Shining A Light On The NSA's 'Shadow Factory' Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the National Security Agency stepped up its efforts to collect intelligence domestically by filtering millions of phone conversations and e-mail messages. In his new book, The Shadow Factory, journalist James Bamford reveals that the ultra-secret agency has half a million people on its watch lists.

Shining A Light On The NSA's 'Shadow Factory'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. The National Security Agency is the largest, most costly, and most technologically sophisticated spy organization the world has ever known writes my guest, James Bamford. He's just written his third book about the agency. It's called "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 To the Eavesdropping On America."

Among the things he writes about is the warrantless wiretap program created secretly by the Bush administration after 9/11 that allowed the NSA to monitor the phone calls and emails of Americans that they were communicating with anyone outside of the country suspected to have terrorist connections. This bypassed FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required getting a warrant first.

Bamford adds to the story, reporting that the NSA monitored phone calls home from American military officers, journalists, and aid workers in Iraq. Bamford also investigates the collaborations between the NSA and the telecommunications industry. He concludes his book by describing the threat the NSA's activities pose to the privacy of Americans. He writes, there is now the capacity to make tyranny total in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss.

James Bamford, welcome back to Fresh Air. Let's start with the story that you broke in the book that made it to the news last week. And this is the story that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on phone calls by Americans from Iraq and other areas of the Middle East. And we're talking about military people, journalists, and non-governmental organization workers, NGO's. How did these people end up being monitored by the NSA?

Mr. JAMES BAMFORD (Journalist; Author): Well, the way it works is, the NSA intercepts huge amounts of communications with satellites and tapping undersea cables, and it all comes into a big funnel, basically, and the funnel ends at what they call NSA Georgia, which is located down at Fort Gordon, Georgia near Augusta. And once the calls come in, the intercept operators down there listen to them.

And a lot of these calls were from Americans to other Americans, so they had nothing to do with terrorism. They were journalists calling their spouses or calling their editors or calling their sources or aid workers calling their families back in the States, whatever. And the intercept operators have an option, if it comes in, and they hear two Americans talking and have nothing to do with terrorism, they're supposed to just turn the communications off and start looking for terrorist. That's their whole job.

But what happened was that they weren't doing that, and they were being told not to do that. They were being told not only to listen but to transcribe the conversations, and then they sit there permanently recorded in NSA's database.

GROSS: It seems like there's two major problems with that. One is that the NSA isn't supposed to be spying on Americans talking to Americans, and the other is, it's a waste of time. If they're looking for terrorists, they're not going to find it from a military person calling home and having an intimate conversation with their spouse. I mean - so who authorized this? Did it come from the top of the NSA, or was it just an overzealous supervisor?

Mr. BAMFORD: No. Well, the interesting thing is, I interviewed two whistle blowers, and the whistle blowers, one of them started in, I think it was November of 2001, and she went to November of 2003, and the other whistle blower went to about from November 2003 to November 2007, so it covers an enormous period of time. Both of them complained to their supervisors, and both of them were told they had to keep doing it.

Another person, a third person, did complain to the supervisor, and the supervisor told the person they had to keep doing it. And the person said, I'm not going to do it. I'm refusing and was reassigned to another mission, and they put somebody else doing it. So there was definite intention somewhere to have this go on. The interesting thing, also, is that the director of NSA, General Hayden, came down to Fort Gordon and was briefed on this very program.

GROSS: Do you know if the NSA got anything of value from listening to these phone calls between Americans?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, according the people I talked to, they certainly didn't get anything. There was nothing that ever came from those conversations, and they really didn't really get much at all, anyway. The system is not very good. It's certainly not the way I think people imagine it to be.

The people I spoke to said they had no people down there, none who spoke Pashtun, which the dialect used in Afghanistan. If you're going after the Taliban, you need somebody who can speak Pashtun, and they had nobody down there, and this is the major listening post for the Middle East. This is for all the eavesdropping is done on the Middle East.

GROSS: So, if there's no real, like, intelligence value to spying on these conversations, and it sounds like there hasn't been, why is it being done? I mean, if it's kind of adding to the amount of information that has to be transcribed and deciphered, if it's taking up time, and it's not giving any results, and it's not legal either, why is it happening? And is it still happening, or was that cut out. Was that stopped?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, it's happening as of last November, when one of the intercept operators that I interviewed left. It was still happening then. Why it's happening? I don't know. That's what I think Congress should be asking the NSA, asking General Hayden or General Alexander, who's there now. You know, in a sense, it happens because it's easy. It's easy to tell somebody just intercept everything, just transcribe everything, just record everything.

