Signal Failure | Wall Street Journal

Once upon a time the NSA was so secret that its acronym was said to mean No Such Agency. Today we know a great deal more about it, in part because of James Bamford, who in “The Puzzle Palace” (1982), a portrait of the agency, offered secrets so sensitive that the NSA attempted to block the book’s publication. (Among other things, “The Puzzle Palace” embarrassed the U.K. by revealing that British intelligence had helped the NSA spy on American citizens during the Nixon years.) Now, with “The Shadow Factory,” Mr. Bamford takes a close look at the National Security Agency’s performance just before 9/11 and after.

He finds, in the years leading up to the terrorist attacks, a culture of dysfunction in which interagency rivalry, bureaucratic sloth and careerist hesitation got in the way of national security. NSA counterterrorism experts, piqued at the CIA for “treating them not as equals, but as subordinates,” consistently did the minimum, according to Mr. Bamford, “unless they were specifically asked.” In 1999, for instance, the NSA noted that three suspected al Qaeda terrorists abroad were on the move and that one of them had received a U.S. visa. But NSA passed on to the CIA and FBI only the suspects’ first names — without conducting a search of its own database that would have generated crucial last names, too. As a result, none of the three men ended up on American watch lists: All three ended up instead on Flight 77 as it crashed into the Pentagon.

On the eve of 9/11, Mr. Bamford shows, Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA’s director, was still so traumatized by the events of the 1970s — when illegal domestic surveillance was exposed by congressional committees and the NSA was savaged by an outraged press — that he labored to keep the agency from looking out for foreign terrorist plots afoot on U.S. soil. Collecting “domestic” intelligence, he reasoned, was the FBI’s job. Mr. Bamford offers a withering judgment: “For years, under [Hayden’s] leadership, the agency had deliberately taken an overly cautious approach to eavesdropping and, possibly as a result, contributed to the intelligence failures that led to the attacks.”

After the twin towers fell, a ricochet effect set in, Mr. Bamford says. The NSA, the U.S. agency responsible for collecting signals intelligence, “zoomed from dangerously underreacting prior to 9/11 to dangerously overreacting.” The result was the ultra-secret warrantless wiretapping program designed to follow the communications of al Qaeda suspects across international borders, including our own. Now “civil liberties were out,” Mr. Bamford writes, and “fortress America was in.” It was the formerly hypercautious Mr. Hayden himself “who would grab the banner and lead the charge away from liberty and toward a security state.”

Mr. Bamford faults the NSA for, among other things, leaning on U.S. telecom companies for private data — about the phone and computer use of U.S. citizens — and for tracking suspected terrorists overseas so that CIA field agents, directing Predator drones, could drop hellfire missiles on their targets — carrying out what Mr. Bamford calls “illegal assassination.” In one such attack, the NSA helped to incinerate Qaed Salim Sinan al- Harethi, a Yemeni al Qaeda member who, it is widely believed, masterminded the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port, killing 17 American sailors.

Mr. Bamford is a prodigious researcher but also very much a partisan in the fierce debates over counterterrorism policy. It is one thing to claim, as Mr. Bamford does, that the NSA wiretapping program was illegal, a violation of the 1977 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires warrants for wiretaps on foreign agents in the U.S. It is another thing to take such a position without even deigning to acknowledge the arguments on the other side. There are plenty of legal thinkers — including former FISA judges — who maintain that the president possesses constitutionally derived powers to conduct surveillance of suspected enemy agents without a warrant. Previous presidents (including Bill Clinton) have asserted such powers on the grounds that a statute like FISA cannot trump the Constitution.

As for the targeting of terrorists overseas with hellfire missiles, Mr. Bamford says that, in this case as in others, President George Bush “brushed aside the law.” He approvingly cites a United Nations report calling al-Harethi’s death “a clear case of extrajudicial killing.” But international law is unambiguous: An enemy combatant — as al-Harethi clearly was — is a legitimate target at all times, whether or not he has a gun in his hands.

Despite the wealth of information it provides, “The Shadow Factory” is constantly disfigured by Mr. Bamford’s loathing of the Bush administration, in particular its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In an aside about the war, Mr. Bamford says that, by 2005, “the once-proud U.S. Army had been reduced to emptying jail cells and drunk tanks to fill its quota of Iraq-bound soldiers. Criminals, dropouts, and the unemployable were now sought after, given bonuses, outfitted with deadly weapons, and then set loose in a crowded land with few rules, less oversight, and a license to kill.”

Yes, the U.S. military did loosen its criteria for enlistment in the years after the invasion of Iraq, but Mr. Bamford’s characterization is contorted to the point of journalistic malpractice. Whatever one’s view of the Iraq war, the men and women fighting it do not deserve such calumny. And we know that between 2005 and 2008 — when Mr. Bamford’s “criminals” and “dropouts” were supposedly let loose on Iraq — U.S. fighting forces made the country a much safer place. We would all be safer if the NSA, and other intelligence agencies, had done their work properly years before.

Mr. Schoenfeld is writing a book about secrecy and national security as a visiting scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

mes Bamford’s The Shadow Palace.

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