A skillful history of America’s World War II code-breaking and the rise of the National Security Agency.
Having written the definitive account of the great Allied triumph in the decrypting of Nazi codes in Battle of Wits (2000), military journalist Budiansky (Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare, 2013, etc.) continues the story here, with equal flare. He begins even before the war ended, in 1943, when American eavesdroppers decided to intercept Soviet communications. This was less dastardly than it sounds because all nations spy on allies, and, as we later learned, Soviet agents were busily at work at the highest levels of Western governments. In 1952, President Harry Truman united communication intelligence into the top-secret (at first) NSA, now our largest spy organization, whose budget remains secret and whose massive supercomputers, satellites, and worldwide listening stations suck up massive quantities of information. The traditional goal of American spying—preventing another Pearl Harbor—has never been accomplished. Surprises continue to occur, including the Vietnam Tet Offensive, the Yom Kippur War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and 9/11. On the plus side, we achieved a detailed picture of the Soviet Union’s internal affairs, which revealed that its leaders had their hands full and gave low priority to world conquest. On the minus side, the NSA’s unlimited budget and lack of oversight have produced a swollen, woefully inefficient organization. Its eagerness to smite our enemies at any cost has “left in [its] wake an often sordid trail of transgressions against law, morality, decency, and basic American values.”
In a book that is more nuanced and far more entertaining that the revelations of Edward Snowden, Budiansky does not ignore the NSA’s accomplishments but reveals plenty of unsettling behavior that has so far persuaded Congress and the president, always anxious to demonstrate their patriotism, to enact mild reforms.