Journalists' writing about American intelligence is fraught with danger. They usually have few, if any, unauthorized, active-duty sources. Rarely do they have access to working-level officials, especially within the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the eavesdropping National Security Agency, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which oversees counterespionage investigations of U.S. citizens. Long gone are the days when foreign correspondents rubbed shoulders with and even befriended operatives on the cocktail circuit. Polygraph exams can question press contact.
Back in Washington, senior intelligence and FBI officers, as is their wont, sometimes blab. They have enough routine contact with the rest of Washington to associate more freely with journalists. Polygraphs aren't particularly troubling for them—such tests are really meant to instill fear among the rank and file.
Congressional members and staff, who can have access to a considerable amount of classified material, can be more loquacious with the press, especially when they think the White House is playing them. And senior Executive Branch officials, especially those in the White House, can leak as a matter of protocol. Most journalists on the intel beat become captives of the institutions that they cover. They can't afford to alienate the officials who feed them.
Rarely do you get a journalist who takes the time to meld open-source, relatively unknown information with bits of classified information from disgruntled, authorized, or retired officials. The color of unimportant things—what a room or inside of a building may look like, personal habits of American or foreign officials, or the initialisms or names of hidden offices, units, or projects that suggest deeper knowledge—is a hallmark of this reporting. Nonetheless, if done well, if enough open-source material exists on a sensitive subject, the resulting tapestry might even be a passable verisimilitude of the truth.
More or less, this was James Bamford in 1982 when he published The Puzzle Palace, the first book to try to limn a picture of the NSA. He undertook arduous and clever open-source research. He had some color and texture from those who'd worked at Fort Meade. The NSA is a weird, humorless, middle-brow, semi-military institution where severe compartmentation is the norm; describing it truthfully should be deadly dull. Bamford juiced it up. His personal biases, however, were mostly checked.
The Bamford of today is different. He has become—perhaps he always was—a deeply ideological journalist, who takes what he can find, throws it all into a blender, and weaves a story damning his intended target. He no longer checks himself: What he writes was probably determined long before the "facts" were gathered. Conspiracy defines his work. And Spyfail is chock-full of interwoven foreign plots playing off complicit Americans.
His gravamen: U.S. counterintelligence has utterly fallen apart, in great part because it has become so politicized and captive to powerful interest groups. Foreigners can now influence U.S. elections; unlucky foreigners get scapegoated by the FBI, which is reliably incompetent and zealously politicized. Bamford's primary target in this book—there are several, but the one that probably fills the most pages and pumps the author's blood the fastest—is Israel. Israel and Jewish Americans allied with the country are constantly, in Bamford's telling, working against the interests of the United States, bending the political establishment, on both the national and state level, to their will and often violating the law.
Israel has been a bugaboo for Bamford since his second book on the NSA, Body of Secrets, published in 2001. The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 during the Six-Day War featured prominently. Bamford is convinced the attack was intentional; he exuberantly discounts the evidence, including the official American report, that it was accidental.
In the last 20 years, he has made it crystal clear that he sees the American system as systemically rigged in Israel's advantage, where senior U.S. officials routinely deceive and lie to protect the Jewish state—the not-too-subtle suggestion that such actions arise from Jewish economic and political clout, especially within the Democratic Party.
In Spyfail, Bamford is obsessed with Jewish influence. "Approximately two hundred thousand expat Americans in Israel, about the population of Fort Wayne, Indiana, would nevertheless play an important role in the very narrow 2016 U.S. presidential election," he tells us. It's not clear whether Bamford thinks this army of pro-Trumpers had a telling effect on the presidential election primarily by organizing in Israel and raising money from non-Americans, which is illegal, or by going to America and campaigning and collecting cash there or deploying nefarious Israeli covert-action methods (there are a number of ex-Mossad officers always doing malevolent things against Uncle Sam); it seems to be all three.
In Bamford's breathless rendition of history, "throughout the summer and into the fall of 2016, Israel massively and illegally interfered in the U.S. presidential election. A top agent of Netanyahu was secretly offering intelligence and other covert assistance to Trump to get him elected; foreign cash in untold amounts was being pumped into Republican Party coffers, while Israelis, foreigners with no connection to the United States, were heavily involved in the U.S. presidential campaign. All with virtually no oversight or scrutiny by the FBI or the U.S. media." In other words, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, not to mention all the other hungry online news outfits, missed the greatest espionage-influence operation in the history of the United States. Or as Bamford puts it in one of his calmer moments: "While the American media and political system fixated on Putin and his armies of cyber warriors, trolls, and bots, what was largely missed in 2016 was that Israel had developed a great deal of experience in secretly manipulating elections around the world."
When reading Bamford, while unwinding his interconnected stories of dastardly intrigue, one thought repeatedly crossed my mind: He doesn't get out much in Washington.
The Washington press corps is often lazy, even the best journalists love to be fed stories, TV news has become mind-numbing and herd-like, the FBI has a decades-long track-record of unimpressive counterespionage, and congressmen are too often proof that men and women of little talent and intelligence can do well in America. But really, would any sentient individual remotely familiar with the capital's army of lib-left national security and foreign affairs reporters and columnists believe they wouldn't have tenaciously gone after a story of such Israeli malevolence? In a heartbeat, journalists at National Public Radio would have reduced the number of stories about transgenderism, racial exclusion, and police brutality to make room for this one.
The silliness of Bamford's conjectures when he rises above his granular storytelling reveal a journalist disconnected from Washington, horrified by U.S. politics, and not particularly well-versed in foreign affairs. Hyperbole and alarmism intertwine, most often about Israel's sinister intentions. Bamford sees, for example, Bibi Netanyahu's opposition to Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran in a novel light. "In so doing, Israel, for its own benefit, was deliberately putting Americans at risk of becoming involved in a nuclear war." I've read these pages repeatedly and I can't tell who would have exchanged nuclear missiles if Jerusalem had been successful in preventing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the executive agreement in 2018; nothing atomic has so far blown up.
Israeli-Jewish obsessions aside, Spyfail isn't easy to read, in great part because the author is determined to detail us to death. An ocean of extraneous details is surely meant to carry the reader along, suggesting investigative vigor and authority. Occasionally, when we aren't hacking our way through the underbrush, Bamford can say wise things. On the Steele dossier, which for a time drove the Russia investigation of Trump, he writes what should have been in the intro to all reporting and commentary about the former member of MI6: "In [Christopher] Steele's case, it had been seven years since he left the government and nearly a quarter of a century since he served in Moscow. He had not even traveled to Russia or any of the former Soviet states, his areas of supposed expertise, since 2009. Whatever in-country contacts he might have had, therefore, were likely dead, long gone, or impossible to reach without greatly risking their safety. … For Steele, with no direct, physical access to in-country sources, he, like most ex-spooks, was left to spy from the comfort of his high-backed office chair, relying instead on often questionable and unreliable second- and third-hand sources."
Bamford also makes a fairly persuasive case that Maria Butina, the supposed Red Sparrow on the Washington cocktail circuit, was railroaded by the FBI and the Justice Department. The bureau's penchant to create terrorist and espionage cases out of unformed clay (some might call this "entrapment") certainly appears to have happened with her.
But the better moments in Spyfail don't save it. If you have a section in your personal library for conspiracy-mongering, then this work should be in it. Otherwise, go read a Le Carré novel—the anti-American and anti-Israeli biases and conspiracies arrive in much better prose and wittier cynicism.
Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America's Counterintelligence
by James Bamford
Twelve, 496 pp., $32
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.