DATE April 24, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Bamford discusses his book "Body of Secrets" and
the history of the National Security Agency
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, in for Terry Gross.
On April Fools' Day, a long-running cat-and-mouse game between US surveillance
aircraft and Chinese fighter jets ended in a collision off the Chinese coast.
The Chinese pilot was killed; the US plane and its crew became the center of
an international incident after they were forced to make an emergency landing
at a Chinese airfield. It was the latest in a long series of such incidents
over the past half century, most involving the old Soviet Union. There's a
black granite wall at the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade, Maryland,
with a motto carved on it: They Served In Silence. A list follows with the
names of 152 US military and civilian personnel who died on eavesdropping
Writer James Bamford exposed a great deal about the United States' biggest,
most expensive and most secretive intelligence service in a book called "The
Puzzle Palace" in 1982. He's now written an anatomy of the NSA titled "Body
of Secrets." James Bamford joins us in the studio in Washington. Welcome to
Mr. JAMES BAMFORD ("Body of Secrets"): Thanks, Neal. It's good to be here.
CONAN: I want to ask you about this most recent incident, but, in fact, you
report something much more startling in "Body of Secrets," a mission that
President Eisenhower authorized in 1956.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. It was probably the most dangerous, probably the
most foolish espionage operation ever undertaken. President Eisenhower, in
1956, authorized this operation Home Run, which basically gave the US Air
Force permission to launch US bombers on what basically is an attack profile
over the North Pole and into passive orders and right into the Soviet Union.
CONAN: And the last of these involved a flight of six bombers in formation
over the North Pole deep into the old Soviet Union in broad daylight.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right, flying almost wing tip to wing tip, which is
exactly the profile you would have if you were launching World War III. This
was not a bombing run; it was a reconnaissance run to--the planes were not
loaded with bombs; they were loaded with cameras and eavesdropping equipment.
But anybody in Russia who happened to see them coming over the horizon or
coming over the Pole and into Russian airspace would have no way of knowing
that it was cameras instead of H-bombs in their bomb bay. So anybody that saw
them on a radar screen would have immediately thought that this was the
prelude to a new nuclear war, and could have launched a counterattack against
the United States.
CONAN: In retrospect, it seems insane. What would even conceivably make such
an operation worth the risk?
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, the reason they did it was they wanted to know whether
that was going to be a safe route in case the US did launch a nuclear war
against Russia. That would be the route we would fly our bombers, and the
reason they did that was to see whether there were any radar instillations or
any military bases in that path. And then if there was, then they would try
to pick an alternative avenue to come into the Soviet Union, find a hole in
their border defenses, basically. Luckily that was a hole, and luckily there
was no counterattack.
CONAN: But there were other incidents where bombers or adapted bombers were
sent into Soviet airspace frequently over the border as an outright
provocation. The idea was to startle the Russians, make them turn on all
their radars and then get intelligence on all of them.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. And as a matter of fact, we did it very
frequently and it was an aggressive, in-your-face type of intelligence
collection. It was sending--and this is before the days of the U-2
reconnaissance plane, which flew at very high altitudes and was unarmed.
These were our highest quality bombers that we were sending in. They had no
nuclear weapons on, but they did have defensive weapons--machine guns and
cannons and so forth. There was no counterpart on the Russian side where
Russia was sending bombers or any kind of aircraft into US airspace. This was
all sort of one-way street when it came to sending these eavesdropping
CONAN: Over a long period of time, it seems like the United States and the
Soviet Union sort of came to an agreement on what the rules were. You know,
`If you do this, we'll do that. Don't do that.' Is part of the problem that
we're currently having with China, is that based on a new player who's
re-establishing new sets of rules?
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, I think it's a combination of reasons. I think one of
the things is that the United States is doing this more frequently than it had
in the past. And I think as a result, the Chinese are responding sort of in
kind. The more flights we fly, the more harassment they want to give us.
