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“Never before in history have so few people wiretapped so many,” writes author James Bamford about an organization he knows all too well, the shadowy National Security Agency (NSA), which he first brought to light in his bestseller The Puzzle Palace and revisited in his follow-up bestseller Body of Secrets. Now in The Shadow Factory, Bamford gives a gripping account of developments in the NSA since the 9/11 attacks.
Bamford starts with a chronicle of the build-up to 9/11 from the point of view of the intelligence community. Then he explains how, in the face of the massive intelligence lapses that allowed the attacks to happen, the previously downsizing NSA suddenly switched into high gear. One result was the Bush Administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program. Bamford discusses in detail the administrative secrecy behind the program, the technology employed and the cooperation from the corporate world it required, before exposure in the New York Times led to its end in 2004. Nonetheless says Bamford, by 2008 the NSA had become “the largest, most costly, and most technologically sophisticated spy organization the world has ever known,” busily developing new tools that “Orwell’s Thought Police would have found useful.” Bamford describes systems like Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD), which, if fully implemented on U.S. communications and data links, would create a society where everyone’s words and actions would be constantly screened by surveillance machines programmed to watch-list anyone who matches a complex algorithm. And then there’s AQUAINT, short for “Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence,” a program designed to learn not only where people are and what they are doing, but what and how they are thinking.
Yet, in the midst of this remarkable story of staggering technology is the disaster of the Bush Administration’s “mother of all watch lists,” the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. Originally containing a mere 20 names, TIDE now contains the names of half a million people thought to pose a threat to the nation. Most on the list are neither terrorists nor a danger to the country, Bamford says, yet they might be tossed off a plane, denied a business loan or a visa, or rejected for admission to a military academy. And as important as this list is, “it sits ingloriously on a dated and inexpensive Dell laptop in the basement of the National Counterterrorism Center.”
The Shadow Factory is comprehensively researched, massively informative tome with the rhythm and pacing of a paperback thriller. And Bamford ends his tour-de-force with an ominous warning: “There is now the capacity to make tyranny total in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss—the abyss from which there is no return.”
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