So you want to know about NSA …

Thanks to Ed Snowden and the Summer of SIGINT there are several billion people on earth who have now heard of the National Security Agency. Going back to the vaunted days of “No Such Agency” is impossible for NSA, and now that the genie is out of the bottle about the size and scope of its activities, the Agency will have to live with greater public awareness of what it does.

Of course, a lot of what people think they know about NSA, thanks to Snowden and his media pals, above all Glenn Greenwald, is simply false. Correcting misperceptions and outright lies about the Agency and its mission is a big task, and one I suggest NSA get working on quickly. There is much damage to be repaired; more transparency is long overdue.

My role in the Summer of SIGINT has been interesting. As an NSA veteran, I’ve been castigated as a shill of the Secret State, or worse, by the legions of critics of U.S. intelligence who compensate for not having an informed opinion by broadcasting it as loudly as possible.  Readers of my work know that I am anything but an uncritical observer of NSA and the Intelligence Community (IC), but that gets lost when you’re motivated by anger – at DC, at Obama, at your parents, at everyone – rather than facts.

I get asked a lot for pointers by people who want to know more about NSA and what it does. People who want more factual and less biased accounts than much of the media coverage that’s out there now. So here’s my very informal guide for those who want to know more about what NSA really does.

Let me throw some caveats out there. I’m a former NSA guy who grew up in an Agency family (both my parents were career NSA), so I don’t think the Agency is controlled by Satan and I don’t have time for people who are polemical rather than analytical in their approach to intelligence studies. Which filters out ninety percent of what’s out there right now, especially online.

I also took a lifetime secrecy oath, so if you’re looking for all the “real” TOPSECRET/SCI information, you’ve found the wrong blog. I’m not about leaks, but I do want as much transparency as we can get without violating the law or harming the sources and methods that protect our country and our allies.

I’m a fan of history – I’ve got a Ph.D. in the subject, so I’m a pretty big fan – and there’s no way to get a better grounding in SIGINT than by reading up on the history of codebreaking, particularly in the modern era. Technology changes but the essence of the job – cracking codes and ciphers to gain intelligence while preventing others from doing the same to you – doesn’t change. Also, if you don’t grasp how NSA and its predecessors did their job in the past, when SIGINT was a bit simpler than it is in the 21st century, you have no hope of comprehending what’s going on now in cryptology.

Fortunately there’s a lot out there you can read. The best place to start is NSA’s in-house shop, the Center for Cryptologic History (CCH), which is staffed by people who understand the business and publish lots of stuff – some classified, some unclassified – on the history of the Agency. The quality of their work is generally quite high and customarily scrupulously honest about past mistakes. Every two years CCH hosts the Cryptologic History Symposium, unclassified and open to the public, which draws top experts on intelligence, codes and ciphers; it’s like the Gathering of the Juggalos for ICP fans – you kinda gotta be there if you’re part of the SIGINT “in crowd.” I’ve spoken at the Symposium several times, and it’s next on in a few weeks.

I was fortunate to spend my last year with the Agency at CCH, where I worked on classified projects such as editing and co-authoring NSA’s official history of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (Phases I-III), as well as several unclassified projects. It was a lot of fun. CCH also supports the Cryptologic History Museum, located next to Agency headquarters, which was the first IC museum to be open to the public, and which remains a fun family destination where people of all ages can learn about codes and ciphers and how NSA has developed over the decades. The museum has a superb library, the best open collection on cryptology in the world, which is a goldmine for researchers.

There are plenty of people writing on NSA, intelligence, and cryptology, and I’ll give you my views of a few of the leading people in the field – since some of them are less than forthright about their background I’ll add some clarity – plus what I think of their work. Since I believe in full disclosure, I’ll add an FD line as needed.

The doyen of the field is David Kahn, who practically established it with the publication of his seminal work The Codebreakers in 1967. Kahn is a fine writer and professionally trained historian who brings a lifelong interest in codes and ciphers to the table. He has published many fine books on intelligence – NSA buffs will want to read his biography of Herbert Yardley, a card-playing, womanizing, hard-living codebreaker and easily the most interesting figure in the annals of U.S. espionage – but The Codebreakers is the place to start. It’s purely historical, you won’t learn anything about PRISM in its pages, but it’s a foundational work you must read and comprehend if you wish to understand cryptology.  When Kahn went to press in 1967, NSA went into panic mode, fearing any public discussion of SIGINT; three decades later he was a guest of honor at the Agency. Times change. To top it off, he’s a very nice guy and a gentleman of the old school. (FD: I’ve known David for years, and was he kind enough to donate many of his papers and much of his huge collection of books on cryptology to NSA, which resides in the National Cryptologic Museum library, for the benefit of researchers.)