Again, just going back to the old days with President Eisenhower and sending
these missions, he actually said in a National Security Council meeting at the
White House at one point after China shot down a very similar plane in 1956
killing 16 Americans, he said that he began questioning whether these flights
are useful or not, and he said, `If we had a Chinese military flight flying
between 20 and 50 miles off the US coast, we would shoot it down whether it
was there accidently or not.' So it's a very dangerous game that gets played,
and the problem here is you're sending these planes in virtually every day.
And I don't think that that intelligence is needed every day.
CONAN: What we were told about in this most recent incident is they were very
interested in two new destroyers, or new to China--these are old Soviet
Sovremenny class destroyers newly acquired by the Chinese--and that was what
they were particularly interested in. Is there something on those ships, some
sort of electronics or radar or something like that, that couldn't have been
detected by US satellites in space?
Mr. BAMFORD: No. Any kind of information that they could get on that ship
could be gotten in much less provocative ways. They have aircraft that fly
much higher and much further away from the coast and can do it all in one
pass--these RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, for example. They're basically
flying vacuum cleaners that could pick up any kind of signal.
CONAN: But the provocation seems to be part of it: We'll provoke you, turn
on your stuff, and we'll see what you got.
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that's always been part of the reason for these flights.
It's the reason that they fly them so close a lot of times is because that's
the only time that the Chinese or, before that, the Russians would ever turn
on certain radar systems is if a plane got close to the border. In the past
what would happen would be these planes would fly directly at the border and
then turn away at the last minute. And sometimes they wouldn't turn away at
the last minute. They'd keep on going 5 or 10 miles into the country and then
come out again; again, to turn on communication systems and radars that are
normally left off.
CONAN: The Russians preferred seagoing intelligence-gathering platforms, the
trawlers that used to trail behind every US aircraft carrier battle group
wherever it went and sometimes parked off interesting places on the American
coast. The NSA then mimicked that and developed a Navy of its own.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. But instead of trawlers we used actual Navy
ships mostly and smaller ships also, but we didn't really mimic the trawler,
but we did mimic the seagoing platform.
CONAN: The most famous of those two ships again connected with disasters, USS
Pueblo and the USS Liberty.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. The USS Liberty was sailing off the coast of the
Sinai during the Six Day War and it was attacked by Israel. Thirty-six
Americans were killed and 171 were wounded and the ship was virtually
destroyed. The other one was the USS Pueblo that was sailing about 13 miles
off the coast of North Korea when it was attacked and seized by the North
Korean navy and towed into port, and the crew was kept in prison in North
Korea for 11 months. One sailor was killed in the initial attack.
CONAN: There is almost a sense of, `Well, you know, to some degree, that's
the price of the game,' if you're playing against North Korea and the
Russians; if you're penetrating Soviet air space or Chinese air space. I
think a lot of people will be outraged about an American ally who destroys an
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. That was--actually, the first ship attacked was
the USS Liberty, and it was an enormously violent attack. The ship was
attacked by fighter aircraft. They fired about 800 cannon rounds into the
ship. They dropped heavy bombs on the ship. They came back again, and this
time they dropped napalm all over the ship, turning it into a fiery cauldron,
at one point. They shot up the--all the antennas on the ship so that the ship
couldn't communicate. They shot up all the small defensive machine gun--they
only had a couple little machine guns on the ship, and they shot those up.
And then once they were finished, torpedo boats came. Three torpedo boats
came and fired a total of five torpedoes at the ship, which would have been
enough to sink several aircraft carriers. Luckily, only one hit the ship, but
that one that hit it was devastating and it hit right in the eavesdropping
spaces, the operational spaces, and it instantly killed 25 sailors, that one
CONAN: This was during the 1967 war in the Middle East. Israel has always
said the ship was attacked by mistake. And one of the rationales you always
heard about it was, you know, `What possible interest did Israel have in
attacking an American ship? It had to have been a mistake.'
