Book Reviews

On this page you'll find some books that I have read. If my free time allows me, I hope to write a small review from time to time. Any interesting suggestions about good non-fiction books are always welcome. Just
mail me or drop a note in my guestbook. Did you read one of the books on this page, let me know what you think about it!

The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet - David Kahn

The Codebreakers is the ultimate reference on the history of cryptology. This book is indispensable on the book shelf of anyone who is interested in the making and breaking of codes, and how it influenced history. David Kahn takes you on a trip through history that spans almost 4000 years and he does this in a very detailed, extensive and sometimes exciting way. Giving a summary of the book is almost impossible, considering the huge wealth of information. The first chapter starts in 1941 and describes chronologically the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the work of OP-20-G, the U.S. Navy’s cryptologic organization. This 70 pages introduction immediately makes clear what cryptography is about, and how it influences history. This gripping first chapter puts you in the front seat of history and makes you want to ride straight through Kahn’s massive 1000-pager.

The story of cryptology starts in 2000 B.C. and the book traces its origins, from the first hieroglyphs, over the early Arabic work on cryptanalysis to the middle ages. Western civilization would have to wait until the 14th century before secret writing gradually developed in the hands of people like di Lavinde, Soro and Porta, and the first book on cryptography, Trithemius’ Polygaphyiae. Kahn brings alive the stories from monks, popes, kings, espionage and treason, and he explains how all the classical ciphers work and how they were broken. In the 17th century, codebreaking became a powerful tool in the hands of people like Antoine Rossignol and John Wallis. The era of the black chambers, how they worked, their achievements, decrypting communications from friend and foe to assist politics and diplomacy, it’s all there. Various nomenclatures, codebooks and ciphers are presented.

Cryptology moved from a mysterious dark art to real science in the 19th century. The invention of telegraphy evoked an explosion of communications. Jefferson, Wheatstone, and Babbage, the American Civil War and conflicts in Europe lead to the invention of many so-called field ciphers, extensively used by the military. Auguste Kerckhoffs, Etienne Bazieres and many others contributed to the mechanization of cryptography by writing books or inventing crypto machines. The many conflicts in the early 1900’s showed the need for specialized military organizations, not only to implement cryptographic systems, but also to intercept and decipher enemy communications. Radio communications became widespread and so did the commercial market of crypto machines. The war of intercepts had started. Kahn describes in detail cipher systems, how and where they performed on the battlefields during World War I, and how the United States finally catches up with the European continent, thanks to people like Herbert Yardley and William Friedman.

During the Second World War, cryptanalysis finally evolved from raw intelligence into a vital part of modern warfare. Examples are innumerable, and Kahn does a wonderful job in bringing alive the many war episodes that were determined by the making and breaking of codes. Signals intelligence kept playing a major role during the Cold War, and Kahn devotes a complete chapter on Russian cryptology, returning to its origins in the 18th century and explains how they developed into a key player the Cold War, with the according espionage stories. The history and work of NSA (National Security Agency) is followed by the anatomy of cryptology, and a detour to the use of ciphers and codes by the American rum runners during the prohibition years, gamblers and businessman. Kahn also peeks into the past, with the deciphering of ancient languages, and briefly peeks into the future with communications with outer space.

The book was published in 1967 and therefore did not contain any recently declassified information about, for instance, the breaking of the German Enigma machine, the expansion from cryptography into the public domain, the Internet or the evolution of signals intelligence. The 1996 edition contains an additional 15 page short chapter which merely touches these subjects. However, given the many detailed books, published today about these more recent, there is no need for an extensive revision of the book. With 27 chapters and 1180 pages (of which 194 pages notes and references) the book is already a massive read. Although the book also presents some classical cryptologic techniques, it is not a technical work for cryptologists or mathematicians. David Kahn’s The Codebreakers is a unique one-in-a-kind reference on the history of cryptology with numerous exciting stories that will captivate even those who never heard of cryptology. Highly recommended! ISBN 0684831309

Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network - Nicky Hager

Secret Power (now free to download as e-book) is a fascinating book about New Zealand's role in the international UKUSA based spy network. Published in 1996 but hardly known to the public, the book is one of the first well documented papers to shed a light on the most secret ECHELON system. The story begins after the Second World War, when the United States and the United Kingdom sign the UKUSA agreement, to gather and share Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). Soon after, Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined this cooperation. This was to become the largest worldwide SIGINT organisation ever. The boek provides many details about the origings and history of the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), their collaboration with the other SIGINT agencies and the how and why of the most secretive UKUSA agreement. In the 1980s, a system was introduced to automatically categorise, filter and store the vast amount of intercepted signals from commercial satellites, radio communications, telephone, fax, Telex and e-mail traffic. The system, codenamed ECHELON became an enormous source of intelligence.

