Review Essay: Body of Secrets: How America's NSA and Britan's GCHQ Eavesdrop on the World, by James Bamford

Reviewed by
Clare Brandabur

As we observe the fortieth anniversary of the Six-Day War of June 1967, there are few things to celebrate. One notable exception is the full exposure of the actual events of the Israeli aggression which hitherto have been carefully guarded secrets. In particular the frenzied attempts by the Israelis to sink the USS Liberty and kill its crew, attempts covered up at the time by order of the Johnson White House and covered up ever since by censorship and elaborate lies by Israeli and US authorities. Now, thanks to the remarkable book Body of Secrets by James Bamford,  it is possible to learn not only what happened to the Liberty, but what it was Israel was so desperate to conceal from the eyes of the world, especially from the Russians and the Americans. What they were covering up, and what President Lyndon Johnson would help them continue to cover up, was war crimes and crimes against humanity, a continuation and intensification of the deliberate and calculated policy of the colonial settler state to remove by all possible means the indigenous people.

Now a distinguished visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Bamford is an American journalist who has made the nation's intelligence gathering agencies his specialization. He grew up in Natick, Massachussetts, spent three years in the US Navy during Vietnam, then earned a law degree from Boston's Suffolk University on the G.I. Bill. Bamford has used the Freedom of Information Act to produce three substantial books all dealing with the super-secret world of US and British spies  Before Body of Secrets, Bamford published The Puzzle Palace (1982), also about the National Security Agency, and his new book A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies (2004), explores the role of intelligence-gathering agencies up to, during and after  the events of 9/11. As the author told Kevin Zeese, Pretext for War includes a detailed minute-by-minute look at the confusion and chaos in Washington in the hours following the 9/11 attack. (see "Inventing  Pretext for War," interview by Kevin Zeese, Monday, May 25, 2005. A good deal was already known about Israeli crimes in 1967 by readers fortunate enough to get hold of Arthur C. Forrest's The Unholy Land (1970-1971). 

Forrest was sent by a consortium of North American church magazines  to research rumors that the Israelis were not in fact allowing the refugees back into Palestine, in spite of their carefully staged claims to the contrary. Forrest quickly learned that refugees were still fleeing across the Allenby Bridge; that many had been attacked by Israeli planes using napalm; that the camp at Jericho which had held some 65,000 refugees from 1948, had been attacked and thousands driven across the River into Jordan by planes using machine guns and napalm; that survivors from the Jordanian Army said whole field hospitals had been napalmed. Of course Forrest was bitterly attacked for daring to criticize Israel, especially for revealing the truth about Israeli use of napalm against civilians and hospitals. He writes: One of the horror stories being told in Amman was of the experiences of fleeing refugees being sprayed with napalm. At first I didn't believe it and shuddered at the thought of using some of the pictures of victims available in Jordan. 'If it were pictures of Vietnam you'd publish them wouldn't you?' a Palestinian said. (Forrest 16) Forrest was shocked and dubious concerning these reports, so he went to visit survivors of these attacks in Jordanian hospitals. He spoke to Mr. Sami Oweida, the father of a family who had recently crossed the Bridge and whose surviving members were still being treated in hospital in Amman We crossed the King Hussein [Allenby] Bridge, walking. Planes were going overhead [...] W tried to avoid big crowds, thinking the planes would bomb the crowds. Then at that moment [about 4 PM] I saw a plane come down like a hawk directly at us. We threw ourselves on the ground and found ourselves in the midst of fire. (Forrest 17)

Forrest also quotes the report of General Sir John Glubb whose interpretation of the Middle East Crisis was published in July 1967 as follows: The greater part of the Jordan army were destroyed by napalm [.]  Glubb quotes from a signed statement by a team of doctors from the American University of Beirut.[...] 'A doctor reported that the Mobile Field Hospital, containing 350 patients, was incinerated with all its patients and staff by napalm,'  Glubb says. (Forrest 16) Forrest took photographs of some of the burned victims, one of which he later published in the United Church Observer, his Church paper in Canada, of a little girl recovering from napalm burns. "That, I was told, proved I was anti-Semitic. To condemn napalm in Vietnam is alright. To report its use by the Israelis is considered anti-Semitic" (Forrest 17). When Forrest asked for permission to visit the three destroyed villages Yalu, Beit Nuba, and Emmaus, he was refused on grounds that "There isn't any Beit Nuba!" (15). Nevertheless Forrest managed to travel to the devastated area. From survivors whom he asked about the destruction of these villages in retribution for their resistance in 1948, he learned that Israeli bulldozers had demolished houses over the heads of the infirm elderly who perished in the rubble (15). Now, thanks to James Bamford's outing of the secrets of the "Black Chamber" which housed the American NSA,  (National Security Agency) and that of the British GCHQ, (Government Communications Headquarters), it is possible to reconstruct a more complete picture of the Israeli crimes and their cover-up including its attack on the USS Liberty. The well planned war of 1967 was designed to take as much land as possible and to make it appear that the Arab armies had attacked Israel. This is the startling conclusion of a chapter in Bamford's, Body of Secrets (2002).