It's much easier to just tell somebody to do that than to say whenever two Americans are talking or whenever an American is talking, just eliminate that number from the system so it doesn't get picked up again or stop recording and so forth. One doesn't require much effort. You just pick up everything, and the other one, you actually have to pick and choose, and that's the way it was when they had the FISA court.

So, all I can do is tell you what's happening. I can't tell you why they're doing it. These two intercept operators also had no idea why they were being told. But the bottom line is, human nature being what it is, when these conversations were coming in, the intercept operators did get big laughs out of some of this pillow talk, some of the sex talk that was being discussed between, say, soldiers and their wives or journalists or whoever they happen to be picking up.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bamford. He's been writing about the National Security Agency for years. His new book is called "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 To the Eavesdropping On America."

Now, you write that before September 11th, Michael Hayden, who was then the head of the National Security Agency and is now the head of the CIA, that before 9/11, he was reluctant to do any surveillance that was illegal. He didn't want to get investigated by Congress. He didn't want a version of the Church Committee investigating his NSA, and the Church Committee had investigated secret surveillance and other illegal doings by the CIA in the 1970s. So what changed his mind?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, 9/11 and the Bush administration changed his mind. That was his attitude before 9/11. There was only one time previously that a NSA director had been called before an open session of Congress and really humiliated because of enormous amounts of domestic eavesdropping, and that was in 1976, the director of NSA, who had to explain why they were eavesdropping on Americans. And he was very afraid of ever being put in the same situation, called before Congress and questioned and interrogated over why he was targeting Americans, and that's why he was very reluctant.

NSA had all the power, legal power they needed in order to eavesdrop on the terrorists in the United States. It was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And he could have easily targeted the terrorists. These were people being sent by Bin Laden. And getting a FISA warrant, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant, was not very difficult. Out of something like 20,000, they've only turned down maybe two.

GROSS: So was circumventing the FISA law Hayden's idea, or did he get a directive to do that from Vice President Cheney?

Mr. BAMFORD: No, he got a directive. What happened was after 9/11, he was asked by Cheney, what can NSA do to improve things by gathering as much information as possible. Hayden said, we can do ABC and D. However, there's issues of law involved if we start doing these things. And Cheney basically said that, don't worry about that. Just start doing it.

In the meantime, the Justice Department, John Woo, and other people in the Justice Department came up with these sort of flimsy reasons allowing them to do it, saying that it's within the president's powers to order the overruling of a statue that fights the law. And ironically, the lawyers at NSA weren't even allowed to see the legal reasons that the Justice Department came up for doing this. I mean, if you could imagine that the agency doing the eavesdropping wasn't clear to know why they were legally authorized to do it, it sounds preposterous, but that's the way it was.

GROSS: You know, you write that, by circumventing the FISA court, that the NSA gained speed and freedom in surveillance, but they sacrificed order and understanding. What's the connection between sacrificing order and understanding and bypassing FISA?

Mr. BAMFORD: The problem is, you have too much information coming in. If you don't filter out the unnecessary information, like innocent Americans talking to innocent Americans, you're overloading the key choke point in the entire system. Really, the key choke point is the intercept operators sitting there. Satellites can pick up everything. In fact, they do pick up everything.

And what you have to do is develop these software programs that eliminate unnecessary or unwanted communications so you wouldn't have communications going between Americans. You won't pick up information from military bases. You won't pick up information from the Red Cross or from NPR, from the New York Times or whatever. You can program those things out.

The problem was, they didn't program them out. They deliberately kept them in. And when you widen the funnel, it just makes the work of the actual intercept operators far more difficult, and it goes right down the line. Eventually, all this information, a lot of it went to the FBI, and the FBI agents were complaining that they were getting too much useless information that was keeping them from doing the real work of investigating serious suspicious activity.

GROSS: My guest is James Bamford, author of a new book about the National Security Agency called, "The Shadow Factory." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

My guest is James Bamford. His new book is called "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 To the Eavesdropping On America."