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, I've looked into it quite extensively, and I've gotten
ahold of a lot of previously very secret NSA documents and there's a lot of
questions raised about their mistake explanation. At one point in this
mistake report that they came out with, they said that the Liberty was going
something like 30 knots or something, and the ship had a total speed
capability of something like seven knots, and at the time, it was only going
between three and five knots, which means it was basically treading water.
They said that they mistook the ship for an Egyptian ship that was about half
its size and had a very different profile than this ship. This ship was very
distinctive because it had a lot of antennas on it and it had a very large
dish-shaped antenna. It was basically a satellite-type antenna on the back.
In addition, it had its name in full English letters--not Arabic script, but
English letters on the back saying USS Liberty. It had the ship's numbers as
the way the US ships put it on the side, not the way the Egyptians put it on.
And in addition to that, it was flying the US flag.
So given all these factors, and the Israelis say they never saw a flag, and
these are all the fighter pilots and all the members of the torpedo boat crew,
raises very serious questions as to the validity of the Israeli explanation.
CONAN: So what do you think the reason was?
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, at the time, the USS Liberty was sailing into a very
hazardous area. The Israelis had launched the Six Day War a couple of days
earlier, and what nobody knew at the time, until just recently, was that at
that moment that the Liberty sailed off the coast of the Sinai, off a little
town called El Arish, the Israelis were butchering prisoners, killing them
with their hands raised and their hands behind their back.
CONAN: Egyptian prisoners of war.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right, Egyptian prisoners of war and some civilians.
They had no place to house the prisoners and they didn't have a way to
transport them, so they decided the only way to handle the situation was to
commit massive war crimes and kill them. And at that very moment, the
Liberty, which was an enormous United States eavesdropping factory, was
sitting only about 13 miles off the coast, fully capable of eavesdropping on
what was going on on the shore.
CONAN: Our guest is James Bamford. He's the author of a new book titled
"Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."
We're gonna take a short break now. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan.
Our guest is James Bamford. His book is titled "Body of Secrets," and it's
about the National Security Agency.
The first soldier killed in the Vietnam War was James T. Davis. He was on an
eavesdropping mission trying to collect Vietcong radio signals. Your book,
James Bamford, describes the American experience in Vietnam as a disaster from
beginning to end.
Mr. BAMFORD: Oh, that's right. NSA had a very large role in Vietnam. As a
matter of fact, NSA played a very major role in the United States getting
involved in Vietnam in the first place. Once again, there was an
eavesdropping mission off the coast of North Vietnam, and once again it was a
routine eavesdropping mission in international waters. This time it was a US
Navy ship called the USS Maddox. And it was just cruising slowly up and down
the coast picking up communications and signals and so forth from the North
Vietnamese navy and military, but at the same time, the US was launching very
secret, very provocative attack missions along the coast. These were missions
sponsored by the US but carried out by the South Vietnamese. And these were
very violent attacks on various coastal towns.
The North Vietnamese assumed that the Maddox was directing these attacks
because it was right off the coast at the time these were going on and it was
just sort of sitting there while these attacks were taking place. As a
result, the North Vietnamese sent out a couple PT boats to try to attack the
Maddox at one point, and the Maddox managed to evade the attack. As a result,
the US sent a destroyer to escort the Maddox called the USS Turner Joy.
So two days after that first attempted attack, the USS Maddox received a
warning message from the National Security Agency saying, `We received word
that there may be an attack that may take place very soon.' As a result of
that, the people on both the Maddox and the Turner Joy got very nervous and
began looking for any sign of a possible attack, and they began seeing
indications of torpedo boats coming and torpedoes being fired and so forth.
As a result of this, the word got back to Washington that this was a violent
attack on the USS Maddox and Turner Joy. It became known as the Tonkin Gulf
As a result of that, President Johnson pushed very hard for the United States
Congress to pass a resolution basically declaring United States war against
CONAN: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Mr. BAMFORD: Exactly. It became the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was
passed almost unanimously.
CONAN: One vote against it.
