The Puzzle Palace

Title:                     The Puzzle Palace

Author:                James Bamford

Bamford, James (1982).The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    82003056

UB251.U5 B35 1982

Date Updated:  November 2, 2017

Is this blog entry being read now, by some computer in a highly classified location, and being scanned for keywords to determine whether or not someone’s notion of security is being threatened? It’s very possible.

Despite the disbanding of the Cipher Bureau under Herbert O. Yardley, the Army continued to maintain a decoding effort, which later grew into the National Security Agency (NSA). In Britain, Room 40 became the origin of the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS), later moved to a country manor, Bletchley Park. Dzherzhinsky’s Cheka was eventually transformed into the KGB/The cast of characters, partly because some of them chose to write their own memoirs, and partly because fiction writers used them as raw material for spy stories and movies, were often remembered in a distorted way. But behind the tales of beautiful female spies, secret ink, sabotage with hidden explosives, and intercepted radio messages, there were quite a few based in fact. Successful U. S. signals intelligence work with materials from Japan and Mexico, for instance, helped establish the value of cryptanalysis for policymakers.

Even though Puzzle Palace has been around for several years, it still seems to be the best researched book on NSA that’s available.

None of the following is classified information. I was an officer in military intelligence, working on Soviet technology as well as technological concerns in Vietnam. Of course, none of what I write here is classified. I worked in my agency for a year before I even knew that there was an organization known as the National Security Agency (NSA). In fact, until I read Bamford’s book, I had no idea how what I was doing fit into the larger scheme of things.

What Bamford has done so well is to tell the true story of the creation of a modern “Frankenstein’s Monster.” He presents a cogent case for the very real need for communication interception and code breaking in the early days of NSA’s existence. He takes the reader step by step through, the process whereby a protector of our freedoms seems to have evolved into a threat to those very freedoms.

According to Bamford, the communications security community seems almost paranoid in their fears that “unless we absolutely control it, it’s dangerous.” They are devious enough to get around any and every safeguard to the privacy of the individual that might be established. When Jimmy Carter was president he put a few safeguards in place. With time on their side, the NSA waited until Ronald Reagan was president and got him to remove those safeguards.

It makes one wonder: In today’s world of e-mail, high speed faxes, cell phones, etc., all using the air waves, is anything sacred or has Orwell’s prediction come true.

A few reviewers have complained about problems keeping up with all the initials used in Puzzle Palace. One has to understand that no discussion of the magnitude of the situation can be held without mentioning all of the organizations and committees involved. It is true that a bit of hard work on the part of the reader is necessary to get all, or most, of the impact of the information contained in Puzzle Palace, but the knowledge gained is definitely worth the effort.

Counterintelligence Reading

This is one of many books on the Department of Energy Hanford counterintelligence reading list. The entire list is as follows (with links when appropriate.) The entire list is found at Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence

National Security Agency (NSA)

Bamford, James (1982).The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization

Smith, Bradley F. (1996). Sharing Secrets with Stalin : how the Allies traded intelligence, 1941-1945

West, Nigel (1990). The SIGINT Secrets: The Signals Intelligence War, 1900 to Today: Including the Persecution of Gordon Welchman

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