You say that the National Security Agency needed the help of the telecommunications industry to really create the wide net that they wanted to get the complete type of surveillance that they wanted. What does the industry have that the NSA needed?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, the way it works is, during the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and into the mid-'90s, almost all international communications went by satellite. Very little of it went by undersea cable, so NSA could intercept this information very easily, simply by putting very large dishes out in places that are very hidden and picking it all up. But things changed in the late '90s, when telecommunications switched from satellites to undersea fiber optic cables which had enormous capabilities.

The problem with that was that the NSA no longer could do it covertly. They couldn't just put a dish out and collect all that information. There's only two ways of getting the information once it's traveling to the U.S. on an undersea cable, and that's putting a submarine down and tapping into it, which is extremely complex, and with the people I've talked to have never - has never worked on fiber optic cables when you're doing it undersea.

So the only other way of doing it is making an agreement, a secret agreement with the telecom companies to let NSA build secret rooms in their facilities. So when a fiber optic line comes in, what happens is they - they built a thing called a splitter. It actually splits the cable. It's the light that comes from the cable, the photons are in a sense split. So there's one cable comes in, and then two cables are created out of it. One cable goes the way it's supposed to go to the normal U.S. telecom system. The other cable goes down to a secret room where the NSA has access to it and goes into the NSA's system of filters and eavesdropping.

GROSS: Now, you write that Michael Hayden, who was then the head of the NSA, first approached the head of Quest Communications to get his cooperation in tapping these undersea fiber optic cables. But the head of Quest said, no. Why did he say no?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, I think, at the time, he was thinking of his customers. He owes a fiduciary duty to his customers to keep their communications secret unless he gets a court order from a legitimate U.S. court like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And since NSA wanted the information without a court order, he felt that he owed a duty to his customers not to give it to him, and so I thought that was a very - you know, he's taking a fairly honorable stance there by not willy nilly giving out his - the Quest customer's communications to a secret agency without a warrant.

GROSS: Which companies said yes to the NSA?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, as far as I know, all the other companies said yes, especially all the other major companies, AT&T certainly because there's a whistle blower came out and said he saw an NSA room within their main - one of the major AT&T facilities, and from the people he talked to there at AT&T, and this is a - actually a supervisor, been there I think 22 years. Other people in the company said they have these secrets rooms in other major facilities of AT&T. So - and I think Verizon probably would be the same way and some of the other major telecom companies. I know Verizon has a major facility in Texas where they allow the government to eavesdrop on communications.

GROSS: Now, you wrote that AT&T and Verizon have outsourced the bugging of their entire networks to two mysterious companies with troubling foreign connections. What are they outsourcing and who are these two companies?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, the telecom companies, Verizon, AT&T and the other companies, they look at their job as getting communications from people and passing it on to other people. They don't look at their job as eavesdropping, wire-tapping, and that kind of thing. And the government says, we want these communications but doesn't really provide any facilities for it. So there's a number of small companies; they're very mysterious, very hidden companies that have formed that specialized in what they call mass surveillance.

They have this hardware and software that's attached to U.S. telecom systems to do - and not just U.S., but all over the world. These little companies get together once a year in a very sort of secretive conference. They call it the Wire Tappers Ball. And journalists are forbidden anywhere near the place, and they discuss all the new techniques in doing this. So, one of the companies - the company that was being used by AT&T was NARIS, and the one being used by Verizon is Verance.

GROSS: You write that these companies are for hire by dictatorships and democracies. You described them as having troubling foreign connections. What do you mean?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, first of all, these companies were formed in Israel. These are not companies formed in the U.S., and a lot of these companies have connections to foreign intelligence services. I write how a number of people in the companies had either worked for, say, Israeli intelligence or another intelligence service, and that's very troubling.

If all this communications is being intercepted by companies that aren't U.S. companies, especially a country that has a history of spying on the United States, what does that say about the security of U.S. communications? I think most people think that, if the government is doing this, it's one of two parties, it's either the NSA or it's the AT&T. But there's this third party in the middle, which is very odd, and I, you know, I don't know that Congress has ever looked into that, but I think it's very troubling.

