James Bamford was raised in Natick, Massachusetts, and spent three years in the Navy before attending law school in Boston on the G.I Bill. After graduation, intrigued by the machinations of the Watergate scandal, he gravitated toward journalism. However, rather than pursue a newspaper career he decided instead to write a book. That book was The Puzzle Palace: A Report on NSA, America’s Most Secret Agency. Published in 1982, it was the first book ever written about the National Security Agency and it became an immediate bestseller. It is now considered a classic. Bamford was first attracted to the subject of international espionage after reading The U-2 Affair by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross and The Secret War: The Story of International Espionage Since World War II by Sanche de Gramont.
While researching The Puzzle Palace, Bamford used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to recently declassified NSA documents. Nevertheless, the NSA–notoriously obsessed with secrecy – threatened to prosecute Bamford for a breach of national security. Bamford’s research, however, was totally legal and the government eventually backed off. In fact, the government ended up using The Puzzle Palace as a textbook in its Defense Intelligence College. Bamford continues to champion congressional oversight and public scrutiny of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Bamford spend nearly a decade as the Washington Investigative Producer for ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings where he won a number of journalism awards for his coverage national security issues. In 1997, as the media profession began turning away from international news coverage and focusing almost exclusively on Monica Lewinsky and other domestic political scandals, Bamford left ABC to work on a new full-length book about the NSA. This became Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. Initially published in April 2001 to rave reviews, it also became a national bestseller.
Unlike before with The Puzzle Palace, this time the NSA cooperated with Bamford. Alarmed by Hollywood films like Enemy of the State that portrayed his agency as a ruthless cadre of assassins, the director of the NSA, Lt. Gen Michael V. Hayden, wanted the American public to have a more accurate picture of how the NSA functioned. In order to encourage better communication between the NSA and the press, Hayden granted Bamford unprecedented access to Crypto City (the NSA campus in Ft. Meade, MD), senior NSA officials, and thousands of NSA documents while he researched Body of Secrets. The NSA even hosted a book signing for Bamford on the grounds of Crypto City. It lasted more than four hours as hundreds of NSA employees lined up to have their copies of Body of Secrets autographed.
Bamford’s articles have appeared in dozens of publications, including cover stories for the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He is based in Washington, D.C. His next project deals with the intelligence aspects of the events of September 11.