Secret Sentry, the untold story of the National Security Agency
Author: Matthew M. Aid, Bloomsbury press 2009
I just finished reading a seminal work on the National Security Agency written by Matthew M. Aid. It should be noted that perennial anti-hawk commentator Seymour M. Hersh went so far as to say about the book, “by far the best book ever written on the national security agency, it’s outside operations and internal struggles”.
Although I am a little more sanguine about the writing, I will say that I did learn quite a bit about the historical leadership of the NSA. I realize that most Americans could not care less about the list of generals who have run the NSA since its inception back in 1943 but I think it’s important to know how one of the most feared and hated federal agencies came into existence. Many would be surprised to know that the NSA as we know it today basically started after U. S. Army Brigadier General Carter Clarke ordered cryptologists to begin secretly cracking Soviet codes at a former girls’ preparatory school named Arlington Hall in Arlington, Virginia.
Later, Clarke became convinced the Soviets were working on obtaining an atomic bomb. He kept a sharp ear tuned to the inner workings of the Soviet bomb program to prevent what he called, “an atomic Pearl Harbor”.
Still, beyond the rather stilted prose and long-winded dissertations, the book still manages to reveal many stunning revelations which I had not previously found in any of the equally well-researched words by James Bamford, author of “The Shadow Factory”, nor by the excellent documentary news program, “Frontline”. Here are some of those stunning revelations:
|Matthew M. Aid|
see his book discussion on C-SPAN here
- The so-called, “switchboard” in Yemen which acted as a relay station for many of Al Qaeda’s conversations had a phone number (011-967-1-200-578). Americans learned of this house in Yemen from an FBI interrogation of a bombing suspect in the East Africa attacks on U. S. embassies. The NSA tapped the phone line for years to keep tabs on Al Qaeda. The telephone intercepts remained ongoing until Yemeni police, acting on their own initiative, raided the home and arrested everyone inside effectively ending the NSA’s only window into Al Qaeda operations inside Afghanistan/Pakistan. I was half tempted to call the number myself just to see if anyone would answer, but fear of being placed on some secret NSA watchlist prevented that.
- U. S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith was largely responsible for the push to supply bogus information about the links between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Al Qaeda leadership. We now know that almost all of the material provided in the National Intelligence Estimate was either made up from whole cloth, or purposely distorted to give the U. S. a Casus Belli for war in Iraq. In fact the distinguished British defense corresponded and military historian Max Hastings has described the Iraqi WMD intelligence fiasco as, “the greatest failure of Western intelligence in modern times”.
- On Oct. 18, 2002 the NSA director at the time, General Michael V. Hayden, ordered a 29 person unit stationed at the NSA listening post in Fort Gordon Georgia to focus their attention solely on obtaining SIGINT on WMDs in Iraq.
- On Dec. 3, 2001 a U.S. Army Grey Fox signals intelligence (SIGINT) team near Gardez, Afghanistan picked up walkie-talkie communications which indicated Al Qaeda, and indeed UBL, was hiding out in the Tora Bora mountain range. In what can only be described as a monumental tactical failure then U. S. CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks ordered his subordinate Major General Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck to engage in Operation Anaconda to surround and trap the Al Qaeda command structure. Perhaps for political reasons, Franks and Hagenbeck did not enlist the help of a nearby elite 2, 300 man U. S. coalition Special Forces unit known as Task Force K-bar. Instead, the Army relied on a hastily assembled team of local militiamen and other Western alliance Afghans to do the important job of cornering and capturing Osama bin Laden. The result was that even though the CIA had paid the fighters hundreds of thousands of dollars, those fighters would not actively participate in killing other Muslims. In fact, many of the fighters referred to UBL as, “the Sheik” and grew excited like giddy schoolgirls whenever they came close enough to hear his voice over their handheld walkie-talkies. The result was a missed opportunity to decapitate Al Qaeda quickly and efficiently.
- NSA was virtually blind to activities conducted by the military apparatus of Saddam Hussein’s regime because Iraq had hired European contractors to install fiber optic communication lines to link their military units. Apparently, the NSA had no way of conducting SIGINT capable of penetrating that technology. In fact, some of the first airstrikes in the opening salvo of the Iraq war were to damage those fiber-optic nodes in the hopes that Iraqi leadership would begin using less secure communications. This made me wonder if this is one of the reasons why Google is currently experiencing so much difficulty and government push- back in rolling out its Google Fiber program which uses fiber-optic cable to conduct Internet and other communications at extremely high speeds.
- The American SIGINT community is now scrambling to find and keep qualified operators because of the military’s “Stop-Loss” policy. Stop-loss prevents military members with specialized skills from separating from military service during times of war or emergencies even after they’ve served their enlistment commitment. Many specialists fled the military because of stop-loss forced extended tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, others with Arabic, Pasto, Urdu, Dari language skills are purposely not enlisting because they know that a stint in the military can lead to multiple forced deployments working long hours for extended periods of time. The NSA was reduced to lowering its security clearance standards and scouring for recruits in the streets of Fremont, California which is known as the largest concentration of Afghan expatriates in the U.S.
- the actual NSA building and support facilities in Fort Meade, Maryland sucks up so much electricity that they can hardly keep the computers inside running. This shortage of electricity often results in brownouts which leaves some portions of NSA computer facilities down for hours at a time. The NSA routinely racks up electrical bills from Baltimore Gas and Electric which averaged about $30 million in 2007.
- The NSA director’s office is considered one of the best offices in all of the federal government. The spacious and well-appointed office is nicknamed, “the penthouse”.