James Bamford

James Bamford was interviewed on 19 February 2015. Mr. Bamford appeared on Booknotes program on September 16, 2001, where he discussed his book Body of Secrets.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay.  Today is February 19, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author James Bamford, who appeared on Booknotes on September 16, 2001, to discuss his book, Body of Secrets, Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency.

Hello, Mr. Bamford, thank you for speaking with us today.

It's my pleasure.

So you appeared on the program less than a week after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to discuss America's intelligence community. These are obviously very special circumstances. Were you already slated to appear on book notes, or was this a last-minute addition?

No, as far as I remember, it was last minute. I don't remember being asked before the attacks, I think it was just after the attacks.

Your interview was also unique because it was a double author episode appearing on the program along with Jeffrey Richardson to discuss his book, The Wizards of Langley.   Did this double interview affect how you prepared for your appearance on Booknotes?

Well, just a little bit.  I've known my fellow author for many years, so Jeff and I have been writing about the technical side of the intelligence for many years. So I knew him quite well, I knew his writing quite well. So I thought it was a good way to sort of compliment that topic since both of us write on fairly technical intelligence issues as opposed to just writing about the CIA. So I thought it was a good combination.  

And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program?

Well, I remember being very, just really timely. The fact was that I had just finished a book. The book came out in May of 2001. About NSA, I spent three years on it. It was my second book on NSA.  So I spent the three previous years looking into the largest intelligence agency in the United States. I think the fact was that this was pretty much what we were discussing on the program, was how we could have missed 9/11 because of how do we miss 9/11. We had all this intelligence. We'd been working on building up an intelligence community for years, and we'd spent billions and billions of dollars on that.   So the question was how did it happen?  And having just written a book about the largest intelligence agency, I thought it was very timely and I thought it was the first time I really had a chance to discuss NSA in relationship to the attack of 9/11. 

Your appearance was also unique because it was live and because it was followed by an hour long call-in segment. What was your experience with this call-in portion of the show and do any of the questions stand out to you?

Well, I always like call-ins and I was really glad that we decided to do that on the show because we did a lot of questions that you don't expect. And there are a lot of times very intelligent questions that people have been thinking about and the questions that might slip by a host. So it's very good having an extremely intelligent host and then also opening it up to callers from the outside who think of things that a lot of other people might not think of and I thought it went really well.

Booknotes hour-long format differed greatly from most other network television interviews which could last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or potential drawbacks of this longer format interview for the author and for the viewer?

Well, I don't think there are any drawbacks of always advocating that kind of a format I produce hour-long documentaries for PBS myself. So, and before that I spent a decade working at ABC News where the whole program only lasts 22 minutes when you take the commercials out. So each piece on the program was arranged from about a minute and a half, two minutes to two and a half minutes that would be considered a fairly long piece. So, having been involved with both extremes very short and quite long, the length of the program is very important. I thought that was a great idea to lengthen the program especially on such an important topic.

Judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this preparation to be normal for interviewers and how did it change your interview experience?

Yes, I've done quite a few interviews over the years, having written numerous books and experienced quite a few different ways to do the interviews and I think the pre-interview is usually fairly good because it gives you an idea of what the direction of the questions are going to be and gets your mind thinking a little bit about what you're going to say on the program. So I thought it was usually helpful although I've done it both ways.  I think that doing the pre-interview is usually pretty helpful.

Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you and is this different from other interviews?

It is quite different because most interviews they just go right into the questions about NSA or whatever the topic happens to be and I always think that's useful. You really have to have time to do it and that's why this was a good having that amount of time but getting a little background of who the author is, where they came from, what got them into writing about that. I think it's extremely helpful when you're trying to analyze the information that the author is giving you.

Were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions?

I wasn't really surprised. I guess I might have been appeared surprised a little bit that there was an opportunity to at least give a little background to how I got into writing about this and so it was a pleasant surprise and something that I was glad that Mr. Lamb did and I wish more  hosts of other programs would do.
Did you watch Booknotes either before or after your own interview?

Well I've been watching Booknotes before and after for a long time. I think it's a great program and having an opportunity not only just to read a book or not read a book but then to hear an author talk about the details of how he came about writing it as well as the substance of the topic. It's very useful and I think book notes was a real addition to the American television scene.

Did your personal experience with the show and change your impression of it?

Well obviously it gave me a better understanding of how it worked and I went through the process of being on there and it was a pretty unique experience to see how complex it is to put a program like that on. The amount of background material has to do with the amount of preparation and so forth. I don't think people realize how much hard work goes into putting a program like that on so I was really happy to take part in it.

