Author Stephen Budiansky adds perspective to NSA’s covert activities

Author Stephen Budiansky
Author Stephen Budiansky

Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency in 2013 sparked discussion about the United States government’s use of mass surveillance and the apparent blurred line of demarcation as it concerned national security and citizens’ personal privacy.

He caused just about everybody to shudder, including the highest-ranking officials at the NSA.

As acclaimed author Stephen Budiansky notes, the roots of the crisis Snowden caused reached deep into the NSA’s history. Its habits of mind and institutional culture of winning at all costs, no matter the questions of its legality, characterized the NSA from its very beginnings in World War II.

That’s one role Budiansky’s latest history thriller — Code Warriors: NSA’s Code Breakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union — provides: perspective.

The American intelligence community’s feats have indeed been heroic many times.

It was the code-breaking programs that played a vital role in turning the tide of WWII, while afterward getting behind the walls of the Soviets and uncovering crucial details about the Russians, who were targets even before the war ended.

The NSA anticipated the Cuban Missile Crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall. Yet, because of its secrecy, the NSA, with its transgressions against law and morality, will make the American who boasts of American values squirm.

But that’s what sometimes happens when you work in a bureaucracy with “ill-defined powers” while working in a hermetically sealed chamber secure from scrutiny and accountability. (There’s a punchline that once made the rounds: NSA stands for “No Such Agency.”)

The intelligence community hasn’t always escaped study. Long before Snowden became the patriot or goat, depending on perspective, the Church Committee in the U.S. Senate took a look into the government’s spy agencies after Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon put the CIA and NSA on personal projects.

Among the programs the Church Committee found was “Minaret,” originally begun in 1962 as a watch list of Americans traveling to Cuba and then expanded to include suspected narcotics traffickers.

The list soon grew to include members of the anti-war movement, who LBJ believed were aided by foreign governments.

When Nixon arrived in 1969, he found a ready-made program for his own devices.

As Budiansky writes, the “NSA was soon up to its elbows spying directly for the White House on the communications of more than 1,600 Americans who had done nothing more than arouse” Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s suspicions or dislike.

They included civil rights leaders, Muhammad Ali, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, humorist Art Buchwald, and U.S. Sens. Howard Baker and, of course, Frank Church, both of whom were nosing around in the NSA’s business.

An NSA attorney who later examined the program concluded that NSA staff who were responsible for distributing Minaret reports were clearly aware that the entire operation was “disreputable if not outright illegal.” (It was the Church Committee that also outed assassination attempts of foreign leaders, including Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Vietnam’s Diem brothers, among others.)

The best-behaved dog will swipe scraps off the table if given the chance, and so it is with the intelligence communities.

As was concluded at the time of the Church Committee, any problem that exists inside the spy agencies is a matter of leadership. “If the intelligence agencies possess too much discretionary authority with too little accountability, that would seem to be a 35-year failing of Presidents and the Congress rather than the agencies or their personnel.”

It is said that in current events, nothing is new. It has already happened in history.

So, too, with Snowden’s revelations.

Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union

(out of five stars)

  • By Stephen Budiansky
  • Knopf, $30