Although apparently a child of the Cold War, ECHELON does much more than protecting the participating countries against the - meanwhile perished - Soviet Union or safeguarding their nations interests. It enables massive eavesdropping on both enemies and friends, and for many years, this was done without consent or knowledge of the New Zealand parliament. ECHELON was so secret that only the GCSB staff knew - more ore less - what they were doing. Moreover, the technology, training and key staff members were provided by the American NSA and the British GCHQ, the UKUSA key members. ECHELON is based on software, called Dictionary, to filter potential interesting information with the help of key words. The five countries can individually compose and adjust different key word tables to filter out the intelligence they need. ECHELON also interconnects all the listening stations, located across the world. All five countries harvest intelligence and - theoretically - profit of the remote spy stations of their fellow eavesdroppers. However, the 'return on investment' for junior members Australia, Canada and New Zealand is nothing compared to their British GCHQ counterpart and especially the NSA, the agency that designed and fully controles the ECHELON system and its Dictionary. At the end, New Zealand embarked on a Big Brother project without being aware of what ECHELON was used for, what information the key players filtered out the GCSB stations, and without having any democratic control over this most secret operation.

The information in the book is based many years of painstakingly puzzling together the very scarce information, tracking involved personnel and interviews with staff members of the GCSB. A quest that started in 1984 and lasted until the 1996 publishing of the book. The result is a detailed report on how the spy network and ECHELON are working, who is targeted and what information they harvest. Hager's investigations provide an insight view, not only in GCSB's kitchen, but also in the GCHQ, the NSA and the Australian DSD. A truly fascinating book! The e-book version, a 23 Mb pdf file, is now on-line available and free to download at Nicky Hager's website (right-click the "full book" link). ISBN 0908802358

The Ultimate Spy Book - H. Keith Melton

Keith Melton is a well known author of several spy books and an expert on espionage equipment and clandestine devices. He has an enormous collection of these unique spy tools. This book is beautifully illustrated with more than 600 detailed images of ingenious spy accessories and weapons. The book starts with a brief historical review on the beginnings of espionage, the First World War and the Russian revolution. Melton takes us back to the Second World War, with the British SOE - Special Operations Executive , the American OSS - Office of Strategic Operations and the German Abwehr, Sicherheitsdienst and Gestapo. The covert communications equipment, suitcase radios, special weapons, the cracking of codes and Soviet wartime spy rings.

However, the major part of the book is, not surprisingly, about the Cold War. The Cold War was a period in history that was characterised by mistrust and fear between East and West. These were the heydays of espionage, with Berlin as the capital of spies. Many of the most notorious spy cases were about the battle for intelligence information between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This battle was fought in the sky, with U2 spy planes and satellites, but also on the ground by intelligence officers and their agents in enemy territory. Hidden and automatic cameras for observation such as the Robot Star, small mini cameras like the famous Minox or the F21 with its lens in a jacket button for clandestine photography and small camera systems to copy documents. You will discover communications equipment for covert operations, monitoring equipment and dead drops to secretly pass documents and films.

Melton also brings us the story of secret operations and the special devices that were developed for these operations. If there are spies, there's counter-intelligence. Bug detectors, anti-eavesdropping equipment, interception of documents and all kind of tools to burgle or secretly gain access to installations or documents of the enemy. Training and recruitment, spy rings, false covers and legends, it's all there. But above all, The Ultimate Spy is a book to watch, with many splendid photos about the art of spy-craft and its technology. A book that would make James Bond's Mister Q jealous. ISBN: 0789404435

IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation - Edwin Black

How was it possible for the Nazis to identify such an enormous number of Jews and other ethnic groups? How did they find all their relatives? How did they manage to transport and eliminate millions of people? The answer to these questions begins in the early 1930s, when IBM successfully commercialized and aggressively monopolized the Hollerith punch card technology, used since 1890 by census bureaus. When Thomas Watson became president of IBM, his goal was to expand the company on a global scale, regardless any political, military or ethic obstacle. A crucial player in the organisation of the Holocaust was Dehomag, a German sub-company of IBM.