In prose that reads like a John LeCarré thriller, Bamford records the growing anxiety back in Washington when authorities in the Joint Reconnaissance Center realized that the Liberty was steaming into dangerous proximity to what, on June 4th had become a war zone. Five different emergency messages failed to reach the endangered ship.  About the same time in Tel Aviv, Foreign Minister Abba Eban summoned U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour to a meeting in his office. Building an ever larger curtain of lies around Israel's true activities and intentions, Eban accused Egypt of starting the war. Barbour quickly sent a secret Flash message back to Washington. 'Early this morning,' he quoted Eban, 'Israelis observed Egyptian units moving in large numbers toward Israel and in fact considerable force penetrated Israeli territory and clashed with Israeli ground forces. Consequently, GOI [Government of Israel] gave orders to attack.' Eban told Barbour that his government intended to protest Egypt's actions to the UN Security Council. 'Israel is [the] victim of Nasser's aggression,' he said. (Bamford 192)   It should be remembered that Abba Eban, was the same person who promised the UN that the Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return as a ploy for gaining UN recognition in 1948.

One is reminded of the insightful remark of Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht who says in her fine book The Fate of the Jews (1983), "Zionists executed the psychological coup of the century by taking Palestine from the Arabs and then pretending Jews were Arab victims" (Feuerlicht 246-47).   Meanwhile the Liberty, prominently flying a large American flag. was identified as an American spy plane by an Israeli pilot. "At 6:05 A.M: the naval observer on the plane reported back to Israeli naval headquarters. 'What we could see was the letters written on that ship,' he said. 'And we gave these letters to the ground control.' The letters were 'GTR-5,' the Liberty's identification. 'GTR' stood for 'General Technical Research' - a cover designation for NSA's fleet of spy ships" (Bamford 199). More specific identifying markers were sent in a message to the Israeli navy headquarters in Haifa:  "the ship cruising slowly off El Arish was "an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy named Liberty whose marking was GTR-5." Not only did the ship have "GTR-5" painted broadly on both sides of its bow and stern, it also had its name painted in large, bold, black letters: "U.S.S. LIBERTY." And Bamford adds, "Although no one on the Liberty knew it, they were about to have some company" (204). Bamford's documentation removes  any doubt that the Israelis knew the Liberty was an American ship, and its position so close to the scene of Israeli war crimes  made it absolutely necessary for them to destroy it. Bamford details the "criminal slaughter" in which the Israelis were engaged at nearby Al-Arish (201). From the first minutes of its surprise attack, the Israeli air force had owned the skies over the Middle East. Within the first few hours, Israeli jets pounded twenty-five Arab air bases ranging from Damascus in Syria to an Egyptian field, loaded with bombers far up the Nile at Luxor. Then, using machine guns, mortar fire, tanks, and air  power, the Israeli war machine overtook the Jordanian section of Jerusalem as well as the west bank of the Jordan River, and torpedo boats captured the key Red Sea cape at Sharm al-Sheikh.

In the Sinai, Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers pushed toward the Suez Canal along all three of the roads that crossed the desert, turning the burning sands into a massive killing field. One Israeli general estimated that Egyptian casualties there ranged from 7,000 to 10,000 killed, compared with 275 of its own troops. (Bamford 201) Bamford documents the attack by Israeli tanks on a UN convoy of Indian peacekeeper soldiers on their way to Gaza, and the subsequent attack on a UN headquarters in Gaza in which fourteen UN members were killed. "One Indian officer called it deliberate, cold-blooded killing of unarmed UN soldiers" (201). Bamford then details the slaughter of hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war who were made to dig their own graves and then machine-gunned (202-205).  On the morning of June 8, the Israeli military command received a report that a large American eavesdropping ship was secretly listening only a few miles off El- Arish. At the same moment, a scant dozen or so miles away, Israeli soldiers were butchering civilians and bound prisoners by the hundreds, a fact that the entire Israeli army leadership knew about and condoned, according to the army's own historian.

