Fresh Ideas: Espionage on a grand scale

It all began innocently enough. I was reading the New York Review of Books looking for recent publications in my field of study (literature) when what should catch my eye but the headline: "Who's in Big Brother's Database?" Immediately assuming the article might be about George Orwell or "1984," I delved right in.

Wrong. The article was a review of a recently published book by a Matthew Aim, "The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency."

The author of the review, James Bamford, writer, reporter, visiting professor at Berkeley, has written extensively on the intelligence community since 1982 when his first book about the National Security Agency, "The Puzzle Palace," was published. At that time, NSA was a "super-secret agency" (according to Wikipedia) and didn't relish any publicity Bamford's book would create. The government reclassified certain documents in an effort to stop publication, but clearly that didn't work. Since then Bamford has written several other books on the NSA, the last one having won the 2009 book award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

At this point, I looked up the National Security Agency in Wikipedia and found the following information: It was created, under its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, on Nov. 4, 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. Its responsibility is to collect and analyze foreign intelligence and foreign signals intelligence (code-breaking) as well as protect our own government communications and information systems from similar (foreign) agencies elsewhere.

Historically, the agency has kept a low profile - so low that the letter Truman wrote in June 1952 authorizing NSA's creation was itself classified and remained unknown to the public for more than a generation. For years its existence was not acknowledged by the U.S. government, thus earning it the nickname: No Such Agency - and a motto, "Never say anything."

Bamford's review of Aim's book is eye-opening for someone like me who is not a historian or knowledgeable about the U.S. Intelligence Community, or IC. Although Bamford and Aim focus on the NSA, its huge databases, its secrecy, its successes and failures, I found myself overwhelmed by the side reading I did on the IC - a confederation of 16 intelligence agencies, including eight under the Department of Defense alone, two under Homeland Security, several others and of course the Central Intelligence Agency, which is "independent" and "civilian."

I do realize the U.S. is a large, powerful country with diplomatic and military interests and obligations all over the world. In fiscal 2009 we spent $49.8 billion on the IC. So I ask myself, is having 16 intelligence agencies overkill? Or is it that I simply do not understand or appreciate the need for bureaucracy?

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment