Book World Live: The Shadow Factory

James Bamford
Investigative Journalist and National Security Expert
Tuesday, October 14, 2008; 3:00 PM

"By exploring the current, post-9/11 operations of the NSA, Bamford also goes where congressional oversight committees and investigative journalists still struggle to go. Rather than finding out what went wrong in the run-up to 9/11 and disciplining those who made serious mistakes, the Bush administration declared its need for new authorities to wage a global war on terror. Congress agreed to most of the White House's demands, though we know from other sources that former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle resisted some of the most extreme requests. According to Bamford, the NSA's expanded powers and resources enabled it to collect communications both inside and outside the United States. He quotes a former NSA employee as a witness to the agency's spying on the conversations of Americans who have no connection to terrorism. After suing the NSA for documents, the author obtained considerable evidence that telecommunication companies (with the notable exception of Qwest) knowingly violated U.S. law by cooperating with the NSA to tap fiber optic lines.

In impressive detail, The Shadow Factory tells how private contractors, including some little-known entities with foreign owners, have done the sensitive work of storing and processing the voices and written data of Americans and non-Americans alike. And Bamford warns of worse to come: '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.'"

Bestselling author James Bamford was online Tuesday, October 14 to discuss his new book, The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, which was reviewed in Book World. In the book, he offers new revelations about the National Security Agency's counterterrorism tactics, including its controversial domestic surveillance programs.

Bamford is the author of two other books on the NSA: Body of Secrets and The Puzzle Palace. A former investigative producer for ABC's World News Tonight, he currently writes and produces documentaries for the PBS series NOVA.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.


James Bamford: Hi, I'm James Bamford, author of my third book on NSA -- The Shadow Factory. I look forward to your questions.


Reston, VA: What is the probability of the United States becoming a dictatorship? If it does so, what will the consequences be for the USA and for the World?

James Bamford: I don't think there is much possibility -- I can't even begin to think of the consequences.


Alexandria, Virginia: Have you seen any slow motion videos of the 767 crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center? Do you seriously claim that it looks real?

James Bamford: I have seen the videos and they do look real to me.


VA: Some retired NSGC personnel described you as a yeoman who worked for a naval security group. Didn't you sign a pre-publication statement?

James Bamford: I was never a yeoman and never signed any pre-publication statement.


Mount Vernon, NY: Dear Mr. Bamford,

I am an African-American man whose sense of history and appreciation of the racial dynamics that drive American politics leads me to believe that it's not too far-fetched to believe that Blacks could well wind up in American concentration camps if the fascist shifts going on in the U.S. ever take hold.

In a Senate hearing held not too long ago (Senator Lieberman's committee), security analysts testified that they were concerned about the rise of what is derisively known as "Prislam," the tendency of African-American males to convert to Islam during their incarceration. These analysts recommended that the U.S. learn from the British and treat jails as the breeding grounds for radicalism.

I was wondering if you have any additional information on whether the national security establishment has made any progress on its plans to monitor African-American groups like these.

Thanks for reviewing my question.

James Bamford: I have not heard of any specific targeting of African-American groups.


Crossville, TN: While vitually all of us would like to ensure that our rights of privacy are protected, most would agree that these are very trying and dangerous times where perhaps extraordinary measures are required to protect our society and all that we hold dear. Would it not be prudent to believe that our government, acting in our best interest and in ways that we cannot to protect ourselves, should be able take measures that provide information for the common good? Some would suggest that authors such as yourself are on a crusade of sorts, or for personal gain at the expense of the country. Could you accept any blame should your disclosures (whether valid or not) resulted in less protection for our country?

James Bamford: I have no problem with the government taking measures that provide information for the common good -- as long as they are legal and any eavesdropping is approved by a judge and a court.


Alexandria Virginia: Mr. Bamford,

Having read Body of Secrets and heard your interview this morning on Democracy Now, I'm very much looking forward to the new book. The increased concentration of executive power combined with unfettered wiretapping has me concerned. Did your reporting uncover any concrete evidence that surveillance material has been used to blackmail or otherwise pressure the administration's political opponents?

James Bamford: I have not come across any cases of surveillance material being used for either blackmail or to pressure political opponents.


Cape May New Jersey: Explain this "abyss from which there is no return."