Another military historian, Uri Milstein, confirmed the report. There were many incidents in the Six Day War, he said, in which Egyptian soldiers were killed by Israeli troops after they had raised their hands in surrender. 'It was not an official policy,' he added, but there was an atmosphere that it was okay to do it. Some commanders decided to do it; others refused. But everyone knew about it.' (Bamford 236) It was not in Israeli nor in US interest to have this aggression against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan revealed to the world. Early in the afternoon of June 8, 1967, Israeli jets and missile boats opened fire on the USS Liberty which was by then off the coast of Gaza. Struck by rockets, cannon, and torpedoes, the vessel suffered extensive damage and over 200 casualties including 34 dead. Israeli forces were then engaged in the fourth day of what would soon be called the Six Day War, and, as Bamford shows, the Liberty was hit repeatedly by waves of Israeli air force fighters loaded with 30 mm cannon ammunition, rockets, and even napalm, then assaulted from the sea by torpedoes (200-201). Israel claimed the attack was a "tragic mistake."  In spite of earlier exposés like that of Arthur Forrest and interviews with survivors of the USS Liberty, few people in the West even today know what Israel was doing. In subsequent investigations, however, it has emerged that those directly connected to the attack on the Liberty rejected Israeli claims the ship was attacked by accident. In his biography of President Lyndon Johnson, for example, Robert Dallek says  "The highest officials of the [Johnson] administration, including the President, believed it 'inconceivable' that Israel's 'skilled' defense forces' could have committed such a gross error"  Dallek. 430-31).

 If Israeli intention was to cover up their criminal napalm attacks on Palestinian civilians in order to drive them out of Palestine, it seems to have been a success.  The information given by Arthur Forrest and James Bamford is consistent with that of another witness to Israel's use of napalm against civilians in 1967. Norman F. Dacey, formerly chairman of Volunteers for Nixon, whose open letter to then President Richard M. Nixon was published in Lebanese newspaper Al-Anwar, January 17, 1972. In it Dacey told Nixon that he would henceforth campaign for Nixon's defeat, citing his disgust with US policies in the Middle East. "I have walked through Egyptian hospitals and seen row on row of beds of little children, their bodies burned black by American-made napalm, dropped from American-built planes in claimed 'defense' of Israel" (Dacey qtd in Ashiurakis 1974).  Other readers will find other parts of Bamford's huge book (715 pages) important for what it has to reveal about US and UK intelligence roles in relation to Cuba, to Viet Nam, Germany, Russia, and China. As increasing numbers of Europeans and Americans question the official account of the events of September 11, 2001, related research has turned up information about other "false flag" operations such as "Northwoods," the plan developed by extremist military hawks to commit acts of terrorism against American citizens and/or military installations and plant false documents which would incriminate Cuba. Bamford provides a detailed account of these plans which, to his credit, President John Kennedy refused to authorize.

Among the more bizarre but not atypical schemes under the "Northwoods" umbrella was a plan to sabotage the launch from Cape Canaveral on February 20, 1962, of astronaut John Glenn on his historic journey into space. Right-wing military leader Lyman L. Lemnizter and his friends proposed that they should arrange for the rocket to explode and kill  Glenn, then provide proof that the Cubans were to blame (Bamford 84). Another plan was to create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft  has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the  United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. Th destination  would be chosen only to cause the flight plan to cross Cuba. The passengers  could be a group of college students off on a holiday or any grouping of  persons with a common interest to support chartering a non-scheduled  flight." (Bamford 85)   Lemnitzer and fellow hawks, Bamford records, predecessors of today's neo-cons, were frustrated that Kennedy not only refused to authorize these provocations for war against Cuba, but actually seemed to be "going soft" on Cuba. Bamford shows that Robert and John Kennedy were receiving encouraging signals that Fidel Castro was eager to establish friendly relations wit the U.S., (sentiments expressed quite specifically in an interview with Castro by ABC reporter Lisa Howard). To these  overtures the Kennedys had responded with positive messages designed to arrange diplomatic meetings, perhaps in a third country (Bamford 128). Through William Attwood, attaché to Adlai Stevenson's UN mission and long-time Castro contact, serious discussions between White House and Cuban diplomats were taking place.  Howard, continuing in her role as unofficial intermediary, mentioned Attwood  to Major René Vallejo, a Cuban surgeon who was also Castro's right-hand  man and confidant.