The Hollerith machines, the predecessor of the computer, were able to perform statistical calculations and organise data with an unmatched speed. Already in the early 1930s the Nazis placed large orders at Dehomag to organise industry, finances, railways but also to automate the identification of Jews. All Hollerith machines had to be customised for every specific task and special punch cards were designed to store detailed information. Although the Germany based Demohag company officially processed these orders, it were the IBM engineers who controlled the complete process, and all financial decisions were made by IBM New York and its executives. Even when Jews were openly prosecuted and deported, even when war broke out, even when all trade with Germany became illegal, IBM continued to produce and lease Hollerith machines, developed custom solutions for the Nazis, offered maintenance and gained massive profits of this, of course hidden in a labyrinth of confusing financial and legal tricks.

Given the complex requirements to develop specific custom solutions, which included detailed data input and question lists, IBM was well aware of the purpose of the ordered machines. Moreover, IBM was constantly involved in legal battles to obtain more and more profit of its successful sub-company Dehomag. Meanwhile, Hollerith machines produced precise address lists of Jews in Germany and many occupied countries, organised their deportation and enslaved labor, enabled smooth railway timetables to transport millions of people across Europe and boosted the efficiency of the German war industry. And IBM was the one who leased the machines and produces the billions of punch cards Hitler needed to continue his war and the total annihilation of Jews. This book shows in detail the carefully constructed covert alliance between IBM and the Third Reich, and how IBM founder and president Thomas Watson cooperated with the Nazis. It's not an easy book to read, but an astonishing report on how a globalised company ignored moral ethics, laws and borders for the sake of profit. Above all, this book answers the most important question: how did Hitler get the names of all these Jews? ISBN: 0609607995

Philby: KGB Masterspy - Phillip Knightley

The story of Kim Philby, head of the Soviet counter-espionage section of the SIS, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, at the same time a successful Russian spy. This brilliant student became a true communist in Cambridge. In 1933 he finished his university studies and went to Vienna to help underground socialists in their battle against the Austrian right-conservatives. After his return Philby was recruited by the KGB as one of 'the four of Cambridge', together with Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. His main objective was to infiltrate the SIS. He went to Spain as newspaper reporter and pretended to be a supporter of the fascist General Franco, to erase his communist past. In 1940 he was recruited by the SIS after recommendation by the already infiltrated Burgess and one year later he worked at the counter-espionage branch. By the end of 1944, at the dawn of the Cold War, he had been promoted to head of counter-espionage and anti-communist operations. Five years later he was promoted to the SIS top function in Washington which gave him access to US operations against the Soviet-Union, the top secret VENONA project, and other sensitive information.

After the defection of his close friends Burgess and Maclean to Moscow, he came under suspicion with MI5 and got fired. Due to lack of evidence his name was cleared and by 1956 he was covertly recruited again by the SIS as agent in Beirut. After the defection of KGB agent Golitsyn his treason was exposed and the SIS proposed exemption of prosecution in exchange of a full confession. However, early in 1963 Philby vanished in Lebanon to surface a few weeks later in Moscow, where he was received as a hero. The performance of this master spy is unique and for almost 30 years caused enormous damage in the hart of the battle against Soviet Intelligence. This book is based on many interviews with Philby himself in Moscow, and has been veryfied by historical research. ISBN: 0233000488

Loyal Comrades, Ruthless Killers: The Secret Service of the USSR 1920s to the Present - Slava Katamidze

If you are not familiar with the Soviet secret service, its history and developed, this is a great book to read. The book is written in chronological order and starts at the roots of the secret service. Katamidze takes us on a journey through time, from Dzerzhinsky's ruthless Cheka, the OGPU and NKVD, the repression by the KGB inside and outside the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to the the failed 1991 coup by Kryuchkov with the dissolving of the KGB and transition to the new Federal Security Service FSB and Foreign Intelligence SVR in the new Russian Federation. Katamidze doesn't hide his criticism on the secret services and their violent history. Many of the most notorious spy cases and KGB intelligence successes are described and you can find details about nearly all high ranked people in the secret service, all of this illustrated with many unique images.

Having said this, I also have some serious questions about this book. Although a very good introduction, it fails to go into detail on several important episodes in the history of the Soviet Union and its secret service. The author presents some new and questionable facts about names and numbers, criticises some people and is striking mild on others. The book regretfully lacks the sources for these new facts, giving the book a sense of subjectivity, although it's hard to tell in which direction. Slava Katamidze has a background as officer in the Soviet Army, studied at the institute for foreign languages and institute for international law in Moscow. Sounds like a perfect candidate for the GRU (military intelligence, known for its fierce rivalry with the KGB). Although nowhere mentioned and only an educated guess of mine, it would explanation the duality of the book in its criticism on the secret service and at the same time forgetting some dark Soviet episodes and details. Nonetheless a fascinating introduction and beautiful illustrated book. However, I recommend to read books such as The Mitrokhin Archive after this one, to get another view on the story. ISBN: 1930983239

