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Body of secrets

A sizable portion of what we know about the ancient Greeks and Romans from 500 BC to the 1st Century AD, is thanks to a guy called Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, a.k.a. Plutarch (AD 46-127). In his work Lives he was the first to mention a device known as the scytale, with the help of which generals on the battlefield sent encrypted messages to their fellow commanders. Plutarch credits Apollonius of Rhodes (the guy who gave us Jason and the Argonauts) for being the one to invent the device around 300BC and the Spartans for being the first to use it in battle.

The scytale was a set of two identical cylinders with the same diameter, one for the sender and the other for the receiver of the messages. The sender wound a long strip of blank parchment or leather spirally over the cylinder and then wrote the message on it. When unravelled, it would seem like just a long chain of letters. The sender then sent the roll of parchment through a courier to the receiving general, who wound it over his cylinder and read it.

Skytale

Cool, no? Except that the Spartans quickly learnt a lesson that stands even today – any code, any encryption,  can ultimately be broken into. Thus, it didn’t take long for the enemy to get wise, make their own cylinders and even change the messages to their benefit. Like for instance if a message originally read, ‘Run, save your sorry asses, the Persians are comin’ and it was intercepted by the Persians, it might be doctored to read, ‘Relax, guys. Go get some nymphs and have a ball. We just finished kickin’ Persian butt. They hightailed it to Timbuktoo. 

The scytale was the first known effort at encryption, a term that anyone who uses a computer today, easily understands.

We have come a long way from the scytale. Just how long – that would perhaps not have been known to the public, had it not been for an investigative journalist and ex-cryptanalyst named James Bamford who has authored four runaway best-sellers about the very fount of eavesdropping, encryption and decryption – the world’s largest, richest, deadliest and most secretive intelligence outfit – the US National Security Agency.

When he began researching his first book on the NSA, it was during the waning years of the Jimmy Carter presidency in the 1970s. Now James Bamford is no ordinary investigative journalist. He is a gritty and tenacious sleuth who has exploited the Freedom of Information Act to gain access and then patiently waded through mounds of documents that have been lying declassified in archives spread around the US.

His perseverance served him well. As he hunched over reams of declassified documents for months on end, Bamford began to come across sensitive papers that any intelligence establishment would have wanted to remain hidden from the public. One was a covert, completely illegal 1970s NSA program called Operation Shamrock, which read all telegrams that went out of the US, by coercing Western Union to hand over the data.

The book that came out of his research, The Puzzle Palace, was a landmark – the first book ever published on the NSA. The revelations in the book took everyone (including members of the clandestine services and even NSA employees), completely by surprise – at all the stuff that had been going on under their very noses that they themselves were unaware of.

Bamford followed up The Puzzle Palace with three books, all on intelligence gathering and all on the NSA –

Body of Secrets : Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency(2001)

A Pretext for War : 9/11, Iraq and the abuse of American Intelligence Agencies(2005)

The Shadow Factory : The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America(2008)

A recent interview with the author, on the NPR radio, piqued my interest, as only American skulduggery can. As luck would have it, Nova, the riverside second-hand bookstore that I frequent, had Body of Secrets. One thing led to another and for an investment of 25ȼ, I became the uncertain owner of a ticket to the espionage equivalent of the Disneyworld House of Horrors.

My mouth has been gaping open every since. Before Body of Secrets, I thought I could write a PhD thesis on America’s covert programs. Edward Snowden and Wikileaks had given the world an all-you-need-to-know in a blow-by-blow format. But now, with a dumb-struck look on my face I have been reading in disbelief of the methods that the world’s only super-power has used – not to shepherd other nations toward a stable, prosperous and peaceful world, as any leader is expected to do – but to attempt by brute force, to maintain a position of dominance over the security structure of the world – by any means.

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Nothing will prepare the reader for what James Bamford has in store in Body of Secrets, a panoramic view of a nation that insists on seeing itself in a perpetual state of war with every other nation in the world except it’s four bunkmates – Canada, Australia, UK and New Zealand.

This book isn’t about 9/11 but from some of the revelations, of events that came to pass over the decades prior to that fateful date, it becomes apparent that Body of Secrets is as close as you will ever get to having a sickening feeling at the pit of your stomach that 9/11 might have been an inside job or at best a case of willful neglect. Body of Secrets is a graphic account of a nation that seems completely devoid of anything even remotely resembling moral governance or scruples – The United States of America.

If you haven’t read the book yet, stop reading this hash-up and pick up a copy. Reading Body of Secrets is like trying to cross the Atlantic in a barrel – being buffeted around by revelation after revelation in an unending procession of horrors that makes one wonder if maybe the author has gone out of his mind.

Here’s a taste of what is in store for you in Body of Secrets – an excerpt about a covert plan by the US Joint Special Operations Command to launch a black ops program against it’s own citizens, known as Operation Northwoods. It makes the premise that 9/11 could well have been an inside job, seem entirely plausible…..

“…the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans for what may be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. Government. In the name of anti-communism, they proposed launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba. 

Codenamed Operation Northwoods, the plan, which had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere and even an American Navy destroyer to be blown up at the Guantanamo Bay Naval facility. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war against Cuba.”