What was especially troubling, I saw one of the companies, Verance for example, which is the one that Verizon uses, the founder of the company is now a fugitive hiding out in Africa wanted for fraud charges, and two of the senior executives from the company, the general counsel I think, and another senior executive pled guilty to fraud and other serious felonies. So see how these companies that nobody knows hardly anything about, foreign connections, one company has a founder that is now a fugitive, and they're the filter by which all people's communications go through.

GROSS: And just to clarify, you were saying that the people from NARIS who, and this is a company based in Israel, get to - get access to all these communications. So are they the ones kind of sifting through it? I know it's their software that sifts through it, but then who's - which humans are the first to see or hear that sifted information? Is it the NARIS people or is it the NSA people?

Mr. BAMFORD: No, there aren't NARIS people there with the earphones on listening to things. It's just - technically, they have access to it because it's their system and their software, and they could remotely access that. The first people to actually listen to it are the NSA eavesdroppers like the ones I interviewed.

It's just that there is this capability, there is this weakness in the system. It's because everything is so secret, and I've been writing about NSA for 30 years. So, this is the worst I've ever seen in terms of the susceptibility of U.S. communications to not only secret agency listening to it, but outside individuals listening to it.

GROSS: James Bamford will be back on the second half of the show. His new book about the NSA is called "The Shadow Factory." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with James Bamford. He's just written his third book about the National Security Agency. It's called "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America."

You write, the National Security Agency has outsourced so much spying, it's created a shadow NSA of private contractors, a surveillance industrial complex. Are there other things that the NSA has subcontracted out that you haven't described that you're aware of?

Mr. BAMFORD: Those are the major areas. The NSA has actually got the statistics in the book, but a pre-warrantless eavesdropping NSA outsourced, I think, several hundred contracts a year. Afterwards, I think it was over 10,000 now that they're subcontracting. Those numbers might be off a bit, but that's basically the scale of the difference between pre-9/11 and post 9/11 and how much NSA has outsourced.

One of the very interesting things, I focused on NSA for very many years, and I've gone all through the NSA facilities. I've been given tours through their - one of the few, maybe one of the very few outsiders that's ever been given tours through NSA, is that NSA has grown so enormously in the last few years. They've had to build this, in essence, suburb of their major city, the secret city that they have. So they built this sort of suburb across the highway, where all the contractors have very large buildings. It's this enormous industrial park filled with the contractors of NSA like Booz Allen and so forth, do all this outsourcing work.

And it really was astonishing to me to see how much of that was actually outsourced. And I don't mean just working out wires or something, I mean, actually people doing the eavesdropping. These are companies, private companies that are actually doing a lot of the eavesdropping. They sit in these companies with earphones on, or they assign them to NSA, and they're not working for NSA either, working for Booz Allen or Lockheed or one of the other major companies, Titan. And they sit there, and they do the actual interception, and even down at the NSA's major listening post in Georgia, which focuses on the Middle East and North Africa, there's a lot of civilians working for Titan corporation down there, doing the actual eavesdropping. So the outsourcing has been enormous, far more than I've ever seen, and this is my third book on NSA, and this is the most I've ever seen of it.

GROSS: You know, we've been talking to some of the real high tech surveillance that the NSA is doing now on foreigners and on some Americans. But you write, meanwhile, the mother of all watch lists is on a Dell computer in the basement of the National Counter Terrorism Center, and this computer isn't even compatible with the NSA and CIA computer databases. What's going on with that?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that's the dichotomy between this enormous technology out there and how it's actually ends up being applied. The NSA has this enormous technology to eavesdrop on so many people, but it doesn't have anybody that understands Pashtun, which is one of the key languages if we're going after Afghanistan.

So, it's similar here. You've got this enormous watch list which is over half a million people now and growing enormously every day, every week, every month. But because all these systems aren't really inner-operable between the NSA and the CIA and these other agencies, they've sort of developed or sort of gone their own way in the development process. It sort of makes it very difficult for them to sort of put all these pieces together at the end.

So you have all this data coming in from CIA officers overseas, clandestine communications or clandestine reports that they're writing up, and at least up until a year ago, they may have improved it now, but I don't think so. They were going into the National Counterterrorism Center and having to be put into a system by hand. In other words, somebody would actually have to do data entry of hard copy documents into the system rather than have it go from the people out in the field to computers that can be distributed throughout the intelligence community.