Chatter: Dispatches from the secret world of global eavesdropping - Patrick Radden Keefe

Interesting book about Signal Intelligence, the Echelon network, and the discussion about privacy vs security. Is it possible to eavesdrop on your phonecalls or read your mails? What are secret services doing, and how far are they going? Keefe did lots of research and found answers, but also many new questions. What is NSA and who's supervising this top secret service? Can NSA win the war against terrorism? What changed after 9/11? And what about our privacy? Do secret services protect us or just violate our privacy? Keefe talked to many people from the world of intelligence, visited listening stations and tries to analyse the influence of secret services on politics and vice versa. ISBN: 1400060346

The Sword and The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive - Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin

Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was a chief archivist for the First Chief Directorate PGU, the foreign-intelligence department of the KGB, when the huge archive relocated to another KGB building. Mitrokhin was responsible for transferring over 300,000 files, many of them among the KGB's most secret documents. Over a period of 12 years, Mitrokhin smuggled a vast amount of top secret papers out of the archive and copied them. In 1992, he walked into a British embassy in a Baltic state and by the end of that year he was exfiltrated by British Secret Service, together with several large crates of documents. The consequences were devastating for the KGB. Details about secret operations and the names and code names of Soviet spies came into the hands of intelligence services in the West. As the facts got published, SVR, the successor to the KGB, replied that it was simply impossible that hundreds of names could be exposed, 'in worst case a few'. The reality was that more than one thousand names were revealed. This enabled secret services to identify or catch many Soviet spies. This large book contains an enormous amount of information on the history of the secret services in the Soviet Union and detailed info on Soviet spies and numerous secret operations. ISBN: 0465003125

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography - Simon Singh

What is cryptology and where did it came from? Ever since the beginning of mankind, people have had secrets, and people have wanted to know other peoples secrets. This book takes the reader on a trip through the history of cryptology, from ancient texts through to modern cryptographic algorithms on computers. Singh explains the evolution of codemakers, and their never ending battle with codebreakers. Without going into technical details he shows the importance of cryptology in politics and war over many centuries. We read how cryptography was developed as an important weapon against Signal Intelligence, and the role of codebreakers in Sigint. In this age of technology, internet and communication, Singh explains the importance of encryption to protect our privacy. This isn't a detailed book aimed at crypto geeks, but a good introduction to cryptography with some basics on classical encryption methods and a bit of theory on modern algorithms like RSA. This book is a must for those who think that encryption isn't important. ISBN: 0385495323

The Game Of The Foxes - Ladislas Farago

A detailed book about the Abwehr, the German Foreign Intelligence organization before and during the Second World War. Farago, a former SIS officer, reconstructed the history of this notorious service thanks to recovered archives, captured in the final days of war. They contained tens of thousands of documents on microfilm. The book explains how the Abwehr was formed, how Admiral Canaris developed it into an effective secret service, and his struggle with the other German security services. We can read about the preparations for war and the invasion of Poland, as well as the spy networks in England, the success of the British counter-intelligence and the Double-Cross system that turned virtually all German agents in England into double agents. There's a large chapter on pre-war industrial and military espionage and sabotage by German spy networks in the US. You can read how the Abwehr tried to influence US elections and prevent a third term for F. D. Roosevelt, who was in favor of military support for Europe. The archives reveal the misplaced confidence in the Abwehr agents operating in the US, and how the FBI eliminated most of the spy networks once the US entered the war. The archives show the infiltration of foreign embassies, the spy network in neutral Sweden and the support for General Franco in Spain.

In 1944 the Abwehr finally lost all credit with the Nazi top brass, in favor of Schellenbergs Sicherheidsdienst Ausland, and Admiral Canaris was forced to leave the service. The Allied success of operation Fortitude, to mislead German intelligence about the invasion on D-Day, was the last major battle between the secret services and finally lead to the fall of the Nazi empire. The question remains in how far Canaris, who became anti-Nazi, was responsible for the failure of his intelligence service and the outcome of war. The Abwehr, by then under command of the RSHA, soon collapsed without the expertise of Canaris who was executed later by the SS in Kamp Flossenburg for conspiracy against Hitler. This detailed story of the recovered Abwehr archive is a unique piece of WW2 intelligence history. ISBN: 0553123424

