"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In 1982, James Bamford published “The Puzzle Palace,” his first exposé on the National Security Agency. His new exposé on the NSA is called “Body of Secrets.” Twenty years makes a lot of difference in the intelligence biz.
During those 20 years, the Reagan military buildup came and went, the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended, and a bevy of new military enemies emerged. Electronic communications exploded through faxes, cellphones, the Internet, etc. Cryptography came out of the shadows to become an essential technology of the networked world. And computing power increased ten thousand-fold.
Also during those 20 years, the NSA gradually opened its doors to the outside world. Its mission — to eavesdrop on all foreign communications of interest to the United States — remained constant throughout, but the agency that used to call itself “No Such Agency” and “Never Say Anything” started appearing in public, talking to the press and making itself known. And probably more than anyone else, James Bamford helped pry those doors open.
“Body of Secrets” is one fascinating book. It’s a secret history of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of signals intelligence, beginning with the Cold War and continuing through the year 2000. And it’s chock-full of juicy stuff: secret Cold War missions over the Soviet Union, government coverups of military debacles, eavesdropping on our friends and enemies. Stuff you have trouble imagining a civilian being able to research and publish.
Bamford has two weapons: the tenacity needed to exploit the Freedom of Information Act and the patience to wade through mounds of public papers in archives around the country. They have both served him well.
In 1979, while researching “The Puzzle Palace,” Bamford wanted information on an NSA operation called Shamrock: an illegal program to read all international telegrams sent out of the U.S. The NSA would not respond to any queries, but he heard of a 1975 investigation by the Department of Justice. One FOIA request and nine months later, he received an impressive (and incriminating) 300-page document summarizing the program. On his next visit to the unhelpful public relations offices at the NSA, he showed people there the document. They freaked, and tried desperately to get it back.
The NSA waited for 1981 and a new president, and started applying pressure on Bamford. The Department of Justice claimed that the document was “accidentally” declassified and should be returned. (At the time, the law specifically stated that once something was declassified, it could not be reclassified, which the Reagan administration later changed.) A few tense meetings and threatening letters followed, but Bamford held firm. Shamrock was described fully in “The Puzzle Palace.”
William Friedman founded America’s first peacetime code-breaking agency — the Black Chamber — shortly before World War II and is considered the father of the NSA. After he retired he had a falling out with the NSA. He stopped trusting the agency, and it started regarding him as a security risk. At his death, he left his papers to the Virginia Military Institute and not with the NSA. Even so, NSA officials drove down to VMI, examined everything and persuaded the archivist to lock up a bunch of the documents in a vault at the institute. Also during his “Puzzle Palace” research, Bamford went to VMI to read Friedman’s papers, noticed the omissions and convinced the archivist to release those papers. He also found former NSA director Marshall Carter’s papers there; the NSA didn’t even know about them. When the NSA tried to have Bamford prosecuted after the publication of “The Puzzle Palace,” these papers were what the NSA considered to be government secrets.
“The Puzzle Palace” was a landmark book, and widely read in circles that knew something of the NSA. Inside the NSA itself, where the agency’s secrecy prevents its employees from knowing much about their own history, it was a bestseller. The book was a history of American intelligence from 1917 and was both shocking and pedestrian. Operations like Shamrock were exposed for the first time, but Bamford also spent a lot of pages simply explaining how the NSA was organized. Nobody knew anything, so it was all interesting.
Twenty years later, it is not enough to simply explain how the NSA is organized or the history of its creation. For “Body of Secrets,” Bamford issued dozens of FOIA requests and would badger the NSA every few days about them. He waded through the papers at the National Archives, the Naval War College, the National Defense University — even at the NSA’s own museum. And with the Cold War over, he found that many of the actual intercept operators — the people staffing the eavesdropping stations on ships, planes and remote corners of the planet — were willing to talk.
Among the more shocking things Bamford learned is that in 1962, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff approved something called Operation Northwoods. Fortunately never implemented, it involved committing random acts of terror on Americans in the United States and then blaming them on Cuba. Most of the documents detailing this Bamford found in the National Archives, among the thousands of papers the Joint Chiefs of Staff released about the Cuban missile crisis.
In 1967, the Israeli military attacked and destroyed the USS Liberty, a spy ship that had eavesdropped on an Israeli massacre of surrendered Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai. The ship’s intercepts were destroyed, but the NSA also had spy planes eavesdropping. The details, including President Johnson’s coverup to save the Jewish vote in the next election, were in a box in the back of the NSA Museum. They were in a public place, but no one had bothered to look at them before.
In 1975, the NSA tapped the undersea cable connecting Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula with the headquarters of the Soviet Pacific fleet. Operation Ivy Bells was the agency’s most secret operation at the time, but Bamford found the man in charge of it to be very open and cooperative.