On October 31, Vallejo called Howard, telling her that  Castro would very much like to talk to Atwood anytime and appreciated the importance of discretion to all concerned. (Bamford 129) After extensive communications with Castro's aides in which detailed plans for meetings were formulated, Attwood was able to send a very positive memo to President Kennedy saying that "Vallejo's manner was extremely cordial" and saying he was instructed to set up plans for a later meeting between Kennedy and Castro and would await their call Tragically, Bamford concludes, "But President Kennedy did not see Attwood's memorandum. At the moment it arrived he was traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas" (Bamford 130).   Bamford's disclosure of the hidden face of U.S. and British secret intelligence- gathering organizations makes clear the mechanisms of control by which super-hawks have derailed efforts for world peace over the past fifty years.  The book closes with some alarming information about secret biological warfare research. In the race to build the world's most powerful computer, MIT scientists were by 2001 attempting to marry the digital with the biological by altering the common E.coli bacterium "to function as an electronic circuit" (Bamford 612).

This rather macabre information resonates with Michael Ruppert's documentation in Crossing the Rubicon of a series of mysterious deaths among world class microbiologists especially those working on the sequencing of DNA. (See Ruppert's Chapter 29"Biological Warfare".) The suggestion is that there are experiments being conducted, for example to find lethal agents specific to certain ethnic groups, and to a kind of software being used for this highly-classified work (Ruppert identifies it as "PROMIS") which has a built-in "back-door" capable of identifying anyone who succeeds in "secretly scanning their databases to see what they were working on" (Ruppert 511). But my own primary interest in Bamford's book is what it tells us about the Israeli capture of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, which, as the commentators are saying, changed the shape of the Middle East. Most of the people now starving in Gaza are refugees who were driven from their villages in successive waves of territorial conquest involving massacres and land thefts over sixty years. Out of a cowardly fear of offending Israel, European and American leaders ignore legitimate Palestinian demands to be allowed to return to their homes and villages though this simple and principled move would solve 99% of the security problems of Israel. In the close analogy with Native American history in which tribe after tribe were driven from their land, pursued and hounded into remote Reservations preparatory for the final extermination, Gaza represents the stage of Wounded Knee, an advanced stage on the only Roadmap that is really operative there: the Roadmap to extermination. Though it represents the only remaining hope of a just and peaceful settlement, the refusal of Israel to even consider implementing of the right of return is peculiarly self-destructive.

Can Israel have forgotten that it was by Abba Eban's false promise  to allow the refugees to return that Israel gained acceptance in the United Nations? Serious thought must be given to the comprehensive  plan presented, with all the maps and demographic studies required, by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, showing the feasibility of starting immediately an orderly and carefully monitored program of re-settlement and compensation. Abu Sitta estimates (though recent pell-mell settlement expansion, Jews only roads, and the "Wall," may have altered his calculations) that 80% of Refugees in contiguous countries could be returned to their homes without seriously impinging on major areas of Jewish population; the rest, he suggests, could be negotiated. (See Abu Sitta's "Implementing the Right of Return" in The New Intifada 2001)  But why, you might ask, would events of 1967 be relevant today? And why, therefore, are Bamford's revelations so critical? Because the picture he presents of the deliberate killing of prisoners of war and the murder of civilians by napalm should rip the mask off "poor little Israel" as victim of Arab aggression. The same program of ethnic cleansing and progressive land confiscation is still proceeding apace, and this  program is at the heart of all the other major conflicts in the region, most recently the barbaric rape, murder and pillage of Iraq by the US/UK  which was instigated on behalf of an expansionist Israel to destabilize the region thereby enabling the "transfer" of the indigenous population of Palestine. That the Israeli plan is and always has been the complete elimination of the Palestinians is shown by its ongoing murders of Palestinians (such as the massacre of Jenin refugee camp in 2002), the campaign of assassination and wholesale killing like the missile attack which killed a whole family picnicking on the Gaza beach.

In Imperial Israel and the Palestinians (2002), Nur Masalha documents recent Israeli plans for the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the two great mosques on the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem (122-23), and for the "final solution" to the Palestinian problem which they hope to put into practice with the help of their American accomplices-a plan of "transfer" for which they foresaw the destruction of Iraq as a necessary step. Masalha quotes Meier Lipschitz, an Israeli developer of Jewish-only housing, as saying  a war against Iraq is a real (religious) duty. If it is possible to make provocation, we must carry this out immediately. Such a golden opportunity in a convenient international situation falls into our hand once every hundred years... No one will busy himself with the triviality of transfer which we will carry out in parallel at the same time... Who exactly will be interested in the fate of two million Palestinians, who supported the butcher of Baghdad and are settled on the lands of the little king (King Hussein)? (184) Masalha says the gist of this argument is that war against Iraq should be provoked if only so it could be utilized for the forcible mass expulsion of the Palestinians"(185). Bamford's book has a great deal more to teach us about US and UK secrets, the Cold War, and the Great Game. But on this anniversary of the second Nakbah, I hope I may be forgiven for foregrounding what Body of Secrets has to teach us about the true character of Israel as a colonial settler state in which there is, in spite of all the talk, no place for the indigenous people.

