The spy agency that eclipses CIA

The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency, by James Bamford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 463 pp. $16.95.

When Americans think of spies, they usually think of the Central Intelligence Agency. But the organization that gets a good deal more money than the CIA - and employs perhaps four to five times as many people - is the National Security Agency (NSA), America's supersecret snooping organization.

For spy lore enthusiasts, this book is a must. But for the average reader, there may be more here than he or she is likely to want to absorb about how the NSA is organized and how it assigns its tasks. I found myself disappointed that Bamford could not tell us more about the usefulness of electronic snooping to America's defenses.

Surely a good deal of eavesdropping is required to protect against major military surprises, particularly where the Soviet Union is concerned. But what good does it do the United States to go as far as it does in gathering millions of miles of intercept tapes from communications all over the world? After reading this book, I'm not sure I have a much better idea. Perhaps it's only the keepers of the nation's top secrets who really know. What we do know is that the kind of intelligence the NSA tries to provide was of enormous value in World War II.

Bamford fails to tell us enough about the current ability of intelligence officers to analyze effectively the ''take'' the NSA provides. Some observers feel that this ability is not nearly good enough.

The NSA has purportedly broken the codes of more than 40 nations. Bamford mentions one exploit, reported first apparently some years ago by columnist Jack Anderson, in which the agency is said to have intercepted the conversations of top Soviet officials, including President Brezhnev, as they conversed with

the Kremlin over their limousine radiotelephones. But this exploit is mentioned only in passing, as part of a section on NSA code words. One would like to know more about what the US got out of such electronic surveillance.

The author gives two examples of instances in which American spy ships might have been saved from tragedy, had they listened to NSA warnings: the Liberty, shot up by the Israelis while spying in the Middle East in 1967, and the Pueblo, captured by the North Koreans in 1968. An NSA message was meant to get the Liberty out of the danger zone, but the message got misdirected. The other NSA message warned that the North Koreans were extremely sensitive to reconnaissance and were not respecting international boundaries. The latter message was sent to two directions, only to get lost for a month before reaching one of them; it was filed and forgotten at the other.

In my view, Bamford is guilty of overkill when it comes to statistics. We learn, for example, that in 1973 the NSA decided to consolidate its storage and logistics functions in yet another new building, a $3.5 million facility known as SAB 4. Once the 125,400-square-foot building was completed, the agency spent another $53,000 moving in about 700 vanloads of paper and office supplies. Half a million cubic feet is used to store the paper on which the intercepts eventually appear.

Bamford almost leaves the breathless impression that he was the first to reveal anything at all about the NSA, and indeed his book does offer the most that anyone has gathered on the subject between two covers. But for readers who want a brief introduction, David Kahn in his 1967 book, ''The Codebreakers,'' provides much of what one might want to know in a single chapter. Magazine and newspaper articles have been written as well, including a 1978 cover story on the NSA in U.S. News & World Report.

Bamford's claim that the NSA is America's most secret agency might be disputed by students of the National Reconnaissance Office, the secret organization whose function it is to run the nation's spy satellites. Its budget is hidden somewhere among Air Force funds and its very existence officially classified.

The author has nonetheless done an extraordinary job of extracting hitherto unpublished information from archives and from the government. Perhaps equally important, he has interviewed people normally thought to be off limits, among them former NSA director Marshall S. Carter and former group head Francis A. (Frank) Raven. He even got a tour of the NSA's headquarters complex between Washington and Baltimore, at Fort Meade, Md., where, he says, can be found what is probably the world's greatest concentration of code-busting computers.

The Justice Department has asked that certain material given to Bamford as a result of his requests under the Freedom of Information Act be returned to the government, and it warned that the author could be subject to post-publication penalties. But a top intelligence expert who requests anonymity told this reviewer that there was likely to be little in the Bamford book that would be new to the Soviet Union. What most concerned the Justice Department and other officials, apparently, was the embarrassment the book caused Britain by revealing US-British cooperation in eavesdropping. Intelligence officials are also concerned that the book might cause some NSA employees to relax their strong sense of self-discipline and tell all.

Bamford gives vivid descriptions of defectors from the USA to the Soviet side. Anyone reading the book will get an idea of the damage which might have been done to the US and its NATO allies by Geoffrey Arthur Prime, a translator for Britain's main snooping organization who was arrested earlier this year on espionage charges.

In my view, Bamford exaggerates the potential threat the NSA poses to the private communications of American citizens. Despite some past abuses, Americans - more than citizens of practically any other nation - are protected from government eavesdropping by a variety of rules, regulations, and oversight mechanisms. The oversight includes congressional watchdog committees and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The rules and regulations include a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and procedures involving the US attorney general. It is when an American makes an overseas phone call to a ''target'' of American intelligence organizations that he is likely to be listened in on. But even then, his name is not supposed to be circulated in the transcript the NSA provides to the government's intelligence ''consumers.''

If the attorney general determines that there is ''probable cause to believe'' that an American communicating overseas is an agent of a foreign power , his calls can be monitored. When it comes to domestic communications, a federal court warrant must be obtained.

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