Top NSA Scribe Takes Us Inside The Shadow Factory

Top NSA Scribe Takes Us Inside The Shadow Factory

By Noah Shachtman EmailOctober 14, 2008 | 4:37:00 PMCategories: Cloak and Dagger, DR Book Club  

 No outsider has spent more time tracking the labyrinthine ways of the National Security Agency than James Bamford. But even he gets lost in the maze. Despite countless articles and three books on the U.S. government’s super-secret, signals-intelligence service — the latest of which, The Shadow Factory, is out today — Bamford tells Danger Room that he was caught off guard by revelations that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans. He remains confused about how the country’s telecommunications firms were co-opted into the warrantless spying project. And he’s still only guessing, he admits, at the breadth and depth of those domestic surveillance efforts. In this exclusive interview, Bamford talks about how hard it is, after all these years, to fit together the pieces at the NSA’s "Puzzle Palace" headquarters.

DANGER ROOM: When did you learn that the NSA was listening in on American citizens?

JAMES BAMFORD: After 2001, when people would ask, I’d say, "I don’t think the NSA is breaking the law. As far as I’m concerned, the NSA doesn’t do that. They don’t eavesdrop illegally on Americans anymore." So on December 16, 2005 [when The New York Times broke the story of the NSA’s domestic surveillance], I was … shocked to learn the NSA for years had been doing warrantless eavesdropping — exactly contrary to what I insisted they were doing, what I thought [agency director Lt. Gen. Michael] Hayden wouldn’t do.

DR: The new book really centers around Hayden. You two were close, right?

JB: I never had a personal relationship with Hayden — I knew him well enough to interview him numerous times, had dinner at his house, all that kind of stuff. Looking back later on, I was disappointed in his lack of ability to stand up against powerful forces like Cheney and Bush. He should know the law better than anybody and he never said no, to anything. 

DR: In 2000, you write, Hayden was so worried about the possibility of spying on Americans that he actually cut off surveillance of the 9/11 hijackers while they were here in the United States. Was the domestic eavesdropping after 9/11 an attempt to compensate?

JB: After looking at how bad a job they did in the lead-up to 9/11, I think Hayden was very chagrined. He knew right away that the guys that they were after — [the 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-] Midhar and [Salem al-] Hamzi, for example — the NSA had been eavesdropping on them for years…. But before 9/11, the NSA [was] so jealous of all its information, it wasn’t passing it on. [These] hijackers [were staying] just across the highway, basically [from NSA headquarters]. And the NSA is not going the extra step and telling anybody where they are….

So I think there was a degree of overcompensation, from performing too carefully before 9/11 to trying to make up for it by going to the opposite extreme and eavesdropping without warrants, doing whatever the administration asked.

DR: Was Hayden the only one who changed? Or was there an agency-wide cultural shift?

JB: Well, I tried to focus on Hayden, because he was the person that could either give thumbs up or thumbs down to an operation. Plus, I knew Hayden. I didn’t really know anybody else. I mean, there were other people that worked at the agency that also could’ve said no, but didn’t. You have a deputy director under him, you have the head of operations under him. Whether they tried to push back, I don’t know. I just know there didn’t seem to be a lot of resistance, and that everybody seemed to be going along with the program.

DR: And now, there are all these contractors doing jobs that used to belong to NSA employees. That must make it even harder to figure out what’s going on — yet another veil to pierce.

JB: It makes it harder, yeah. Because before, you could talk to somebody sitting at NSA and they’d say, "Oh, talk to the guy sitting next to me, too." But now, things are outsourced to so many different companies, you could never get a real handle on how big it is, and what the problems are.

DR: NSA has long had all these relationships with the telecommunications companies, as well. One thing that confused me: Before 9/11, while Hayden was supposedly fighting against any eavesdropping on Americans, you write, the NSA was trying to convince one telecom, Qwest Communications, to help the agency conduct domestic surveillance. Those two don’t fit.

JB: It would’ve been nice if everything fit into a nice little package, but it didn’t. That was one of the outlying issues. The time line seemed to be off. You know, I could see [Hayden] doing that after 9/11, but before 9/11 he was very careful. It’s hard to say. Again, I’m just one guy trying to write this book. But that’s why there really needs to be a congressional investigation into what went on at NSA.

The only thing I can think of is that [Hayden] may not have been trying to get access to the actual voice conversations. What he may have been trying to get from Qwest was their database of subscribers — subscriber names, subscriber telephone numbers. It’s one of the things that NSA has always tried to get. I mean, going back to the early days, they had the world’s largest collection of telephone books.

Hayden would’ve known that was at least questionable, if not illegal, because I think he made a comment about that very kind of access before 9/11.

DR: In the book, you describe Hayden gathering together a small group to do domestic surveillance, and then swearing them to secrecy. Did this remain a small-group effort, or did it become something more widespread?

JB: What I think happened after 9/11, at the time [Hayden] was given the go-ahead, he brought this group in. I think it was like, my impression was it was like about 80 people — 80 to 90, briefed into this codeword system. And I think they were mostly civilians, and they were mostly people who would receive that information. I don’t think that included a lot of the [largely-military] intercept operators. I think that was the group that was designated to analyze the information that came up from the intercept operators themselves. So, in other words, if you’re listening to an American and you target the people who are calling that person, the tree sort of expands, the branches expand. All those names will be dealt with just by this small group. It’s very similar to, during the ’60s and ’70s when NSA did [domestic surveillance]. It was a small group of people, and each person had to be particularly briefed on it.