So you have this - on the one hand, you have this enormous technical capability, and everybody looks at it, and the movies portrayed that's being infallible and able to hear everybody at all times, but when you actually look at it, there are a lot of fallibilities to some of the system.

GROSS: Is there anything you think you may regret having revealed in your book because our enemy, terrorists, can read your book as well as I can?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, no, there's nothing I regret that I put in there. I didn't put anything in there about how we're breaking codes or what the algorithm is, the latest inscription system, or any of those kind of things. I know, in all the books that I've written before, there's been things that I've deliberately left out that I've learned. You know, when I wrote the last book on NSA, they had a book signing for me at NSA, so I'm very responsible about what I'm writing about in terms of NSA.

And when I wrote "Body of Secrets," my previous book, I thought NSA was obeying the law. Well, actually, it was obeying the law. The book came out in May of 2001. What really shocked me is when I found out that NSA had decided to bypass the law, or at least General Hayden had decided to go around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and that's what - one of the reasons I decided to write this book was because NSA had changed so much. It went from this agency that was very careful about Americans' communications to an agency that's focusing - that's targeting these communications.

GROSS: So no book signing for you at the NSA this time around?

Mr. BAMFORD: No, no parties, no book signings. My first book, I was threatened with prosecution twice for writing "The Puzzle Palace," and then they had this book signing for my second book, "Body of Secrets." And now, I think I'm back to the status of "The Puzzle Palace" days, on the outside looking in.

GROSS: You were actually the plaintiff in the lawsuit filed against the NSA. What was - which suit was this?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, I was a plaintiff. There were number of plaintiffs in the suite, and ACLU asked me if I would be a plaintiff because I have written more than anybody else has written on NSA. You know, I mean, as an NSA expert and as a person who, you know, might be subject to NSA's eavesdropping since I write a lot of controversial things about the U.S. government, particularly the Bush administration. So they asked me to be a plaintiff, and I agreed because I thought that was one avenue of maybe curtailing NSA from doing these illegal things, was by the having the courts order NSA to stop doing it.

The problem with the suit was that we won in the lower court, that Judge Taylor agreed and said what NSA was doing was outrageous. But when it got up to the appeals court, which had three judges, two of them appointed by George Bush and his father, and one that was appointed by Jimmy Carter. The two judges that had been put in by the Bushes voted against - voted the suit down, and it ended up going at the Supreme Court and they denied (unintelligible) and that was the end of it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bamford. He's been researching the National Security Agency and writing about it for about 30 years. His new book is called "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 To the Eavesdropping on America." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

My guest is James Bamford. He's written several books about the National Security Agency. His new one is called "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra Secret NSA From 9/11 To the Eavesdropping on America." Do you have any insights into what Barack Obama or John McCain would do on policy regulating the NSA or the CIA that would be different from what it is now?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, I think John McCain would probably continue it the way it was. I haven't seen any changes in his policies or his thoughts on the matter. And he has fully supported the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping and the changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, came out originally very strongly against it and said he would even filibuster against weakening the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And then when the decision just last summer, a few months ago came to Congress to actually vote it up or vote it down, Obama decided to compromise on the - on his original objections to it and vote for it.

GROSS: So how does the law now compare to what it was before, before this recent version was passed?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, it's a very complex law, and it's very hard to get in all the details. But the bottom line is that what they've done is sort of greatly weaken the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was the protection. The FISA court was really the only safeguard between the NSA and what they're eavesdropping on in the American public. When NSA wanted to eavesdrop on anybody in the U.S., they had to go to the court and get a warrant. And the judges, who are very independent, they don't - certainly didn't work for NSA, would make an independent judgment on whether that was proper or not.

Now, what they've done is sort of neuter the FISA court, and so you have NSA becoming much more the judge, jury, and executioner on who should be eavesdropped on. So, it's greatly weakened it, and then the Congress - you know, it's ironic that the intelligence committees were originally set up in mid-'70s after the Church Committee to oversee the intelligence community so that they don't abuse American citizens rights, and it's turned out that they largely become just sort of cheering galleries for the intelligence community and do very little oversight, which is why the situation developed the way it did down in Georgia apparently.

GROSS: James Bamford, your book has basically two major parts to it. One is pre-9/11, and the other is the National Security Agency post 9/11. We haven't really spent any time on the pre-9/11 part, which is also a really fascinating part of your book. But I do want to ask you one or two questions about that.