Mr. BAMFORD: Exactly. And that basically launched the US formally into the
Vietnam War. It only came out years later that that initial message to the
Maddox that they were about to be attacked was an erroneous message. It was a
message that was meant to indicate the attack several days earlier that just
got delayed and was received several days late by the Maddox. And the
indications that the crew members saw on their radar scopes and so forth
turned out to be basically just ghost images, that there never was this second
CONAN: And as the last strains of the last rendition of "White Christmas"
went out over the air in Saigon in 1975 when the last helicopter lifted off
the top of the US Embassy and carried the last Americans to safety, what we
didn't know was that an entire warehouse full of secret code equipment was
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. The US had given the South Vietnamese government
a lot of very expensive and very secret encryption equipment, equipment that
would scramble their communications, for example. As it looked like Saigon
was coming close to falling, the United States, NSA basically, put out the
word that we wanted to get all this equipment back before it fell into
Communist hands. So the US managed to get all the equipment back from the
South Vietnamese, and they put it in a warehouse near the airport, and they
were about to fly it out back to the United States, but before the flight
could be arranged to fly the equipment back to the United States, the entire
city of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the entire warehouse
containing over 700 pieces of NSA's most advanced crypto equipment fell into
the hands of the Communists, which then presumably was passed on to the
Russians. That was the largest compromise of crypto equipment in US history.
CONAN: Now for several minutes now we've been speaking almost of an
unrelieved series of disasters. Clearly, the NSA did a lot of things right.
Mr. BAMFORD: Oh, of course. The NSA, I think, was probably the most
important intelligence agency during the Cold War in terms of being able to
find out what the Russians were doing and find out advanced warning of what
they might be planning and so forth. The US had a very great capability to
build technical means for eavesdropping on Russian communications, from
satellites to ground-based listening posts that basically circled the Soviet
Union. And although we had sort of stumbled at the beginning, we have managed
to, I think, do fairly well in the code-breaking area. But the Russians were
always better at human spies, and a lot of times they negated what NSA was
able to do by having Americans who volunteered to spy for the Russians give
away some of the NSA's secrets.
CONAN: James Bamford's book about the National Security Agency is titled
"Body of Secrets." We'll continue our conversation in the next half of the
show. I'm Neal Conan, and this is FRESH AIR.
CONAN: Coming up, code-breaking, spoofing and electronic espionage. Plus,
what happens when one of your friends turns out to be a Russian spy? We
continue our conversation with author James Bamford about his new book on the
National Security Agency.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan filling in for Terry Gross.
Now more of my conversation with author James Bamford about his new book about
the National Security Agency, "Body of Secrets."
NSA was formed as an amalgamation of the Signal Intelligence Services that
broke the German and Japanese codes so famously now in the Second World War.
Encountering the Soviet Union, though, they had a very different experience.
First, though, you report they had a tremendous break right after the end of
the Second World War, but after that, very difficult to break Russian codes.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. During World War II, the US and the Allies had
the biggest successes, probably in the history of cryptology, where they were
able to break the high-level cipher systems of both of our main enemies: the
German Enigma cipher machine and the Japanese Purple machine.
CONAN: Also, the Japanese naval codes, JN-25, which was hugely important.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. There were a number of different code systems.
We had broken the Purple code, actually, just right at the very beginning of
the war. So we were very lucky in having broken the high-level encryption
systems of both Japan and Russia during the course of most of the war.
But during that period, the United States and Russia were allies in fighting
the Germans, and as a result of that, the US spent no time trying to break any
Russian code systems or else trying to eavesdrop on Russian crypto systems.