If you want a more academic flavor, I recommend anything written by John Ferris, who has a deep understanding of SIGINT that’s almost impossible to find among those who’ve never worked in the spy business. Ferris’s work is historical and heavily about the British, but is superb, indeed indispensable, if you want to understand how modern cryptology was born in the World Wars. (FD: I’ve been acquainted with John for over twenty years.)

Among more popular writers we have James Bamford, who has been a thorn in NSA’s side since he published The Puzzle Palace in 1982, a gossipy tome that was culled largely from unclassified Agency newsletters. Bamford claims to be a scrappy outsider, but in fact he served for three years in the Naval Security Group, the Navy’s portion of NSA, so he was a cryptologic insider, something he customarily omits from his bio. Bamford’s writings on NSA, which are considerable, are noted for their quantity, not quality. He tends to sensationalism and sometimes outright fabrication. Bamford cannot be considered a reliable source on SIGINT and his methods tend towards the sleazy; before 9/11, when the Cryptologic History Symposium was held inside NSA headquarters, Bamford used to try to chat up random NSAers, hoping they would tell him secrets. Smooth. (FD: I don’t know Bamford, having only met him once; I was one of the NSAers he idiotically thought would tell him a whole bunch of TS/SCI.)

Matthew Aid also writes about NSA and related intelligence matters from the less-than-accurate posture of an outsider. Unlike Bamford, he is a solid researcher who knows a great deal about SIGINT and speaks with some authority. (I’ve endorsed his book on NSA, though not without reservations, in this review.) Aid should know about cryptology because he, too, served the Agency in uniform. Back in the 1980s he was an Air Force enlisted SIGINTer (Russian language analyst) at an Agency field site in the UK. Unfortunately, his intelligence career ended badly, as he was found to be impersonating an officer and, worse, was taking classified information home with him; this resulted in over a year in prison. Understandably, Aid doesn’t talk about this much. Although Aid isn’t a hack like Bamford, he tends to criticism of NSA, for reasons that are not difficult to imagine. (FD: I’ve met Aid a couple times, and found him pleasant and knowledgeable, but I can’t say I know him.)

Among insiders who have written things that are accessible to the public, I would highlight Robert Hanyok, a former CCH colleague who’s now retired. He authored several important works of SIGINT history, particularly on NSA and Vietnam, much of which has been declassified and merits close attention. Michael Warner, formerly with CIA and now the Cyber Command historian, is a fine writer and researcher on all intelligence matters, and has published stuff that you need to read to understand how the IC works and where NSA fits in. With now-retired NSA counterintelligence guru Robert “Lou” Benson, he wrote the seminal work on VENONA which is another must-read. (FD: I know all these guys and was privileged to have Lou Benson as a mentor during my Agency service.)

Journalists writing about NSA generally don’t know what they’re talking about, though notable exceptions are Scott Shane and Siobhan Gorman, who work hard at understanding the Agency and what it does. They’ve been writing about NSA since Ed Snowden was just a kid. The best is Marc Ambinder, who brings serious analysis and a lot of legwork on SIGINT to the table; he is always worth a read and serves as a sane antidote to Greenwaldism and related forms of naive nihilism masquerading as intelligence reportage.

There are plenty of nutty people writing and talking about NSA out there and I recommend you avoid them all. Above all, disregard Wayne Madsen, who did serve as a Navy cryptology officer some years ago, but who has left earth orbit altogether and espouses a conspiratorial worldview that would make Julius Streicher blush, along with the vicious anti-Semitism to match (this week he wrote about “Obama’s ‘Rosh Hashanah war’ on Syria made out of a tallit prayer shawl”). Suffice to say that you will learn more about what NSA actually does by asking a houseplant or your cat. (FD: I’ve never met the guy but he and his minions have conducted a vicious smear campaign against me online, including fake sites, and have written to the Naval War College trying to get me fired: Stay classy, Wayne!)

That’s enough reading to start; as more stuff on NSA gets published – and there will be a torrent of insta-books soon, thanks to Snowden – I’ll share my two cents on them.



