The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America
by James Bamford
(Doubleday, $27.95)

For a number of years, the best way to reach Osama bin Laden was to call 00-873-682505331. That was the number of the satellite phone the terrorist kingpin lugged about in Afghanistan’s mountains. Snoops at the National Security Agency’s headquarters in Maryland knew that when Osama dialed 011-967-1-200-578, he was checking in on his global operations center, located in a private home in Yemen. By 2000, the NSA was eavesdropping on calls between that house and a young man who had recently moved out. Agents knew the man’s name and suspected him to be an international terrorist. The fact that his calls were coming from inside the United States escaped their notice.

For years, tales about the 9/11 hijackers we should have caught have been circulating, said Bob Kerrey in The Washington Post. But by adding new details, veteran journalist James Bamford “goes where the 9/11 Commission did not fully go.” Twenty-six years after Bamford’s landmark first book about the NSA, The Puzzle Palace, the author’s “disturbing” new portrait of the agency makes a convincing case that America’s intelligence failures leading up to 9/11 had nothing to do with technological or legal constraints. After 9/11, we watch as the NSA switches instantly from being overly cautious to being overzealous, eventually launching its infamous domestic wiretapping program. “In impressive detail,” Bamford also reveals how private contractors, including some with foreign-based owners, have done “the sensitive work” of sorting the data on Americans that the NSA collected.

Bamford wasn’t always a thorn in the NSA’s side, said Scott Shane in The New York Times. In 2001, he published Body of Secrets, a book about the agency that was feted at its Maryland campus. Shadow Factory is thus, in part, “a reporter’s mea culpa for his temporary seduction” by the spies he covers. His anger can be distracting, though, said Gabriel Schoenfeld in The Wall Street Journal. “Despite the wealth of information it provides,” Bamford’s account is distorted by the author’s clear “loathing of the Bush administration.” It’s one thing to question why the U.S. invaded Iraq. It’s another to complain, as Bamford does, that our overstretched Army is now packing its ranks with “criminals, dropouts, and the unemployable.”