Rather than carrying on with the futile question of a "one-state" as opposed to a "two-state" solution, it is time to correct the root injustice which has caused so much death and suffering: allow the Palestinian refugees to return and receive compensation for their losses, allow them to rebuild their villages, restore their cemeteries, rebuild their mosques and churches. The claim that Israel must be a "purely Jewish state" should be reconsidered: would it not be better to be a Jewish state in which Jews live at peace with the original inhabitants?



Selected Bibliography

Abu Sitta, Salman. "Implementing the Right of Return," In The New Intifada: Resisting Israel's Apartheid. Ed. Roane Carey. Introduction by Noam Chomsky.  London, New York: Verso, 2001.

Ashiurakis, Ahmed M.. The Crime in Palestine.  Tripoli, Libya: Dar Al-Farjani, 1974.

Bahour, Sam. "Israel Spinning Out of Control." (Chris McGreal? The Guardian (UK) 24 November 2004.

Bamford, James. Body of Secrets: How America's NSA and Britain's GCHO Eavesdrop on the World. London: Arrow Books/Random House, 2002.

Brandabur, A. Clare. "A Reply To Amos Kennan: 'The Legacy of Lydda': An Interview with George Habash."  Carlson, Charles. "Christian Zionism and The Scofield Reference Bible." 2006. 

Carlson, Charles.  "How Zionists Changed Biblica Interpretations Using Scofield & Oxford U.

Churchill, Ward. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas - 1492 to the Present. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.

Cook, Jonathan. Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State. London & Ann Arbor: Pluto Press. 2006.

Dacey, Norman F. "Open Letter to President Nixon." in The Crime in Palestine. By Ahmed M. Ashiurakis. Tripoli, Libya: Dar Al-Farjani, 1974.

Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon B. Johnson 1960-1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Feuerlicht, Robert Stauass. The Fate of the Jews. London: Quartet Books, 1983.

Finkelstein, Norman G. Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Forrest, Arthur C. The Unholy Land. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1971-1972.

Khoury, Elias. Gate of the Sun. [Bab al-Shams]. Tr Humphrey Davies. Brooklyn, NY, Archipelago Books, 2005.

Lemkin, Raphael. "Totally Unofficial Man". Pioneers of Genocide Studies. Eds. Samuel Totten and Steven Leonard Jacobs. New Brunswick, USA & London: Transaction Publishers, 2002.

Lemkin, Raphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of  Government Proposals for Redress. Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944.

Lindqvist, Sven. 'Exterminate All the Brutes.' Translated from the Swedish by  Joan  Tate. London: Books, 2002.

Masalha, Nur. Imperial Israel and the Palestinians: The Politics of Expansion. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Merriman, Rima. "Denial of Entry: Rice's Probe and the Israeli Administration."Electronic Intifada, October 17, 2006.

Morris, Benny. The Origins of the Palestine Refugee Problem 1947-1949. Cambridge 1989.

Moyers, Bill. "There Is No Tomorrow." file=views04/1206-10.htm. Sept.02.2005.

Pappé, Ilan. "Genocide in Gaza." Patience, Martin. "Palestinians back prisoners release call." BBC News: Tuesday June 2006. UK. BBC Website Ramallah.

Prior, Rev. Michael. The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd. 1997.

Prior, Rev. Michael, ed. Western Scholarship and The History of Palestine. London: Melisende, 1998.

Rodinson, Maxime. Israel: Colonial Settler State? New York: Pathfinder, 1993.

Roy, Sara. "The Gaza Economy." Published by The Palestine Information Center Brief #143, 2, Oct. 2006.  Roy, Sara. "Living With the Holocaust."  The Journey of a Child of Holocaust Survivors Journal of Palestine Studies Vol XXXII, No 1, Autumn 2002, Issue 125  (

Ruppert, Michael. Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the America Empire at the End of the Age of Oil. B.C. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2004.

Said, Edward W. The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994. New York: Random House, 1995. 

Said, Edward W. The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage Random House, 1992.

Said, Edward W. "How to Answer Palestine's Challenge." Mother Jones (September 1988), 13(7):16-18.

Salbuchi, Adrian. "Historical Lies As An Instrument of Domination." Published  on the Internet by the Israel Shamir List. Oct. 19, 2006. Translated from the Spanish "La Falsificacion de la Historia como Instrumento de Domino.">

Salmon, Christian. "The Bulldozer War." tr. Luke Sanford. Le Monde Diplomatique, Reprinted in Counterpunch.