James Bamford: That is a quote from Senator Frank Church, the first chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who conducted the first investigation of NSA in the mid-1970s. He was very worried about NSA's capabilities and implied that if the government allowed NSA to get out of hand, it would be the "abyss from which there is no return." The entire quote is in The Shadow Factory.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Why was unrelated domestic surveillance undertaken? It seems to me this was not even a priority in the scheme of gathering intelligence on foreign-directed operations. Is this a case where agencies undertook the easier route of obtaining data that was easier to gather rather than concentrating on obtaining data that would require more effort?

James Bamford: I write about interviews with NSA intercept operators who describe eavesdropping on personal communications between Americans -- aid workers, soldiers, journalists, businesspeople -- and their families, coworkers, etc. with no intelligence value. They said they did this because they were told do it. One reason is probably because there was no oversight or FISA Court to go through, the decision was made to just eavesdrop on everything. That's the problem when controls are removed.


Elma, Iowa: Do the policies, procedures and priorities of the NSA change much from administration to administration? Can you predict any difference for the NSA in an Obama vs. McCain Administration?

James Bamford: Between the late 1970s and 2001 they changed very little. But after 9/11, Lt. Gen. Hayden decided to begin warrantless eavesdropping, which was the biggest change in a quarter of a century. Both Obama and McCain supported the recent changes in the FISA law. However, I would assume McCain would be more in favor of giving more freedom to NSA -- and therefore less oversight -- than Obama.


Richmond, Va.: Of course, spying on ordinary people who have nothing to do with "terrorism" was the greatest fear of those who opposed the expanded powers given to all sorts of intelligence agencies. And, as you so rightly write, and George Orwell predicted, it has come true. My questions are these: One: Why didn't those who were opposed craft a cogent enough argument that would have allowed some sort of monitoring (through the courts -- didn't we have those laws in place, by the way?) AND at the same time would have preserved our very fundamental civil liberties? Two: Would the next president/Congress -- or some president/Congress in the future -- be able take back these expanded powers without looking as if they didn't want to protect the country?

James Bamford: The House appeared to stand up to the White House over FISA last February but gave in in August -- largely, I think, because they were facing reelection soon and didn't want their voters to think they were weak on national security. I think a new administration could craft a far more reasonable bill if there is pressure from the public.


Cape May New Jersey: Rather than finding out what went wrong in the run-up to 9/11 and disciplining those who made serious mistakes, the Bush administration declared its need for new authorities to wage a global war on terror. This feeds the perceptions the Bush administration need not have been in conspiracy with Osama bin Laden but needed only to turn a blind eye. What evidence exists that Bush let 9/11 happen, or at the very least was willfully negligent?

James Bamford: None that I know of. I go to great lengths in my book to explain how I believe it happened.


Detroit, Michigan: Our country can spy on anyone at any time. How can we stop this madness?

James Bamford: Put pressure on Congress to increase the legal controls on NSA and its activities.


Freising, Germany: I think that there's a danger to innocent citizens if information retrieved through data mining techniques (which some compare with tea leave reading) or bogus intelligence from less sophisticated allies (through torture, personal vendettas, bribery, etc.) results in intelligence services smoking out and negatively intruding into suspects' lives.

But what actually does happen to the information that the NSA gathers? Is it held indefinitely and is there a chance that personal information could leak out to less professional people and organizations?

James Bamford: One of the most serious problems is the fact that, according to the intercept operators I interviewed, everything is recorded and kept permanently by NSA -- even the innocent -- and sometime intimate -- conversations of two Americans talking to each other. They could be retreived years later and used for political purposes, blackmail or other illegal purposes. The intercept operators said they used to pass around interesting or amusing sexual calls.


Palo Alto, Calif.: It has been alleged that the eavesdropping by the Bush Administration began prior to 9/11. Can you confirm this? And, do you know if the recent FISA Amendments Act provides immunity to the telecom companies like AT&T for this period?

James Bamford: I know the NSA made some requests of Qwest before 9/11 but were turned down. Thus I think all the warrantless eavesdropping began after 9/11. The telecoms would not be protected for any eavesdropping pre-9/11.


Arlington, VA: Thanks for taking my question. What has been going on with the NSA spying program and the Bush adminstration's expansion of powers to protect us scares me immensely! To be honest I probably won't read your book because every story I read about what they have been doing just makes me more angry and scared at what is going on. I think the Bush adminstration, with the complacency of Congress and many Americans, has gone way too far to "protect us", what do you think the chances that the pendulum will swing back strongly in the other direction and what can one person do to help it move in the other direction?