So as a result of that, when the war ended and the US began the Cold War, the
US was in a very difficult position because we were suddenly faced with this
brand-new adversary, and we hadn't even begun to try to break these encryption
However, there was some very wise planning at the end of World War II by both
the United States and Britain. What they did was they formed a group of
cryptologists known as TICOM, which stood for Target Committee. And as the
war was coming to an end, the United States wanted these cryptologists to get
in there and steal as much German code equipment as possible and, also,
capture as many German cryptologists as possible. And the reason for this was
we wanted to know what the Germans knew about breaking Russian codes because
we knew that the Germans had been doing that during the war, even though we
And at the same time, a second reason for this TICOM was to try to find out
how vulnerable our own encryption systems were. For example, we wanted to
know whether the Germans were able to break any of our high-level codes
because if they were, we certainly wanted to correct that problem before we
got into this new Cold War with Russia. And the US had a major breakthrough
in finding some German cryptologists who led them to an enormous machine that
filled up four 10-ton trucks. This was an enormous code-breaking machine that
was buried in the ground in front of one of the German buildings. And these
German prisoners led them to the machine. They dug it up. And it managed to
break high-level Russian codes. So it was the biggest...
CONAN: Right then and there, just spat out, you know...
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. Because they set it up right there at the
building. And the Germans who had actually been working on the machine got it
working again. So the US packed it up on these 10-ton trucks and sent the
machine and the German code breakers over to England where they set it up and
began breaking Russian codes. And a duplicate of that machine was sent to the
United States, and we began working on Soviet codes over here, also. So that
was a very big boon for the United States.
The second half of TICOM--to try to find out what they knew about the US
codes--was also successful because we found out that the Germans were never
able to break any high-level US codes. Unlike our breaking their codes--their
high-level Enigma and so forth, they were never able to break virtually any US
code, except for a couple of low-level naval codes. The US and Britain have
still kept under wraps virtually all the details concerning TICOM. So it's
pretty much the last great secret of World War II.
CONAN: Now this piece of German-Russian equipment that broke the Russian
codes, you write that it was eventually compromised, people think, by a spy;
obviously not the first and not the only spy to compromise the secrets of the
National Security Agency. We're most familiar, I guess, with the Walker spy
ring, which did terrible damage to the United States. And you quote KGB
former KGB officials about the importance of the key codes that John Walker's
spy ring supplied to the Kremlin, but also Aldrich Ames and, most recently, of
course, Robert Philip Hanssen.
Cumulatively, the damage that all of these human spies of the Soviet Union
caused must have been tremendous.
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, it is tremendous. I don't think many people realize how
thoroughly the United States was penetrated during this period. For example,
the John Walker spy case was enormously more damaging than most people
realize, because in order for the Russians to break US high-level encryption
systems, they need two things, basically. They need the key cards, which are,
basically--at that time they were IBM-type cards. And...
CONAN: Punch cards, yeah.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right, punch cards. And they'd be put into a crypto
machine and then the cards would tell the machine what settings, basically, to
set the machine at. And the cards would be changed every day. So you need
two things, basically. You need the cards to change the ciphers in the
machine, and you need the machines, themselves. Well, John Walker, in the
late '60s, began passing regularly, all the high-level US Navy key cards to
the Russians. But they were just the key cards. They didn't have the
machines. But then, a few months after Walker began giving the cards to the
Russians, that's when the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo. And when
they captured the Pueblo, they gave the--some of the machines they captured
off the Pueblo to the Russians. So the Russians, at that point, beginning
around January of 1968, had both the key cards and the machines. So they were
able to break the high-level US Navy encryption system, and thereby read all
the messages to and from US Navy ships and submarines all throughout much of
CONAN: Is there any indication, from your talks with former KGB officials, of
what the Russians were able to do with this gold mine of information?
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, they were able to keep an eye on exactly where US Navy
ships and, to a large degree, US Navy submarines were operating during this
period, because they had access to the highest classification messages--top
secret messages--indicating where the ships were supposed to go; where they're
operating and how they're operating; what kind of armament they had on them;
what the plans were for the next six months or the next year, whatever. So
for more than a decade--close to two decades--the Russians had this
information. The Navy didn't detect John Walker until the mid-1980s, when he
was finally arrested. And Walker not only gave everything he could give to
the Russians, he had his son, his brother and his best friend, Jerry
Whitworth, also passing him information that would eventually go on to the
CONAN: You're almost tempted to think that after all of that was disclosed to
Moscow--and throw in Aldrich Ames and Hanssen, as well--how do the Russians
lose? I mean, maybe this wasn't as important as we all thought it was.
