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on March 16, 2015
This book wasn't exactly what I was expecting. I thought it would be more of a political treatise on the activities of the NSA, but it was almost more of an "agency history." While this was a different focus, I found it very interesting, especially as the author pulled back the curtain on many important events in U.S. history that were affected by SIGINT (signals intelligence) collected by the NSA since its foundation.
The author cited many sources, both written and oral, which lends academic weight to what he says. However, the use of sources does not create a ponderous reading style; on the contrary, the writing was engaging and fairly easy to read.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes reading about history or espionage. Especially in light of how much the NSA is in the news today, I hope more people will read this book and get at least a small glimpse of the work done behind the scenes for the USA.
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on May 30, 2016
I used to work in the intelligence community in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The author did know everything that was going on in our NSA/ASA support and thus wrote a negative story about it. Once I read that chapter, I assumed he also did not have all of the information in his other chapters. I am thinking he did not talk to enough people who were on the ground or in the area in the theater in which the NSA/ASA was operating, so I skipped the rest of the book
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on July 31, 2017
good book
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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.
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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.
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on July 22, 2015
Well research factual account of the NSA's history. Tendency to drill down too much and present facts that did not add to the story, but basically a good read. Would have like coverage of the Kennedy years, and can't understand why that era is blank.
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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.
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on March 8, 2015
I enjoyed learning about NSA but it became a bit too technical as far as naming who did what & why. I know there is a need to be accurate but I felt that there could have been more content than identities revealed. All in all, I think it reveals that the NSA is in trouble & needs some management help & additional resources. Enlightening.
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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.
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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.
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