Gideon's Spies : The Secret History of the Mossad - Gordon Thomas

The history of the Mossad, Israel's secret service. This book explains how the Mossad was formed in the newly created state of Israel and how it developed. It describes in detail several of their secret missions. Thomas interviewed many former agents of the Mossad to compile a complete image of the 'institute', known to the public for its counterterrorist actions and assassinations. He gives us not only operational details, but puts all of this into its historical context. ISBN: 0312339135

Die Trojka / Man Without A Face/ Im eigener Auftrag - Markus Wolf

Markus Wolf was the legendary chief of the HVA (Haupt Verwaltung Aufklaerung), East Germany's foreign intelligence service. Wolf, the son of writer and physician Friedrich Wolf and brother of film director Konrad Wolf, fled as child in 1933 from the Nazi's and exiled himself to Moscow. After the war, he was sent to Berlin as journalist for the radio station in the Soviet Zone of occupation. As a journalist, he followed the Nuremberg Trials against the Nazi leaders.

In 1953, he was one of the founding members of the foreign intelligence service, a department of the ministry of state security, also called Stasi. As head of the HVA, Wolf developed the most effective secret service of the Cold War. After retiring in 1986, he wrote a book which was originally a film project of his late brother Konrad, about Konrad and two friends, growing up in Moscow in the 1930s. Konrad joined the Soviet Army, one friend joined the German Luftwaffe, and the third one joined the US forces. After the war, the three friends meet again and keep in contact. The book, Die Troika, a statement for friendship which also exposed the failure of communism, was published in East and West Germany. For the people in the East, Wolf, who supported Glasnost and Perestroika, became a symbol of the ongoing changes in a country that rejected the changes in Eastern Europe.

Although Wolf headed only the foreign intelligence, one of many departments of Erich Mielke's Stasi, he became targeted as Stasi spy chief by the media during the period of the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, Wolf was charged and sentenced in the reunified Germany with espionage, bribery and treason, but that conviction was later overturned and he received a suspended sentence on lesser charges.

In the book The Man Without a Face (ISBN: 1891620126), you can read about his childhood years in Moscow, the development of the most successful spy agency of the Cold War, and lots of inside information on famous spy cases. In Die Trojka (Dutch ISBN: 9053300465, German ISBN: 3746680611, English ISBN: ???) you get a taste of the life in the pre-war Soviet Union, and how friends got separated by Stalins abuse of communism. The last book I got to read was In eigenem Auftrag: Bekenntnisse und Einsichten (Dutch ISBN: 9056171127, German ISBN: 3795112168 , English ISBN: ???), Wolf's diary of 1989-1990, describing in detail the political collapse of East Germany and how the GDR government of Erich Honnecker led the country, the SED party and socialism into the abyss, by rejecting any changes in policy.

Station X - Michael Smith

Station X is the story of the incredible achievements of codebreakers in the Second World War. In 1939, the Government Code and Cipher School, GC&CS, started a top secret station to decipher intercept enemy codes. Some of the most brilliant people were brought together in Bletchley Park, England. One of their objectives was breaking the Enigma codes. The Enigma cipher machine was used in all parts of the German Army, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Breaking this code could turn the tide of the war. This book is the story of the people who broke the code, how the codebreaking was organised, and gives us a pretty good idea of how people lived in Bletchley Park. Breaking Enigma played a decisive role in many parts of the war such as the Atlantic, Africa and D-day, and shortened the war by several years. ISBN: 1575000946

The Red Orchestra - Gilles Perrault

The story of Leopold Trepper, a Polish Jew who ran a network of Soviet radio spies in occupied Europe during WW2. The Red Orchestra is the name of the secret operation, ordered by Hitler personally, to eliminate these Soviet cells. One by one, all secret broadcasting stations are traced and the members of the organization arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. Trepper seems to be a ghost, getting away each time, while the ring around his organization is closing slowly. It's a detailed document on how Soviet spies operated in Europe, and the battle between Wehrmacht and Gestapo Sigint units and the different Soviet cells, broadcasting German secrets to Russia. ISBN: 0805209522

Washington Station: My life as a KGB spy in America - Yuri B Shvets

Under cover as TASS reporter, KGB officer Yuri Shvets was stationed at the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. for over two years. In this book he writes about his training and career in the KGB, how the institute worked and his operations in the US. Shvets describes the live of Soviet officers in the embassy, their missions, the recruiting of local agents and the cat-and-mouse game with the FBI. He also gives us a dark view on the KGB, paralysed by bureaucracy, where paranoia obstructs the real intelligence work. A sobering story on how secret services operate. ISBN: 0671883976

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