DR: So that group remained secret, even within NSA?

JB: Yeah, you had all these compartments in NSA, and this was, I guess, the most tightly controlled compartment of all.

DR: But the collectors were different.

JB: They just pick up everything. That’s how I understood the program to work. So you get the intercept operators, like [Adrienne] Kinne and [David] Murfee Faulk [who allegedly monitored the phone calls of countless Americans overseas, from a Georgia listening post]. They’re just out there, picking up everything. And then they just transcribe it and send it on to NSA.

The analysts would create these telephone trees — who’s calling whom, who’s calling that person, who’s calling that person. That information began getting put back into the system. Like Kinne was saying, she’d get these numbers [to monitor], and she didn’t know where they came from. And they would have to add those numbers to the system. That’s my impression of how it worked.

DR: This is the so-called "Operation Highlander," right?

JB: Well, Highlander is just one. Highlander happened to [involve] Adrienne Kinne. Faulk was on a different [one]. Highlander was a program that focused strictly on Inmarsat [a satellite phone company] over the Middle East. Faulk was working on a program that focused on cell phones within Iraq and that area. Each one of these things is a separate little compartment. The warrantless eavesdropping had a code name; I was never able to find out what it was. But all these are individual programs which make up a whole maze of compartmented programs within the NSA. So when you interview these people, they say they know what they did in their office, but they don’t know what the people in the next office were doing.

DR: It sounds like there were lots of people in the NSA that were spying on Americans.

JB: Well, I assume that they were. I mean, I don’t think I managed to find the only two in the whole U.S. government that were doing it. No, I think I found two that were outraged enough to speak publicly about it. And I did actually interview other people, too — but they wouldn’t go on the record or anything.

DR: So what’s today known as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" — that was only one in a broad range of activities, listening in on Americans?

JB: The Terrorist Surveillance Program, from everybody I’ve talked to, was just this umbrella name for all the bad or potentially illegal programs they were doing. And within that program, there were a large variety of programs that ended up growing over the years. There’s a whole variety of means to gather information. So I think they all may have had different code names, but they came under this one umbrella.

JB: You know, I’ve seen formerly classified NSA cables. At the top of these were words like, "Top Secret, slash Umbra, slash Shamrock, slash Highlander, slash this, slash that." And so the only people that could read [those cables] are people who are [allowed to have access to] all those different programs. You get into this sort of Alice in Woderland of compartmented programs and code names and cover words.

But the bottom line is that they had an expansive program to do eavesdropping that was done totally unilaterally, without any oversight. This is NSA being judge, jury and executioner in terms of who gets eavesdropped on and what happens to that information. And, that’s really the problem.

DR: You’ve got a scene in the book where Kinne’s supervisor, John Berry, tries to brief Hayden about this stuff — and Hayden blows him off. What does that tell you, if anything, about how Highlander fit into the larger picture?

JB: Highlander was [just] one system targeting one satellite in one part of the world. And NSA is a lot of people targeting lots of different communications facilities — land lines, fiber optic cables, all kinds of things all over the world. Berry and Highlander weren’t the be-all and end-all of the whole warrantless eavesdropping system. They were one little cog in a very big operation. It was one little operation in one part of a base. It wasn’t as though Berry was in charge of the warrantless eavesdropping program.

DR: But, before, there was such a strong culture at NSA of respecting Americans’ privacy. You had United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18 (USSID 18), which strictly prohibits listening in on U.S. persons, without a warrant. What happened?

JB: That’s one of the interesting things, one of the things I wanted to get across in the book — this whole before-and-after issue. [Before,] as soon as they got an American, under USSID 18, they had to turn it off. And then after 9/11, all those USSID 18 rules and regulations they had before 9/11 were thrown out the window. They’d make up these flimsy excuses, like, "Well, suppose an American loses her cell phone and then what happens if a terrorist picks it up." They’re bending 180 degrees backwards.

DR: Is that why you joined the ACLU’s lawsuit against the agency?

JB: I was outraged the moment I heard what was going on. Of all the journalists out there, I’m the one person who’s written more than anyone about NSA. I knew this, this is a big deal. I had written about the horror days of the ’50s, ’60s, up until the mid-’70s, when they were engaged in this warrantless eavesdropping. The impression I got [previously] was that they were always trying to push back, hard, from the edge. And I hadn’t changed that impression, post-9/11…. For NSA to all of a sudden revert back to the bad old days of the ’60s and ’70s — I thought that was illegal, unethical. I was very angry. I thought NSA shouldn’t be doing this.

So then, a couple of weeks later, the ACLU calls me up, and asks me to join a suit. I didn’t immediately say, "Yes, hell yeah, I’ll do it." I said I’d think about it. Because it was a big thing for me to, all of a sudden, step out of my role as a journalist and a writer and to become a plaintiff against the agency I had written two books about. If I had wanted to play it safe, I would’ve said, "we’ll, ya know, I gotta be a journalist here," thinking I may lose all these sources, starting with Hayden and working my way down. They like me at NSA. [But] I thought they were doing something bad, and I had to do something about it.

There were a lot of people there that got very angry at me for suing the agency they worked for. People that were all in favor of what NSA was doing — which was a lot of people. Ya know, "patriotic, we should be doing this," all that stuff. And I was saying, "Well, I don’t mind if you spy on terrorists. But we live in a democracy. There’s got to be a buffer here between the people who are targeting the terrorists and the American public."

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