives an unrivaled look at the most powerful spy agency in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Electronic signals/communications intelligence (SIGINT) is a vital part of the information-gathering efforts of intelligence agencies. The National Security Agency (NSA) is the primary eavesdropping and code-breaking arm of the U.S. government. Aid goes over its operations during the crises of the 1950s and 1960s and the Vietnam War era, much of which was covered by James Bamford's The Puzzle Palace. But what is new and more important here is the evaluation of NSA activities since 2000. Using interviews with those in positions to know, the author discusses NSA's troubled bureaucratic working relations with the CIA and FBI, how its product was used before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the massive domestic spying operation directed by the White House. VERDICT This book provides useful background for the current national security debate, with the author generally siding with the NSA as a misused agency that needs still more resources. With extensive endnotes; index and photos not seen. Suitable for general and advanced readers.—Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL
Kirkus Reviews
The full history of an ultra-secretive government agency. The National Security Agency was most recently in the news in 2005 when it was revealed that the agency had been eavesdropping on citizens without warrants, an episode that highlighted the NSA's mysterious role as the linchpin of the American intelligence apparatus. Intelligence historian Aid shows how the NSA's briefings to the president have played a part in every major American conflict since World War II. In 1949, the agency began as the Armed Forces Security Agency and was primarily involved in codebreaking and communication interception. During the Korean War, its analysts were able to break virtually all of the codes of the North Korean military in just 30 days. Not long after the NSA became its own agency in 1952, it suffered some major failures. Eisenhower first heard of the death of Stalin in 1953 not from U.S. intelligence but from news-wire services. "Like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community," writes Aid, "NSA had provided no indication whatsoever that Stalin was ill." Most significantly, the NSA did not receive intelligence about Soviet missiles in Cuba in time to help avert the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The intelligence improved, but Aid emphasizes the important point that intelligence is only as good as the interpretation it receives. He cites as examples Lyndon Johnson's administration, who leaned on sketchy NSA information to push the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, and George W. Bush's administration, which not only instituted wiretapping programs in an attempt to find al-Qaeda operatives, but twisted NSA intelligence to bolster its reasoning to invade Iraq in 2003. NSA analysis now comprises as muchas 60 percent of the president's daily intelligence briefing, and Aid provides a critical history of the agency that has the ear of the leader of the free world. A sprawling but revealing look at a powerful, shadowy agency of the American government. Agent: Rick Broadhead/Rick Broadhead & Associates
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 na?veté, 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. --Richard Pious

Richard Pious is Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor at Barnard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University. He is the author of The President, Congress and the Constitution (1984) and The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law (2006), among other works. He has recently published articles on military tribunals, interrogation of detainees, warrantless surveillance, and war powers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608190966
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 6/8/2010
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.62 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Aid is a leading intelligence historian and expert on the NSA, and a regular commentator on intelligence matters for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the National Journal, the Associated Press, CBS News, National Public Radio (NPR) and many others.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Origins of the American Cryptologic Effort Against Russia 1

1 Roller-Coaster Ride: The Travails of American Communications Intelligence: 1945-1950 8

2 The Storm Breaks: SIGINT and the Korean War: 1950-1951 25

3 Fight for Survival: The Creation of the National Security Agency 41

4 The Inventory of Ignorance: SIGINT During the Eisenhower Administration: 1953-1961 45

5 The Crisis Years: SIGINT and the Kennedy Administration: 1961-1963 56

6 Errors of Fact and Judgment: SIGINT and the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents 80

7 The Wilderness of Pain: NSA and the Vietnam War: 1964-1969 105

8 Riding the Whirlwind: NSA During the Johnson Administration: 1963-1969 128

9 Tragedy and Triumph: NSA During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations 148

10 Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano: NSA During the Reagan and Bush Administrations 171

11 Troubles in Paradise: From Desert Storm to the War on Terrorism 191

12 Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: 9/11 and the Invasion of Afghanistan 213

13 A Mountain out of a Molehill: NSA and the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Scandal 229

14 The Dark Victory: NSA and the Invasion of Iraq: March-April 2003 246

15 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: SIGINT and Combating the Insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan 264

16 Crisis in the Ranks: The Current Status of the National Security Agency 286

Acknowledgments 310

Notes Glossary 312

Notes 314

Index 409

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