94 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2009
The Secret Sentry is an extraordinary book, providing much more information about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) then was previously available. Some people will know that the NSA history unit has recently released volumes of material on aspects of the history of the agency. In some measure these releases were due to Matthew Aid, the author of the book. Matthew served in the old Air Force Security Service, one of the service arms of NSA. He has experience inside the system but has done extraordinary research in the records held by the National Archives and Records Administration facility at College Park. The quality of his efforts have been so good that other people, once they became aware of his endeavors, who worked in the NSA world have shared experiences with him. Matthew discovered that the people who were supposed to cull records before they were transfered to College Park missed a lot of documents. He also learned to effectively use the Freedom of Information Act to nudge documents out of NSA and other intelligence organizations. The net result is a work that provides more insight into the operations of the Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) community than has been available before. It is an up and down story with both successes and failures. But the important insight that emerges is that SIGINT often has provided the greatest volume of material used by the services, other intelligence agencies, and the White House. During the Vietnam War much of the intelligence that the military and political structure used to fight the conflict came from SIGINT. Also, there were times when NSA broke into Russian communications, although not often enough. Matthew provides an surprising amount of information on the use and misuse of SIGINT from the Gulf War to the present. His history also makes clear, that as was the case with Pearl Harbor, SIGINT information can be so volumonous that important facts can lost or overlooked until it is too late. He also reminds us that when polititians become their own intelligence officers the result is often dismal, if not to say distorted.
For the sake of ethical accountability, I wish to disclose that I know Matthew Aid and have been after him for years to publish his research. I also was a member of the NSA family, having served in the old Army Security Agency, with two tours of Vietnam (his depiction of SIGINT use in Vietnam is the best I have seen). It should also be understood that many of the chapters in the book could individually be expanded into book-length studies. Matthew has much more data than he was able to use in the book. Actually, the publisher, Bloomsbury, is to be acknowledge to allow almost a quarter of the book to be footnotes. It is unusual for a book on intelligence, particularly one from a commercial publisher, to be so heavily documented. A final note: the book is quite accessible and a fast read because of the way it is organized. The book could have used a bigger acronym list,perhaps a brief explaination of the SIGINT cycle as well as how the individual service SIGINT organizations functioned in the NSA system. But, no matter, you come away from this book knowing a lot more than you ever did before.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2009
Aid's Secret Sentry is a remarkable effort of research, persistence, writing, and most important: timing. His footnoting is impressive and he was prudent enough to wait until Tom Johnson's authoritative four volume classified history of NSA was (partially) declassified and posted by the National Security Archive to finish his own volume. His debt to Johnson shows in his footnotes. For years, Jim Bamford's "Puzzle Palace" and "Body of Secrets" were the only real public sources on NSA, but Matthew Aid has now surpassed him in all areas but one: the evolution of technology and NSA's role in creating the modern electronic and computer world. For that you still need "Body of Secret's" chapter fourteen. Unlike Bamford's breezier works, this is not a "popular" book, but for anyone genuinely interested in the real story of this essential component of national security, Aid's account of the United States codebreaking and communications intelligence effort is essential and will not soon be bested.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2009
This is the most comprehensive history I've read about the NSA, but if it has a fault, it is what seems to be a slight tendency to overplay the agency's failures and underplay its many successes. However, the agency, faced with a Herculean -- arguably impossible -- task comports itself pretty well throughout the book. Also, the author seems to suffer from the same problem the agency does: far more information than he can process in a book of some 400 pages, almost a hundred pages of which are footnotes. But, I found it mostly interesting -- riveting in a few spots -- but Aid tried to do too much here. For instance, I think he would have had a better book if he had cut way back on the details about NSA's tactical role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I wish he had gone into more detail about how the agency processes the enormous amounts of information it takes in, especially since he cites that as one of the major problem areas facing the NSA and, in fact, may be the one problem that may doom it. I always get a sense of dread when journalists write about our intelligence organizations because the articles or books often turn into political diatribes or they give away too much information that could be useful to our foes. I must say that Aid, unlike some others who write about NSA and seem to have a political agenda, mostly resists this unacceptable trend. "Mostly," I said. But, all in all, it's a pretty good book.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The NSA isn't an easy topic to write about. It is not an agency that normally seeks attention, and works hard to avoid publicity or disclosure of its activities. So in some sense I admire Matthew Aid for even taking a shot at a history of the NSA.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* The book is well-researched and has plenty of supporting material included. It may actually go too far, roughly a quarter of the book is notes and references.