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that's the question. You never know it at the time how
important intelligence is gonna be, and you don't have a crystal ball, so you
can't see into the future, so you've got to handle intelligence as well as you
can at the time. But looking back at it, intelligence played a very little
role in terms of the entire collapse of the Soviet Union. It collapsed
internally because of economic reasons and very poor planning and just a badly
managed and very corrupt government system. But unlike World War II, where
intelligence played a key role in the winning of World War II against both
Germany and Japan, intelligence, in the end, did not play a major role in
terms of the United States winning the Cold War.
CONAN: More with James Bamford on the National Security Agency after a short
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: James Bamford is our guest. His book is "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of
the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."
The World War II alliance between the United States and Britain, which cracked
the Nazi's Enigma code, has survived to form an organization called the UK-USA
Partnership(ph). It's expanded to include other countries. You write, `In
2001, the UK-USA partners had become an eavesdropping superpower with its own
laws, it's own language and its own customs. It's goal,' you say, `is to rule
cyberspace.' Now that sounds a little ominous.
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, it's basically the major English-speaking countries of the
world, and these countries got together during World War II and were very
successful in breaking the German and Japanese codes, and they've continued
the partnership ever since. Right after the war, they entered this UK-USA
agreement and joined the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the
UK into this very secret partnership, whereby each country would have a sphere
of influence or a sphere of eavesdropping capability.
CONAN: And it's coordinated by a system called Echelon. Tell us about that.
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, Echelon's basically, a sort of a software-type system
that enables the US--like a search engine, for example. If we're interested
in information on what's happening in Vietnam, for example, the Australians
might be able to pick that up. But through Echelon, we're able to exchange
information and give information back and forth among the different countries.
It's basically a cybersharing signals, intelligence-sharing operation.
CONAN: And in the news in the last few years, because of concerns in Europe
both about industrial espionage and about personal privacy.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. The Europeans, who have always been very
interested in issues of privacy, have been very concerned about the capability
of this massive worldwide eavesdropping system. There's been a lot of
speculation that this system is being used by the United States and it's
UK-USA partners to eavesdrop on corporations in Europe and then use that
information for economic espionage, for competitive espionage. In other
words, to eavesdrop on the French Airbus company and pass on contract
information, future plans to Boeing in the United States.
Having spent--this is my second book that I've written on NSA, and I've spent
a lot of time talking to people inside the government, outside the government
and a lot of different areas. I haven't found any indication that NSA does do
this sort of competitive economic intelligence. They don't go out and steal
from Airbus to pass on to Boeing, for example.
CONAN: Are concerns about personal privacy better founded?
Mr. BAMFORD: Personal privacy is a different matter. It's a very difficult
issue. In the United States, the US has a certain law--it's called the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act--to protect the US citizens. Even if
NSA accidentally picks up their communications, they're supposed to take their
name out of the communication and substitute an American citizen or some other
generic name. But that protection stops with American citizens, and it
basically stops at the border.
One of the caveats in this rule, this law--the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act--is if the NSA picks up information and it indicates that
the person is involved in a crime, regardless of whether it's an American,
NSA not only has a right, but it actually has a duty to turn that information
over to US law enforcement. And that's where NSA gets into a lot of gray
areas with US law enforcement, especially with the drug area. NSA was set up
principally to eavesdrop on foreign intelligence; in other words, information
outside the United States in foreign countries.
But when you start getting into the drug area, that's where you start getting
into some very questionable areas because when you're intercepting
communications dealing with Colombians talking to Colombians in Colombia, that
may not be a problem, but when the Colombians start talking to Americans, and
then the Americans start talking among themselves, where do you draw the line?