Even the NSA was more forthcoming this time around. Bamford started asking for interviews in 1998. First it performed its usual stonewalling routine, but gradually it relented. Bamford believes that the NSA finally got the message that the book was going to be written and that it would be better off telling its side of the story. Bamford started receiving documents, getting interviews, being taken on tours. He also credits the movie “Enemy of the State” with helping to turn things around. The movie depicts employees of the NSA as black-wearing, assassinating, privacy-violating villains. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the current NSA director, believes that if agency officials don’t come out and say what the agency is and what it does, then Hollywood will do it for them. Given that choice, Bamford is clearly the lesser of two evils.
The result is a book that casts the NSA in a pretty good light. It’s good at collecting intelligence, but is regularly thwarted by a government with bad intentions. In 1964, the USS Maddox was spying in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam. Believing the ship to be directing commando raids, Vietnamese patrol boats fired on the ship. Bamford produces credible evidence that this incident was deliberately provoked by the U.S. military, which wanted something that would persuade Congress to declare war. “Body of Secrets” is filled with stories like this. The book is interesting to read, well-written and scrupulously documented. Eighty-one pages of references list reports, interviews, articles. I just wish I could get my hands on Bamford’s files.
I was reading “Body of Secrets” as the current Chinese spy-plane crisis unfolded. An American EP-3 spy plane, flying a routine intelligence-gathering mission off the Chinese coast, was forced to land in China after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet that flew to intercept it. Both the Bush administration and the Jiang Zemin government postured over the incident. The Chinese demanded an official apology. The United States demanded its plane back, untouched and unboarded. Each side blamed the other. But the more you know about the history of electronic eavesdropping, the less any of it makes sense.
I don’t believe that the U.S. plane was in international waters. I don’t believe that the U.S. expects the Chinese to honor demands to return the plane untouched. (In 1976, when a defecting Russian pilot flew his MIG-25 to Japan, the Soviet Union demanded its plane back. We eventually returned it, in parts.) And I know this kind of thing is business as usual.
The United States has flown spy missions over other countries since the 1950s: the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. The Soviet Union used to fly them over the United States. The target country would routinely launch fighters to harass the spy planes. This was where the Cold War would get warm, as the pilots buzzed each other, called each other names over the radio and made obscene gestures out their windows. Not all of these flights ended well. In 1956, the Chinese shot down an American spy plane in the East China Sea, killing 16. In 1968, the North Koreans shot down another spy plane, killing 31. And in 1960, the Russians downed Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane as it passed over their country. Inside the NSA’s B2 Operations Building, there is a monument of black granite with the words “They Served in Silence” and the names of the 152 military and civilian eavesdroppers who have died, most of them on ships and planes, peeking up the electronic skirts of our adversaries.
Bamford’s closing chapters are cautionary ones. Today the NSA is being flooded by a fire hose of communications, while at the same time it is being denied other communications through never-ending improvements in communications technologies. Satellites are trivial to eavesdrop on; fiber-optic cables are very difficult. The Internet has its own challenges. But most of all, the NSA’s problems lie in the difficulty of interpreting intelligence, not in the difficulty of collecting it. I have long believed that the NSA’s future lies not in intercepting communications but in targeting static databases: data at rest as opposed to data in motion. Bamford agrees.
All this makes the China incident even more confusing. I don’t understand why, in a world where intelligence satellites can eavesdrop on anything anywhere, where ground stations in Japan and South Korea have China well covered and where massive intercept programs like Echelon vacuum up almost all foreign telecommunications, we need to launch aggressive and provocative spy missions against countries like China. I can’t think of another midair collision that didn’t end up in two crashed planes; it’s a miracle that the American EP-3 survived. If the 24 Americans had died as a result of this incident, how would Congress have reacted? Would we have believed China’s claims that it was an accident, not an attack? Would we have so easily turned our warships around after the Chinese government refused our offers to assist in recovering the wreckage? How much more aggressive would the rhetoric have been on both sides? I don’t mean to imply that the U.S. deliberately set out to cause an international incident, but it seems to me that it was ignoring some pretty obvious risks for some pretty dubious rewards.
Fortunately, the plane’s crew members weren’t killed, and we didn’t have to face the kind of crisis their deaths would have triggered. But Bamford’s book explains the secret history of times when the rhetoric was more aggressive, when enemies would shoot each other down and when what the world’s leaders said in public did not match what they did in private. It’s a sobering history, and one we should take pains not to repeat.
Bruce Schneier writes, speaks and consults on computer security. His latest book is "Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World."More Bruce Schneier.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)