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The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency

4.1 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 860-1416173764
ISBN-10: 1596915153
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"This, very simply, is the most informative book ever written on the inside bureaucratic struggles and the outside operations of the National Security Agency. Matthew Aid is our reigning expert on the NSA."—Seymour M. Hersh, author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
 

“NSA analysis now comprises as much as 60 percent of the president’s daily intelligence briefing, and Aid provides a critical history of the agency that has the ear of the leader of the free world. A sprawling but revealing look at a powerful, shadowy agency of the American government.”Kirkus

About the Author

Matthew M. Aid is a leading intelligence historian, expert on the National Security Agency, and regular commentator on intelligence matters for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the National Journal, the Associated Press, CBS News, NPR, and many other media outlets. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press (June 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596915153
  • ASIN: B003L1ZX4S
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,931,416 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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