You described how the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks were in the United States. Some of their communications were being monitored, and yet the people monitoring it didn't realize that the people that they were monitoring were not only in the United States. They were very nearby the eavesdroppers. They were, like in Maryland, I think it was, during part of this time. You say the eavesdroppers and the terrorists might have been at the same fast food restaurants and driving along the same roads. How is it possible to spy on their communications and not know that they're actually in the States?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that's one of the big questions I have in the book. And it's a question that I can't answer, and I think only Congress can answer if they hold hearings. The problem with the 9/11 Commission was, it that it totally avoided NSA. It didn't get into NSA. So when I looked at NSA, it was really the first look into NSA's involvement in 9/11. And what I found was rather extraordinary.

NSA had been eavesdropping on Bin Laden's operation center in Yemen for years. It's this little house, so I actually went to Yemen and looked at some of these facilities and sort of traced the path of these hijackers from where they started in Yemen all the way to where they ended up in Laurel, Maryland. And what was extraordinary was, when they were in the U.S., these were the two first hijackers that Bin Laden had picked for the 9/11 mission, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

They first came to San Diego, and Hazmi lived there for almost a full year. And al-Mihdhar was here for six months. And al-Mihdhar was communicating back and forth to the house in Yemen regularly because his wife lived there, and she was pregnant, and she was about to have a baby, so he's doing a lot of communicating. NSA is intercepting these communications the whole time they're in the United States and yet not passing this information on to the CIA or anybody else, the fact that they're in the United States.

It was after I did the book, I happen to talk to one of the people who was head of the Bin Laden unit at the CIA, and it was very extraordinary what he told me. He said that the NSA was refusing to give them transcripts of these conversations. And so they set up their own. They had to go out, use taxpayers money to set up their own intercept facility in the Indian Oceanary, I think it was on Madagascar, to intercept these conversations from Yemen.

GROSS: Why won't the NSA pass the information along to the CIA?

Mr. BAMFORD: It was this policy NSA has always had. It's the policy of sort of jealousy. When NSA was created, NSA was given the right to be the exclusive agency to analyze its own intercept material, what they call signals intelligence. And so when the head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit went to NSA and spoke to the head of operations there, pleading for this information, they constantly turned him down.

So when they set up their own intercept facility to try to bypass the NSA, the problem was, their technology wasn't as good as the NSA, and all they were doing was picking up half of the conversations. So again, they went back to the NSA, and they said, you know, can we get the other half of these conversations? And all NSA would do would be to send them brief summaries of some of these things, which would be sometimes a week after the conversations took place. And the CIA was saying - at least the Bin Laden unit was saying, we're all source. We get intelligence from everywhere, so we may know something you don't know. And that's why we want to read the entire transcript. But right up through 9/11, they refused to give it to them.

So the NSA had so much information. This is the real irony here. They had so much information, and they never passed it on, and it's really a tragedy. The ultimate irony was the fact that the terrorists, after they left San Diego, eventually set up their command center, basically, the people who are going to attack the Pentagon, they set up their command center in Laurel, Maryland. That's the same town that NSA is in.

They were actually about two miles from NSA. So NSA was looking for terrorists, and in August, they found out that Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were in the U.S. They're searching these communications, and here they are, they're sitting right in the same town. They were shopping at the same stores. They were using the Kinko's in the same town as the NSA employee. So you have the NSA employees looking for the terrorists and the terrorists basically across the street from each other.

GROSS: You've researched Michael Hayden a lot because he was the head of the NSA during the years that you write about in your new book. He's now the head of the CIA. Your very quick take on Michael Hayden as head of the CIA?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, he sees to the wishes of the powerful, I think. And I would have much preferred having somebody with the backbone such as Jim Comey who - or the head of the FBI, Mueller and even the attorney general at that time, John Ashcroft, who all threatened to resign over this illegal interception program and forced the Bush administration to make some changes in it, not enough, apparently, but some changes in it. And on the other hand, Michael Hayden decided to just salute and go ahead with what these other people apparently thought was illegal.

GROSS: James Bamford, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BAMFORD: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: James Bamford's new book about the NSA is called "The Shadow Factory." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by the bass player he describes as the heartbeat of New York's downtown music scene. This is Fresh Air.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.