19 comments on “So you want to know about NSA …”
  1. g2-434940158776a46c22d802cb34c0b465 says:

    I tried my hand at cryptology online and it is hard work intellectually let alone dealing with different things that goes on in the world of spying. Interesting article. 🙂

  2. g2-434940158776a46c22d802cb34c0b465 says:

    * Imagine trying to figure out how to crack a computer code while in real time , real people’s lives are at stake. I tip my hat to these people who do this kind of work everyday. They keep us safe in more ways than we will ever know. This is a Thank you to these people who do this kind of work everyday with almost no public recognition or thank you’s because well, their work is top secret. Thank you for the countless lives you are saving each day at work. God Bless America.

  3. realakula51 says:

    Thank you very much for this – we as a nation are going to need to rapidly identify objective sources for this information. As the pendulum inevitably swings back from…what some might feel are blatantly unconstitutional excesses spawned from the Patriot Act and other legislation (and may just be misreported, or breakdowns in the process and/or oversight), it will be critical to understand the vital roles that *can* be played by an organization such as NSA.

    This is only possible by abstracting oneself from the present, and truly gaining an appreciation for the agency’s accomplishments, and not just in the context of today. When coupled with the handicaps imposed by the technological eras that many of these occurred within – it is only then that the mindboggling impact of just how “out of the box” many of the thinkers behind these programs were.

    Only through the lens of the historian can truly this be seen. Happy Weekend!

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks, and great weekend to you too!

  4. Brittius says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    This article is written by a Second Generation NSA person. A referenced work by David Kahn is mentioned, and I had owned a copy of the book, which was enjoyable reading of work between the periods of the First and Second World wars which I remain interested however, what is presently occurring is not the stuff of Bletchley Park, Room 40, or other classic intelligence operation during a time of war, it is espionage committed against the citizenry of the United States and other nations. Only today, Jim Harwood’s computer was attacked and destroyed as my blog covers, and military “Ripper” codes (whatever they are) were identified as military; one in the offices at NYC, of Goldman Sachs, the other in California. There is no justification other than complete defunding of the National Security Agency as it no longer protects America, it is merely another tool of a Rogue Government which is lead by a Made Member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The article is somewhat fair, and I do remain jaded and cynical, so my prejudice must also be taken into consideration. Further, I do not relish the idea of any person having a security clearance speaking about anything that might be related to a sensitive matter. I remain, with daggers peering at the subject. Read on, it is posted to give equal time.

  5. J. Moye says:

    No government rules cleanly. That’s a given for anybody for whom History is vocation or avocation.

    What puzzles me is most of these “revelations” are of programs that were explicitly identified, or at least alluded to, shortly after 9/11.

    What I’ve been shocked by is how easy it was for non-entities like Manning and Snowden to acquire all that information with nobody being aware until they exposed it themselves.

    Perhaps as a multigenerational NSA operative, you could explain what advantage there is in the government being all-knowing if it can’t keep that knowledge to itself?

    1. 20committee says:

      I sure wish I could tell you, it’s a great question ….

  6. MLK says:

    I like your Glasnost (” more transparency”) idea. The second time should be a charm.

  7. MJ says:

    Re SIGINT history: I can’t recall the title, but years ago I read a biography of William Friedman and couldn’t put it down.
    Another superb read was “And I was There: Breaking the Secrets – Pearl Harbor and Midway” by Admiral Edwin T. Layton.
    You are right about James Bamford. I read “The Puzzle Palace” when it came out and spent a lot of time scratching my head as I had also spent three years assigned to the ASA. I refuse to read anything more by him.
    Like the above poster, I don’t understand how so much information was available to someone without any need to know. Perhaps you could explain.

    1. 20committee says:

      Layton’s book is good stuff. Bamford is one of life’s mysteries … Thanks for the feedback.

  8. A reader says:

    Just found this post after you re-upped a link on Twitter. I know you get (justifiably) annoyed with people repeatedly asking where to find more information, but I can’t tell you how helpful a list like this is. I tried to take the advice you repeat on Twitter to read read read but without historical context (and having absolutely no idea where to begin, as Google and Amazon aren’t exactly the greatest in helping me know what’s legit and what’s not), i just felt lost.

    Appreciate you taking the time to put this together.

    1. 20committee says:

      Great to hear – enjoy!

  9. ess emm says:

    Interesting list. Seems like William Binney has a lot to say about the NSA, shouldn’t he be on your list?

    1. 20committee says:

      As he does not write much, mostly just give interviews plus the occasional op-ed – no. If Binney were to give us something more substantial I would certainly read it with interest.

  10. Maybelle says:

    Thanks for finally talking about >So you want to know about NSA | The XX Committee <Liked it!

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