James Bamford: It seems the pendulum does swing back and forth. I think revelations such as those from the intercept operators I spoke with -- that they spent much of their time listening to innocent Americans rather than members of al Qaeda -- might help push the pendulum back to more controls over NSA. The only thing that can help is pressure from the public on Congress to make the changes -- and revelations by more whistleblowers.


Washington, DC: Do you envision any situation where eavesdropping is warranted? Likewise, torture? Note that I do, and want those tools used when unavoidable and absolutely necessary. The devil then is defining those moments.

James Bamford: I have no problem with eavesdropping on suspected terrorists in the U.S. as long as it is approved by a judge through a warrant process. I don't believe in torture under any circumstances.


Baltimore, MD: Under the Bush administration NSA has significantly increased the use of contractors. This has increased personnel costs but I wonder whether there's more bang for the buck or is this a waste of money?

James Bamford: I think there is little accountability over contractors, and a great deal of wasted money. It is something Congress has not yet gotten a grip on. Private contractors now do much of the eavedropping that used to be done by NSA employees and the military.


La Plata, Maryland: In your opinion does the threat of terrorism outweigh losing the individual liberties that would be infringed by a total end to the right of privacy? You can't be free if you are dead, after all.

James Bamford: In a democracy there has to be a balance -- otherwise we might as well become a dictatorship. There is far too much fearmongering over terrorism.


Baltimore, MD: The controversies aside, how well is NSA doing its job?

James Bamford: While many of the people who work for the agency do a great job, because of poor leadership since 9/11 it had not done a very good job. I go into this in great detail in my book.


Lakewood, WA: What is the likelihood that the NSA will cease the illegal eavesdropping, and that the administration will be held accountable?

James Bamford: Not very good, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.


Washington, DC: There was a book that described the DOJ and NSA lawyers disagreeing about what exactly is the law on the program you described. It is legal if done only overseas, right?

James Bamford: Not if Americans are targeted without a warrant -- and this is what was happening at NSA Georgia. That, at least, is my understanding of the new changes.


New York, NY: Hi James, I was a big fan of The Puzzle Palace. In college (maybe 15 years ago), I did an "extra credit" report for my Cold War studies class on the NSA. I remember having trouble creating accurate citations because blog (or whatever they were called in the mid 1990s) sites would come back a few days later blanked out with large letters saying "This site has been closed by [FCC, NSA, fill in favorite govt agency]. Please do not revisit." Do you think that, in an era of increased power for domestic surveillance resources, there is just as much suppression of information about the NSA happening? Are they just more subtle now?

James Bamford: Thanks for your comment. NSA has been very successful in keeping information about itself secret, to the point of re-classifying information already released. Over the past few years, NSA had been as secretive as it has ever been and I don't see that changing anytime soon.


VA: I was wondering how to fight terrorism without being discriminating? I mean who would you put under surveillance???

James Bamford: I think who in the U.S. is put under surveillance by NSA should be left up to a court -- and not be the at the sole discretion of the NSA.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How well coordinated are operations between the NSA, CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, State Department, and Defense Department? Is there a lot of turf protecting and is that interfering with the exchange of information?

James Bamford: Pre-9/11 the NSA was one of the worse agency in terms of turf protection -- and one of the causes of 9/11. Since then I think coordination has greatly improved but there is still need for improvement.


MD: You wrote you never served. Yet in Newsweek September 6, 1982,"Unveiling the Secret NSA" by DAVID C. MARTIN, SECTION: NATIONAL AFFAIRS; Pg. 20 "Although he doesn't mention it in his book, Bamford once worked as a clerk for the naval security group, which operates many of NSA's listening posts, and also served as an informant for the Senate Intelligence Committee during its investigation of eavesdropping on Americans."

James Bamford: As I have said many times, including in the New York Times last Saturday, I served in the Navy during the 1960s.


D.C.: are the CIA and FBI doing the same thing too?

James Bamford: The CIA is not supposed to eavesdrop on Americans and the FBI can eavesdrop on Americans as long as they obtain a warrant.


Princeton, NJ: Before 2000, I knew a lot of people that worked for NSA. They told me that NSA's charter strictly forbid them from spying on US nationals. They said they had a system that immediately destroyed any information they picked up by accident. Has the NSA charter been changed?

