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Book Review October 2, 2002
 
A Spy Groupie You Can Respect
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
Most readers have probably never even heard of the Liberty, and have no idea that in 1967, a US Navy ship, clearly identified and clearly in international water, was strafed by Israeli fighter planes, then torpedoed by Israeli patrol boats which even made sure to destroy the Liberty's liferafts so that none of the crew could survive.

The American press was, and has remained, oddly silent about this massacre. Neither at the time nor in the 35 years since has there been even a hint of a Congressional investigation.

So the chapter on the destruction of the Liberty in Body of Secrets is something of a test of moral courage (always the scarcest item in the American inventory). And he comes through, even delivering a scoop on what has been until now the biggest mystery of the whole bloody mess: why the Israelis chose to destroy a ship of their only ally in the world. As Bamford demonstrates, the Israelis were in the middle of a much bigger massacre which the Liberty would have picked up if allowed to monitor radio communications. They were busy killing and burying hundreds of Egyptian prisoners captured in the area of El Arish, a few miles inshore from the position of the Liberty. As Bamford puts it, "...the Liberty had suddenly trespassed into a private horror":

"...the Israeli journalist Gabi Bron saw about 150 Egyptian prisoners sitting on the ground, crowded together with their hands held at the back of their necks. 'The Egyptian prisoners of war were ordered to dig pits and then Army police shot them to death,' Bron said. "I witnessed the execution with my own eyes...' According to [an Israeli military historian], Israeli troops killed, in cold blood, as many as 1,000 Egyptian prisoners."

Bamford deserves credit not only for courage but for remarkable tenacity and skill in researching the book. The National Security Agency genuinely shuns publicity (unlike the coy, grandstanding CIA). It is often described as "the shadowy NSA," and its secrets comprise the true heart of the US intelligence apparatus.

Roughly speaking, the NSA is responsible for technical intelligence-picking information off the air and breaking codes-while the CIA and assorted imitations specialize in "human intelligence-gathering," dealing with live agents.

The NSA has a longstanding reputation for superb technical intelligence; the CIA is simply a joke. A very expensive and tedious joke, staffed largely by epigones like Aldritch Ames and moronic former Mormon "missionaries" who, having learned the local language during their two-year stint proselytizing for the world's dumbest religion, are sent back to haunt unlucky developing countries, their main activity being to pass bags of cash to the most corrupt and loathsome of local politicians.

So amateurs talk about the CIA; people who have a clue talk about the NSA. In Bamford's account, this gadget-happy, geeky, naive, easily-manipulated agency becomes a painfully apt synechdoche for all of American culture. When you see the ingenuity and hard work of the techs ending up on the desk (or in the ear-mike) of a pig like Dubya, you understand a little better why our culture, always so full of promise and skill, seems always to end by following some quixotic hicksville notion down the road to savage folly.

Bamford's biggest scoop concerns "Operation Northwoods," an elaborate plan to stage faked terrorist attacks on the US, to be carried out by disguised American military and intelligence personnel. The idea was to terrorize America, blame Castro, and thus gain support for the fullscale invasion of Cuba the brass wanted. The plan was a grand one:

"[American] generals came up with a...plan to 'blow up a ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,'" adding that "'casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national enthusiasm.'"

This little number was cooked up Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, a man every bit as attractive as his name suggests, with the full approval of his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In other words, this bloody, treacherous scheme had the full approval of the very highest level of the military. Lemnitzer, brilliantly characterized by Bamford, is one of the most compellingly loathsome figures in American history. (It's not just anybody who could make McNamara seem like a savior.) Lemnitzer was a protege of Eisenhower's, and Bamford, typically, makes his own judgment, departing very sharply from the popular notion of Eisenhower as a dim but benevolent figurehead. On the contrary; as Bamford proves, Eisenhower was all in favor of Lemnitzer's plan, which got crazier and crazier:


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