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The Puzzle Palace : Inside America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization Paperback – Bargain Price, September 29, 1983

88 customer reviews

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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1947, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand signed a secret treaty in which they agreed to cooperate in matters of signals intelligence. In effect, the governments agreed to pool their geographic and technological assets in order to listen in on the electronic communications of China, the Soviet Union, and other Cold War bad guys--all in the interest of truth, justice, and the American Way, naturally. The thing is, the system apparently catches everything. Government security services, led by the U.S. National Security Agency, screen a large part (and perhaps all) of the voice and data traffic that flows over the global communications network. Fifty years later, the European Union is investigating possible violations of its citizens' privacy rights by the NSA, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public advocacy group, has filed suit against the NSA, alleging that the organization has illegally spied on U.S. citizens.

Being a super-secret spy agency and all, it's tough to get a handle on what's really going on at the NSA. However, James Bamford has done great work in documenting the agency's origins and Cold War exploits in The Puzzle Palace. Beginning with the earliest days of cryptography (code-making and code-breaking are large parts of the NSA's mission), Bamford explains how the agency's predecessors helped win World War II by breaking the German Enigma machine and defeating the Japanese Purple cipher. He also documents signals intelligence technology, ranging from the usual collection of spy satellites to a great big antenna in the West Virginia woods that listened to radio signals as they bounced back from the surface of the moon.

Bamford backs his serious historical and technical material (this is a carefully researched work of nonfiction) with warnings about how easily the NSA's technology could work against the democracies of the world. Bamford quotes U.S. Senator Frank Church: "If this government ever became a tyranny ... the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government ... is within the reach of the government to know." This is scary stuff. --David Wall --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


"There have been glimpses inside the NSA before, but until now no one has published a comprehensive and detailed report on the agency. . . Mr. Bamford has emerged with everything except the combination to the director's safe." —The New York Times Book Review

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (September 29, 1983)
  • ISBN-10: 0140067485
  • ASIN: B000BPG27Y
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 4.8 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #907,723 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

92 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Loren D. Morrison on June 22, 2000
Format: Paperback
It's hard to take a fresh look at a book that has already been so well reviewed, but I feel that I do have a few more worthwhile comments, hence another review.
Even though PUZZLE PALACE has been around for eighteen years, it still seems to be the best researched book on NSA that's available. It would be nice if Bamford could update us on what has happened in those intervening years.
None of the following is classified information. I was an enlisted man in the Army Security Agency, stationed in the Philippines, from 1955 to 1957. I had been trained as a French Linguist at the Army Language School. It wasn't until I got to the Philippines that I even knew that there was an organization known as the National Security Agency (NSA). Even more amazing is the fact that, until I read Bamford's book, I had no idea how what I was doing fit into the scheme of things. Thanks, James Bamford, for clearing that up for me some forty five years later. Better late than never, they say.
What I think that 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 proceeds to take us through, step by step, 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 individuual that might be established. To wit: Jimmy Carter, when he was President, put a few safeguards in place.
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56 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Victor A. Vyssotsky on December 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
When "The Puzzle Palace" first came out in 1982, it caused a certain amount of controversy and angst. Bamford now has a new book on NSA scheduled to appear this Spring. I wonder what it will contain? "The Puzzle Palace" was quite a good job of investigative reporting, especially considering the customary reluctance of NSA to reveal much about itself. I found "The Puzzle Palace" an interesting read, and I learned much from it that I had not learned during my 20 years of previous occasional contact with NSA. The book is not friendly to NSA, but neither is it muckraking.
In the 1980s I wished that "The Puzzle Palace" had not been written; it seemed to me to contain considerable material that would have best been left unpublished (and would have been if the United States had anything like the British Official Secrets Act.) Looking back from the vantage point of 2001, I note only one brief item in "The Puzzle Palace" that I know harmed the United States, and in that case the harm was minor. (Furthermore, Bamford got that item from a senior NSA official, and may not have know that it was sensitive.) And I note several places where Bamford must have known certain things he chose to omit from "The Puzzle Palace" that might indeed have imperiled some aspect of national security, even though they were not, are not, and never have been classified. So, overall, I consider that Bamford walked the tightrope quite well in "The Puzzle Palace."
It will be interesting not only to read his new book when it comes out, but also to compare the new book with "The Puzzle Palace." I intend to keep them side by side on my bookshelf.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
The book is nothing short of sensational, for two reasons: itis the first and still the only really comprehensive look at globalsignals intelligence operations as dominated by the National Security Agency; and second, because all of his research was done using only open sources, including unclassified employee newsletters at Alice Springs, and he did a great job of making the most out of legally and ethically available information. James is still around, working on another book about SIGINT, and I believe that only he will be able to top this one.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Peter Mackay on February 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
It is incredible that someone could have written this book, given the lengths to which the US and other governments went to in order to hide the very existence of such a major organisation. But time and again Bamford slips behind the scenes, behind the walls of secrecy, to tell the world the intimate secrets of the NSA.
This, even after so many years, is the definitive history of the National Security Agency. Or at least the most definitive work ever to have been available to the general public. It starts at the start in World War One, and traces the development of what has become a monster, frequently acting beyond the law and in clear violation of basic rights of privacy and freedom of speech.
It is not a history of codebreaking or of the science of interception, but rather a history of the organisation that was set up to do this, and though we are told of the machines and systems that do the work, the tale revolves around the people who defended their secrets and sought out others.
It is fascinating reading, pitched at an average understanding, and accessible to the people who should be most concerned about the activities of the NSA. If it has a flaw it is a simple one - it needs updating.
In the wake of the S11 tragedies, it is indisputable that there is a need for such an organisation. Never let it be said otherwise. But what of the collateral damage to millions of innocent individuals, American citizens with nothing but love for their country, who are regularly spied upon by the NSA?
A disturbing and thoughtful book.
Recommended reading for anybody with an interest in codebreaking and communications security. Here you will find details of some of the leading figures in the "industry" not available anywhere else. Essential for your bookshelf.
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