General Lyman L. Lemnitzer was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top-ranking soldier in the Eisenhower Government, a maniacal anti-communist red-neck whom Kennedy made the mistake of retaining when he took over after Eisenhower. It did not bother him that, had Operation Northwoods been allowed to go through, thousands of innocent American citizens and Naval personnel might have lost their lives.

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Of course, this is not the first time a nation used incitement to try to provoke a favorable political outcome. There was the 1933 Reichstag fire that the Nazis blamed on communists and used the arson incident to pressure the German Parliament to suspend all civil liberties, in order to counter the ‘growing threat of communism’.

Then there was the infamous 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident that is widely believed to be an imaginary attack by North Vietnamese naval vessels on a US Navy destroyer, which America fabricated as a pretext to begin hostilities against North Vietnam and provoke the Vietnam War. Bamford has devoted a lot of space in his book on this incident.

The Niger uranium forgeries were documents forged by the CIA and the MI6, doctored to depict an attempt made by Saddam Hussein to purchase yellowcake uranium powder from Niger in direct contravention of the UN sanctions, thus providing the US the pretext to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Numerous unexplained events and independent analyses surrounding the September 1999 Russian apartment bombings make it likely that the series of terrorist attacks that left 300 dead, that were blamed on Chechen and Dagestani rebels, was in fact carried out by the Russian secret service FSB, under the orders of the then Russian PM, Vladimir Putin, to provide a pretext for the massive military offensive on the Chechen capital, Grozny.

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In some places, the author does seem a bit over the top though – like his account of the 1967 Israeli air strike on the US SIGINT ship, The Liberty, in the Mediterranean, while the Egypt-Israeli war was raging on the Sinai Peninsula. Bamford’s theory is that the Israelis suspected that the ship may have gathered info through radio intercepts implicating them in the mass murder of 400 Egyptian POWs on Sinai and wanted all the NSA men and equipment aboard the ship destroyed, to cover up the atrocity.

Bamford reveals what appeared to be cockpit chatter that would make it clear that the Israeli pilots knew it was an American vessel they were attacking. According to the author’s revelations, the US President, Lyndon Johnson, intervened and ordered the incident swept under the rug so that the Israelis would not be ‘embarrassed’ and would not have to face the prospect of losing American popular support.

Still, Israeli malfeasance seems a bit far-fetched. Given that around 50 Americans died on the ship that day, I doubt if the Israelis would commit one atrocity to cover up another. And again, would they attack the only friend they have in the whole wide world?

Otherwise, most of the stuff in the book appears well researched, from documents lawfully obtained through the freedom-of-information process and vetted by the US Government before publication (there are 80 pages of references in the end).

James Bamford has a great deal of admiration for his ex-employers – at the sheer depth and breadth of capability to intercept and decrypt that the NSA has gained over the decades and at the same time, he is just as horrified as the reader, at the way America has wielded this awesome power of knowing virtually everything that is being said anywhere in the world, to gain the upper hand, to threaten, coerce, blackmail, annex and browbeat.

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However, Bamford’s praise cannot wipe away the fact that, in spite of the mindboggling intelligence gathering and eavesdropping capability worldwide, America still failed to stop 9/11, the London bus bombings and the Madrid train bombing. America was caught unawares when India (in 1974 and 1998) conducted nuclear tests and Pakistan followed right after. Despite having one of the key participants of the November 2008 Mumbai massacres, David Headley – a long-time FBI informant – under close surveillance when he began acting suspiciously, taking off to Pakistan for extended periods, America failed to connect the dots and warn India in time to stop the attacks.

The men of 9/11 drove around without valid licences, violated immigration rules, left a plane sitting on an active runway while on training and most interestingly, they insisted on developing an unmarketable piloting skill – asking their flight instructors to teach them only how to make turns with a wide-bodied 777, not how to land it. They were captured multiple times on camera, their car rentals and even their porn video rentals, scrutinized. They were in fact subjects of what the NSA terms as ‘total surveillance’.

Yet it mattered little – Mohammad Atta’s driver’s licence may not have been in order but there were some 200,000 outstanding traffic warrants in Broward County. 9/11 debunked the myth that the US is a place where no one is out of range of a security camera for long. The information is collected, photos are taken, phones are bugged and emails hacked but there is simply too much data and too few trained professionals to analyse it – Big Brother may be everywhere, but he has too many things to watch – at best he is desperately channel surfing, hoping he will get lucky.

Actually, there is no Big Brother. There is only an estranged family of little siblings, each of whom hoards scraps of information but is very reluctant to share it. So the visa violation never catches up with the highway patrolman’s warrant which never catches up with a large cash payment for plane tickets and doesn’t connect with the traffic violations which in turn do not tie up with expired licenses, all of which in turn do not dove-tail into the fact that these men kept to themselves and did not make any friends or socialize.

America is like a rich kid with a giant LEGO City set, from which someone has removed the instruction leaflet. The kid is unable to put all the pieces together and build his own fire-truck and police station. In frustration and on the verge of tears, he is looking at the hundreds of little pieces that he has spread on the rug in front of him.

In the end, James Bamford has essentially chronicled the life of a loser.