The DEA is continually trying to push the envelope to get NSA to do more and
more drug-enforcement eavesdropping. And NSA is continually trying to back
away from getting heavily involved in US law enforcement. So it's a gray area
and it's an area that the public has very little ability to see what's going
CONAN: I guess the case that is probably best remembered involves the
brother of the then-president of the United States.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. It was a scandal called Billygate. Billy Carter
was the brother of President Jimmy Carter, and Billy Carter got involved with
the Libyan government, basically trying to help them get sales or get some
kind of help from government organizations and so forth. And, in essence, he
became an agent of the Libyan government. However, he never registered as an
agent, so he was breaking the law by acting as an unregistered agent of the
At the time, the NSA was eavesdropping on almost every communication going in
and coming out of Libya, so during the course of this eavesdropping on Libya,
NSA picked up indications that Billy Carter was acting as an unregistered
agent of the Libyan government. NSA turned that information over to the
attorney general, Attorney General Civiletti I think it was, and there was a
large investigation and I guess portions of it leaked and it became the
But that's one example of NSA eavesdropping on a foreign communications,
picking up a US citizen's communications, and all of a sudden NSA's involved,
to some degree, in domestic law enforcement.
CONAN: In a minute, the conclusion of our conversation with James Bamford
about his new book, "Body of Secrets" and the National Security Agency. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: James Bamford's first book on the National Security Agency came out
almost 20 years ago. It was "Puzzle Palace." He has a new book out, "Body
of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."
Throughout our conversation, we keep referring back to spies--you know, this
one destroyed this system, that one provided this crucial piece of equipment
or information to the Soviet Union. As it turned out, you were a friend of a
man who turned out to have been a long-time Soviet mole, and that's Mr.
Hanssen, of whom we've read so much.
Mr. BAMFORD: That's right. Of course, when I knew him he was a senior
official with the FBI associated with foreign intelligence. I mean, he was a
counterspy. He was the guy looking for the other spies. And I got to know
Bob Hanssen quite well during the 1990s and we'd see each other, have lunch
together and go out different places together, occasionally, on social
activities. We had a mutual friend. I had a friend at the CIA who actually
introduced me to Bob Hanssen. So I actually have quite a few FBI friends and
friends in the intelligence community, which is why I was able to write "Body
of Secrets" and so forth. And so it came as a shock more to me than almost
anybody else, I think, with a few exceptions, I guess, that he turned out to
be a arrested for espionage.
As a matter of fact, the day I read the article--I saw the article headline
saying Major Spy Arrest, and in the corner of my eye I saw Bob Hanssen's name,
and I immediately thought that, `Oh, terrific. You know, he's finally made a
huge spy arrest,' which is the ultimate goal for all FBI...
Mr. BAMFORD: ...counterintelligence agents. And very few of them ever do
make an arrest during an entire career, because there's so few spies and
there's so many FBI counterintelligence agents. So I thought, `Well, great,
he just made, you know, the rest of his career.' Well, it turned out to be
the rest of his career, but it wasn't he that was making the arrest. So I was
very, very surprised and astounded that he could do that.
As a matter of fact, he seemed, as most people have said, to be the complete
opposite of the typical spy. He wasn't flashy with money. He never had any
great desires to have sports cars or any kind of other material goods.
CONAN: But was he a source?
Mr. BAMFORD: He was a personal friend of mine, and I don't talk about
sources; I just don't. But he was certainly a personal friend of mine. He
attended my wedding. He--we have gone sailing down the Potomac together. So
he was a friend of mine.
CONAN: You say you don't talk about your sources. If Bob Hanssen was indeed
a source, don't you think he's sort of violated that agreement by lying to you
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that may be, but, you know, I don't have caveats in there
for people who, you know, violate agreements or whatever. It's just a policy
I've always had. I just--there's no need to talk about sources. I mean, I
don't have any need to. I've got a lot of friends and...