James Bamford: Yes -- under the warrantless eavesdropping program.


Burke, VA: Have not yet read your book but look forward to it. Am curious about Qwest role as "notable exception." Do you detail this in the book? Any thoughts on what about their corporate (or executive) culture made them capable of the "exceptional?" Thanks.

James Bamford: I do get into this in my book. I take the company's management at their word that they rejected the NSA's request out of concern for their customers.


Silver Spring: Having worked at a defense publisher that had some small interest in the data mining market before 9/11, I can say that the only thing that makes me sleep at night is knowing that there is just too much out there for people to listen to or read.

More likely, the sad reality (in some ways worse) is that the job of protecting our country is being outsourced to non-governmental agencies/companies and our calls and e-mail are being used in some data mining enterprise that just looks for certain flagged words or phrases using software with probably little human involvement until other flags are raised.

Am I right?

James Bamford: Yes, there is far too much out there for NSA to handle -- which does offer some protections against eavesdropping on innocent Americans. And yes, private companies are busing working with NSA on expansive data mining operations.


Maryland: Whatever happened to that ACLU suit to get the transcripts of the FISA Appeal Court?

James Bamford: I think you'll have to ask the ACLU.


Fredericksburg Va: James: On the issue of oversight and control: the result of the Church Commission was that segments of our intelligence community became risk-averse. (why put yourself on the line only to be indicted later because the rules changed? Ask Robert Baer about this.) As you well know, intelligence is a gray area, filled with the need to take risks. So my question: how do we have oversight such that we do not inhibit the effectiveness of the intelligence mission? And secondarily, isn't the consequence of missing critical clue about terrorist activity far greater than an NSA operator listening to my phone call about grocery shopping?

James Bamford: There has to be a proper balance. As I explain in my book, prior to 9/11 the NSA was too risk averse. They could have easily gotten FISA warrants to eavesdrop on the terrorists in the U.S. but chose not to do that. Rather than give NSA carte blanche, we should expand the role of the FISA court. To live in a democracy, some risks are involved.


Virginia: If Obama wins the presidency, will he disband NSA and the CIA? Many of his aides are anti-intelligence types.

James Bamford: Not likely. He has been rather conservative when it comes to intelligence.


Washington, DC: Some I.T. executives have commented that privacy as we know it is extinct, and we should just get used to it. There is far too much personal data floating around to corral all of it and effectively regulate how it is accessed. Do you agree?

James Bamford: I agree that there is a great deal of personal data floating around -- but I also agree that proper legislation can be crafted to continue giving Americans a right to privacy.


Annapolis, MD: In his most recent book, Bob Woodward attributed credit for recent success of the "surge" to "revolutionary advances" in intelligence gathering. Do you know if any credit in this area should be given to NSA efforts?

James Bamford: Despite the useless eavesdropping done on innocent Americans, the NSA has had a number of successes in preventing deaths in Iraq from IEDs and other weapons. But it could do much better.


Augusta, Ga.: James-Any news on the new NSA facility at Fort Gordon? Last I heard it was going underground.

James Bamford: When construction is finished it will be the largest eavesdropping post in the world -- with about 4,000 intercept operations and other personnel, and yes, part of it will be underground. I describe it extensively in my book.


Virginia: Members of Congress are not required to have security clearances but their aides are required. Do you think there can be more oversight if more congressmen have clearances?

James Bamford: I think Congress needs to do a far better job at oversight -- and they should all have the clearances to do that.


Greensboro, NC: Can you provide any hint as to what the military/CIA's new secret weapon is that Bob Woodward refers to in his latest book? If not, are you familiar with it, and is it as effective and groundbreaking as he says it is?

James Bamford: I don't really know what he is referring to, sorry.


Moab, UT: As I have said before, I am not overly concerned with the government eavesdropping and spying on their citizens for the protection of the people. What I have a problem with is the goals of the people in power.

Our government is far more interested in protecting the power base and billions of dollars that are ALREADY in the possession of the rich people. The rights and protection of ordinary people is only secondary to welfare (and use that word literally and figuratively) of the powerful government and business leaders. That's the part that I don't like.

James Bamford: Thanks for your opinion.


James Bamford: Many thanks for all your questions. I appreciate your time.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company