* There are some indications of the NSA's successes. There is brief mention of Operation Ivy Bells, where an undersea cable carrying Soviet intelligence was tapped and monitored. There were also some information on the NSA's successes in cracking the encoded transmissions of other countries.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* The author seems to have a bias against the NSA. As an example, in one case the author describes how a certain operation only "served to 'tick' off the North Vietnamese off". Well maybe so, but wasn't that the idea?
* The book doesn't discuss the lower level details of the NSA operations. There is no mention of how any of the code-breaking was done, how satellites captured radio transmissions, or any other technical details. Neither was there any high-level details of the political, strategic or tactical consequences of any NSA operations.
In fact there was nothing in the book other than a series of brief overview of NSA activities. Msjor events in the world, such as the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Lebanon receive nothing more than a few paragraphs describing that the NSA received some inkling of the attack, but were unable to convince anyone of the seriousness of the threat.
* The was little or no organization of material, other than a roughly chronological order. Successive paragraphs might discuss Bosnia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The end result was a choppy series of short narratives, with no analysis, overall discussion of successes, failures, techniques, technologies or capabilities.
=== Summary ===
There was not a whole lot of reward for reading this book. It became a tedious collection of short snippets of information about things the NSA was involved in, but no real analysis or overall look at how the NSA functions, how successful it was, or the consequences of any of its actions.
Unless you are somehow determined to read every book ever written about the NSA, I'd say this book is well worth skipping.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2009
The National Security Agency (NSA) wears one of the thicker cloaks of secrecy among the agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). For this reason any book that purports to be "The Untold History of" the NSA ought to be viewed with suspicion. In this case however Matthew Aid has actually produced an accurate and compelling history of NSA. Perhaps equally important his book does not compromise any of NSA's sensitive sources and methods. This book can serve to provide the context for better understanding James Bamford's series of books on NSA and indeed to understand NSA itself.
That being said this book by necessity is very much a surface treatment of a very complex institution. For example it is focused entirely on the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID) to the exclusion of NSA's equally important Information Assurance Directorate (IAD).
Also Aid is much too kind in his discussion of NSA management over the years. For example although he mentions the NSA unplanned three day outage, but fails to mention that NSA management had been repeatedly warned that this was exactly going to happen by folks both within the agency and by outside consultants for at least two years before the event (which was a lot more the "main processing computer"). As for General Hayden's fabled "100 Days of Change", it did not hit NSA "like a tidal wave", but more like another round of meaningless rhetoric. The only tangible result was the implementation of the disastrous `Trailblazer' initiative which succeeded in squandering millions of dollars and whatever goodwill NSA had left with the congress.
So a good book within limitations that provides probably the most solid unclassified history of NSA that has yet been written.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2013
So I liked the book and recommend it. I thought it provided some rather frank assessments and good details. By the time you're done reading you will know what the NSA does, why there really should be no surprise that the NSA has been gathering intelligence on friends and foes, and why this type of intelligence gathering is so important to national security. You'll also realize why the NSA may be reluctant to release specific cases where specific types of intelligence may have helped (because it reveals the capabilities of the NSA).
The bad . . . There are a lot of names and the author is consistently inconstant about the organization of the information. Since most of the information is organized chronologically, sometimes new character appear on the scene before they are foamily introduced (usually in the next section). This happens most often with NSA directors. My advice - just roll with it.
14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2010
Matthew Aid's "The Secret Sentry" promises to be an interesting read, and he does in fact provide a new startling perspective on the National Security Agency (NSA). But it is badly written, gets too easily bogged down on familiar terrain, and ultimately disappoints.