CONAN: Well, in retrospect, looking back, if this guy gave you some
information, don't you want to go back and say, `Well, you know, I might want
to look at it in a new light, now'?
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, if he did give me information, I probably would go back
and look at it in a new light. It doesn't mean that I'm going to be talking
about it publicly. But I was the investigative producer for ABC for a long
time, I'd developed a lot of friends in the government, and a lot of these
friends are just plain friends. I mean, some of them help and some of them
don't. And it doesn't mean that I'm not going to not be friends with somebody
if they don't help me occasionally. So, you know, he fits into the category
of being somebody who was a friend of mine here, and whether it ever went
beyond that, I just can't say.
CONAN: If you get a chance to talk to him and, presumably, once his legal
problems have resolved one way or another--it may involve a trip out to the
cell over from John Walker's to ask him--but what's the first thing you would
Mr. BAMFORD: Well, if he was found guilty, the first question I'd ask would
be, `Why did you do it?' or `What prompted you? What was your motivation?
What was it you were getting out of it?' Because it didn't seem to be that
he was doing it for money, initially; at least not back in 1985. That didn't
seem to be the number one reason. With a lot of the spies--and, like I said,
I've interviewed a great many of them and it's not very complicated. I mean,
they--John Walker wanted a lot of money. He wanted to buy a boat. He wanted
to buy a plane. He wanted to buy lots of things. Aldrich Ames walked into a
bank with half a million dollars in his briefcase to buy a house for cash.
So Bob Hanssen, you know, if he is found guilty, the question would be, `If
it wasn't for money, what was the reason?' And, I mean, he's made some
oblique references in some of his writings that were picked up by the
FBI, writings to the KGB, indicating that he'd long had an admiration for Kim
Philby, who was the infamous British spy who was a double agent for the
Russians, and he had been wanting to do this since he was 14 and so forth.
So it may be--and he wouldn't be the first one, but it may be for the thrill
of it. There are people who are sort of addicted to intrigue, and there are
a fair number of spies that have been caught that that was the motivating
factor was this desire for intrigue. And, you know, Bob joined the FBI, which
is sort of an intriguing agency, and within the FBI he joined the
counterintelligence, the spy hunters of the FBI, which, again, is another sort
of intriguing element. I don't know. I don't know. I'm not a psychologist,
and I have no idea, but it would be a very interesting conversation if, number
one, he did do it and, number two, he admits why he did it.
CONAN: James Bamford, thank you very much.
Mr. BAMFORD: My pleasure, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: James Bamford's new book is "Body of Secrets: An Anatomy of the
Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."
Paul McCartney has a new collection of poetry and lyrics titled "Blackbird
Singing." Terry Gross will speak with Paul McCartney next Monday on FRESH
AIR. Here's a Beatles song from "The White Album."
(Soundbite of "Back in the U.S.S.R.")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Oh, flew in from Miami Beach BOAC. Didn't get to bed
last night. On the way the paper bag was on my knee. Man, I had a dreadful
flight. I'm back in the USSR. You don't know how lucky you are, boy, back
in the USSR.
Been away so long I hardly knew the place. Gee, it's good to be back home.
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case. Honey, disconnect the phone. I'm
back in the USSR. You don't know how lucky you are, boy, back in the US--back
in the US--back in the USSR.
Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out. They leave the West behind. And
Moscow girls make me sing and shout. And Georgia's always on my
my-my-my-my-my-my-mind. Oh, come on! Whoo!
Hey, I'm back in the USSR. You don't know how lucky you are, boys, back in
Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out. They leave the West behind. And
Moscow girls make me sing and shout that Georgia's always on
Oh, show me round your snow-peaked mountains way down south. Take me to your
daddy's farm. Let me hear your balalaika's ringing out. Come and keep your
comrade warm. I'm back in the USSR. Hey, you don't know how lucky you are,
boys, back in the USSR.
Oh, let me tell you, honey. Hey, we're back.
CONAN: Paul McCartney talks with Terry Gross on Monday.
CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
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