As a viewer of the program would you have preferred to have a more traditional book notes interview with yourself as a sole author?

No I liked it the way it was and I thought having Jeff Richardson because we complimented each other even at that time I'd written more about NSA than any other person and then Jeff Richardson probably written more about the other side of the technical intelligence world than anybody else had ever written. Imagery from space and things like that. So it was a really good view, I think a really well rounded view of that part of intelligence and really before that most of the orders really were only familiar at all just with the CIA which specializes in human intelligence and so the ability to sort of open up the world of technical intelligence electronic eavesdropping and flying from space those kind of things for the audience I think would be very useful especially since we just had a major intelligence failure and understanding how the intelligence system works not just the CIA I think is very important.

Well as you may or may not know George Mason University has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books used in the book note series this amounts to some 800 nonfiction books what do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?

Well I'd be very interested in looking through it myself he's always had the I think the most interesting authors and guests on there so all those books that were accumulated during that time I think would be extremely valuable resource so I you know it's a great resource for the university and for the students who are enrolled there.

Well you're absolutely welcome to come out anytime to Fairfax to view your books and your book and the other books in the book notes collection.

I appreciate yeah I've always admired Brian Lamb and the program and all the work that goes into it so I'd be happy to take a look at the books that came out of the program.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time if asked back would you have returned for another interview?

Yeah sure I was kind of surprised when I heard that that that was a that was a rule so yeah of course I would have been happy to have been happy to come back but I can understand the rule too because you have some shows when they continually like three times a month have the same person on and there's a lot more voices a lot more opinions and a lot more people out there with good information and I think that was the reason we did it was because he wanted to give the audience a variety of different voices from different perspectives rather than just those we call in the same usual suspects time after time.

You mentioned that your book came out a few months before your appearance on the program was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?

Well it was it was interesting I left ABC during the Monica Lewinsky scandal because I didn't really want to work on that story and I wanted to get back into writing about national security but that wasn't really a high of high interest in the country at the time and so I was surprised when my book came out in May of 2001 that it became a bestseller and I was very happy about that and then at the summer went on by August you know it was disappearing off the bestseller list and then after 9/11 all of a sudden the country became very interested in intelligence and national security once again so became a bestseller once again after the program and I assume that the program contributed to that very  grateful.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb in Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

Well I think like I said I've been in television actually about half my career and I spent a decade of it in sort of network news which is very short and I later went on into doing documentaries for PBS so I always remember the care he gave to doing these very long programs, hour program and I think that always helped me in making a decision to go into documentaries and also to try to get the most out of all the authors I'd have to interview in those documentaries.

What have you been working on since this book and which pieces are you most pleased with?

Well after that book I did two more books I did a book on the Iraq War how we got into the Iraq War called Pretexts for War and I did another third book on NSA, third of a trilogy that I did called The Shadow Factory and in addition to that I'd mentioned undocumented for PBS including one on the national security agency and what happened during 9/11 and then another one that I'm working on now on Cyber War there which also involves the NSA and I'm a columnist for a foreign policy magazine so I try to dabble in all the different media forms from magazines to television to books so it's an area that I really kind of specialized in this whole intelligence and national security area.

In your estimation what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society and perhaps since?

So when I was in college in law school especially when I was in law school I was in a Boston area and I'd go by this book publisher, Hope Miss one and I looked through their window and I always see the books on the shelves and the new books that were just coming out and I always thought well when you say nobody could be an author I'd like to actually have a book on one of those shelves and actually that's what happened.My first book was published by Hope Miss one was called The Puzzle Palace and only gone on that shelf so it's sort of that same feeling that I have when people watch Booknotes. I think there's a lot of people out there that probably think wow one of these days I'd like to be on book notes and that I think encourages a lot of people like me to become an author when you see other authors and you see how interesting it would be to actually take a topic and spend years working on it and write a book so I think notes generated probably lots of authors. I don't have any idea how many or where they are or anything like that but I think that would be very interesting.  The artistic of whatever able to be calculated how many viewers of book notes became authors because of watching the show. 

Well is there anything else you would like to add regarding book notes C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Well I think all three of those book notes C-SPAN and Brian and I were very important in the cultural history of the United States because there was a need for people to have a better understanding of what is happening in the world. They weren't getting it from network news really because it was just sort of quick spot news and the magazine shows were more frivolous than getting into real series topics.  So that was the real advantage of C-SPAN and then when C-SPAN brought Brian Lamb and the Booknotes and so forth that really opened up a new word window for really the education of the American public to get beyond the quick sound bites to really understand the meaning of a topic or the meaning of in my case national security and intelligence.

Great well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Well thanks