Thanks to Hollywood depictions and its anonymity, the NSA awes and scares people. At the very mention of NSA, images from Hollywood thrillers come into mind: satellites zooming into a lonely lane, security cameras tracking a couplefs restaurant conversation, and computers recording anyone's mobile chit-chat. The power and the pervasiveness that is the NSA, which ever since its existence has been directed at America's allies and enemies, was brought home against America itself with the signing of the Patriot Act. After that, Americans too easily became paranoid, and in their minds the NSA was no longer the protector of American liberties against foreign aggressors, and became the threat itself.
"The Secret Sentry" will first and foremost calm people's fears of the NSA. The NSA is, in Mr. Aid's rendering, just another bloated bureaucracy that is incompetently run and unmanageable because it's engaged in the impossible task of trying to spy on everyone who could be a possible threat against America (which in the American intelligence community means at least half the people on this planet). The NSA may be recording every phone conversation and tracking every electronic movement, but at the end of the day humans need to prioritize targets, distill and refine this information into actionable intelligence, and be able to co-operate amongst themselves. (A dominant theme running through the book is that ever since its inception the NSA, as is natural of a large bloated bureaucracy among many large bloated bureaucracies, has been trying to assert its independence and indeed hegemony over the entire American intelligence community.) It is this need for the co-operation between technological supremacy and human common sense that has made the NSA the most prevalent but trivial organization in the American intelligence community. The paradox seems to be that as machines become mightier the humans using these mighty machines become dumber: a plucky reporter with a pencil and notepad and who trusts his own brain will be a much better gauge of Al-Qaedafs intentions than a lieutenant general with a staff of thousands of cryptologists and billion dollars worth of electronic surveillance equipment. The NSA failed to penetrate the Iron Curtain, failed to foresee the Chinese entry into the Korean War, failed to see the collapse of the Berlin Wall, failed to see the coming of global terrorism, and failed to have much impact in the war against terrorism. The NSA proves that having too much information is often worse than having no information.
But after we realize this vital point about the NSA there is no other need to read "The Secret Sentry." Mr. Aid may have spent years in the National Security Archives and he may be one of America's foremost experts on the NSA, but he is also dealing with highly sensitive material. He may have "confidential" interviews with dozens of NSA and intelligence interviews, but how could he have been told anything useful considering he was interviewing spies whose first instinct is to misdirect, misinform, and deceive. And because he had so much access to the National Security Archives, Mr. Aid undoubtedly had to write this book with its general counsel looking constantly over his shoulder.
There is neither energy nor punch in this book, and reads too much like a neat cataloguing of press clippings about the NSA.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2013
As the title says, this is a comprehensive review of the NSA, from its early roots to the present day. At times the writing can
be a little dry, but then again, how can you spice up a description of RSA encoding? But I liked it, because I like spies (REAL spies, not James Bond etc.), and I like technology (I'm a retired engineer), and the NSA is the embodiment of these two preoccupations.
17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2011
Mr. Aid offers a most useful chronology of events in the history of NSA, however I thought his personal bias and
political agenda repeatedly poked through his would-be "analysis" of events and frequently compromised whatever point he was trying to make. Overall, it seemed to me at places in the book that he has some personal bone to pick with the military intelligence community in general. Upon researching Mr. Aid's background, it was noted that as a sergeant, he was reported to have been booted from the Air Force intelligence service and court-martialed for problems with his illegal handling of sensitive classified information. That is unfortunate, because this book documenting NSA operations needed to be written. It is a shame that this particular attempt was off the objectivity mark for whatever reasons, personal or otherwise. The NSA, as a historical entity within the contemporary American environment, could use a rigorous, totally objective study by a disciplined scholar/historian. In my opinion, this book falls short of that target.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2013
Having spent several years providing intel to NSA in the 80's and 90's I found the book a fun read; however a bit light and missing quite a bit of details on certain periods. However, it gives a very nice background to NSA's participation in world events. Apparently much of it is based on declassified information so, for me personally, it gave me missing background on activities I was involved with in the 1980's.